Discovering new places and experiences is one of travel’s greatest pleasures, but what if there was the added possibility of finding a fortune? Visitors to Arkansas’ Crater of Diamonds State Park have the opportunity to unearth one of the namesake gems, one or two of which are located each day. “We have a number of people who come here regularly, who say they do it for fun and profit,” says Waymon Cox, park interpreter at the Murfreesboro attraction, which is positioned at the site of what was an active volcano roughly 100 million years ago. “Others will travel from hundreds of miles away, spending a couple of weeks each year to search for diamonds.”
About an hour's drive north of Texarkana, the location was first identified by geologists as a likely source for the mineral in the 1880s, but it took until 1906 for diamonds to be discovered there by farmer and amateur prospector John Huddleston. He sold the land for $36,000 to commercial mining companies, and by the 1940s some tourist attractions had launched for novice diamond hunters, as well. Today, guests pay a $10 fee to roam a 37-acre plowed search area that is part of a larger recreational park opened by the state in 1972. “Most people search for diamonds on top of the ground just by walking and looking,” Cox says. “When it rains, they get uncovered. And then [on] the first sunny day after a good rain, people will be more likely to find them.”
Still, he says 75 percent of the diamonds are found by sifting dirt with screens to eliminate the gravel. Departing guests can even remove soil from the park to examine it more closely at home: “Take the heaviest gravel and you’ll have a better shot of finding a diamond,” Cox advises.
Visitors may keep whatever they find, and though Crater of Diamonds does not appraise stones, some valuable ones have been retrieved. One on display—the three-carat Strawn-Wagner diamond, discovered in 1990—was sold to the state by the owner for $36,000. In 2015, a Colorado visitor found an eight-carat stone that was valued at up to a million dollars. And though the facility also houses a campground, discovery center and water park, Cox stresses the destination’s key allure: “You can’t just go anywhere and have a chance to find a diamond—that’s what makes us special.”
Meanwhile, those seeking priceless objects under the sea can become investors with Mel Fisher’s Treasures, which conducts salvage operations on a pair of Spanish galleons—the Atocha and the Santa Margarita—which sank during a hurricane off Key West in 1622. Discovered in 1985, the shipwrecks’ initial “main pile” consisted of 47 tons of silver in more than a thousand solid bars (each the size of a loaf of bread), as well as 130,000 silver coins, Colombian emeralds and boxes containing bricks of gold. Today, the field of valuable objects stretches for nine miles along the ocean floor, says Mel’s son Kim Fisher, who continues to operate the business as CEO: “We’re still following the trail, because between the Atocha and Margarita, there is almost $300 million worth of treasure still out there.”
Investors are permitted to tag along on salvage expeditions and join the search, Fisher says. Priceless artifacts are found regularly, including the recent discovery of a “poison cup,” a four-inch-tall solid-gold vessel with dragon-like handles and a mount for a bezoar stone, which is found in the gallbladder of a goat or llama and changes color when immersed in a toxic liquid. The dollar value of a person’s investment corresponds to a number of points, which at the end of a collecting period can be exchanged for an emerald ring or a gold bar—however, Fisher emphasizes that everyone is allowed to keep the first silver coin they find.
Non-divers can stay on deck and sift for emeralds, and for those who want to keep their monetary commitment to less than $30, there are Mel Fisher Maritime Museums in Key West and Sebastian, Florida (both offer boutiques for a landlubber splurge).
“I think everybody at some point has dreamed about finding buried treasure,” Fisher says. “And when you’re the first person to see something after 400 years, it’s an incredible thrill.”
Cox agrees that his visitors hope to stumble across a hidden gem. “When people hear about someone else with a big find, that really whets their appetite for treasure hunting,” he says. “And if they do end up finding one, then they really catch diamond fever.”