“We don’t care about the price of gold,” he says. “If people think they’re going to get rich off this stuff -- they’re not. We might find $2 worth in a day. Sometimes, we might find $50 worth. It’s not about that. It’s about getting away. I’ve met a whole lot of good people. That’s the main thing. It’s a real community of people.”
In Alaska, tourists can visit the Chicken Gold Camp, where gold has been mined for a century and claims have been opened to recreational mining since 2007. Interest in gold locally has even spawned customized tours. For example, at the Moore Creek Mine on the Iditarod Trail, a week of mining using dredging equipment and sleeping in a campsite runs a hefty $2,500. But enthusiasts say it’s worth the cost, as this area is a prime location to find a big nugget (one ounce or larger). In Colorado, places like the Country Boy Mine and the Phoenix Gold Mine offer visitors a chance to venture underground to view the industrial mines and then return topside to pan for gold.
In Arkansas, it’s not gold but a girl’s best friend that visitors are after at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, the only diamond mine in the United States that is open to the public. Diamonds were first discovered on the site in 1906, and more than 75,000 sparklers have been unearthed since. The 900-acre-plus property, which is located on the eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe, became a state park in 1972. And if you’re thinking casual diamond mining would be a fruitless venture, bear in mind that last year, Richard Burke, a retired high school counselor and golf coach from Flint, Michigan, uncovered a 4.68-carat white diamond that he named Sweet Caroline after his wife and their favorite Neil Diamond song. Just months later, a 12-year-old boy from Dallas told a waitress at a nearby restaurant he’d make a big find. Sure enough, he dug up a two-carat diamond, which he and his family then took back to the restaurant to show the waitress, according to Bill Henderson, the assistant park superintendent.
While the park is geared to family visits, Henderson says it also attracts serious miners, who spend weeks camping out, cooking over a fire, and living the life of a prospector. “That’s what they love to do,” he adds. “It’s their life.”
Brent Shock is the owner of Gold Prospecting Adventures, located in Jamestown, California, not far from Yosemite National Park. Here, Shock operates the Jimtown 1849 Gold Mining Camp, a replica of the original campsite and where for a day, families can experience the life of a gold rusher. He says that while prospecting makes for a fun-filled family afternoon, it also teaches youngsters the value of hard work. “We’re caught up in instant gratification, but that ends when you come out here,” he says. “The boots go on, the shovel goes in the hand, and the Game Boy goes away.”
And as for the parents? Allen-Niesen says that one day was enough to remind her how grateful she is to live in modern times. “I was using muscles I never knew I had,” she remembers with a laugh.