As featured in the June/July Pick & Shovel Gazette
By Ben Pastore
Tucked away in the southwest corner of South Dakota is an area famed for its natural beauty, historic past, and one of the most recognizable monuments anywhere — Mount Rushmore. But in addition to these worthy reasons to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota are the prospecting opportunities presented by what was once the site of a prodigious gold rush with all its fortunes and foibles. The best part is that once you’re done panning for the day, there are so many other magnificent things to see that no matter what, you’ll be going home richer.
Grabbing the Gold
The nature of a visitor’s prospecting opportunities all depends on the objective. For beginners and families, there are numerous local tour operators that happily offer gold and mineral panning opportunities at their locations. Essentially, guests are given a sluice box and pan, then purchase a bag of dirt for panning, which will result in finding at least something — even if it’s little more than a few flakes. Considering the inexpensive fees, it’s a great introduction to gold mining and a fun hobby even for the locals.
For more serious prospectors, your best bet would be to contact the Northern Hills Prospecting Club, which is the local chapter of the GPAA, which has several active claims in the area, such as the Husker 1, Migg 1-4 and Mary Ann. Joining the club not only allows you access to the claims, but is valid at any GPAA claim in the U.S. According to local representative Albert Reitz, the chapter also provides many educational opportunities, such as classes on how to read maps, file a claim, and workshops for school kids. While most of the gold found is reportedly placer gold, there are some who make their living off of their prospecting, and every so often someone pulls out a nugget that generates some fresh enthusiasm.
Mining for. .. Science?
A unique attraction tied to the South Dakota gold rush is in the small town of Lead (pronounced “leed”), site of the former Homestake Mine — one of the most productive in the country with a yield of some 1,400 tons of gold. After closing up operations in the early 2000s, given its extraordinary depths (some 8,000 feet below the surface), it was decided that the unique properties of this mine would make an excellent base for cutting-edge research in the field of physics — in particular, work with the highly mysterious neutrino. And while the science most often associated with mining is engineering, multiple fields are on display at the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center (www.sanfordlabhomestake.com). This free attraction offers extensive information not only about the current experiments and objectives, but also features exhibits displaying historic photographs, mining artifacts, and the chance to peer down the 1,250-foot Open Cut for a glimpse at the varied geography of the region. And to sweeten the deal, the aforementioned Northern Hills Prospecting Club meets at the Sanford Lab at 9 a.m. the first Saturday of every month, and visitors are welcome to sit in for free. Combining a look at the past with a glimpse of the future, this historic mine site has something for everyone.
The Mother-Lode of Monuments
No visit to this corner of South Dakota would be complete without visiting what is arguably the country’s most iconic man-made monument: the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Made famous in movies and postcards everywhere, this enormous monument to four U.S. presidents carved right out of the mountain is the biggest draw of the Black Hills area with some 3 million visitors annually. In addition to taking the obligatory selfie, visitors can get up close and personal with the sculpture on the Presidential Trail and expand their knowledge at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, which provides insights on both the methods and reasons for the making of this monument.
Striking it Rich — The Natural Way
Only about 1.5 hours distant from the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is Badlands National Park, not far from the kitschy tourist trap known as Wall Drug. The park consists of 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie interspersed with surreal geological formations, including some that house one of the world’s richest fossil beds. This showcase of erosion was once home to ancient mammals such as the saber-toothed cat, and is today the domain of bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep. While it’s possible to get an overview of the park via the Highway 240 Loop Road, you’ll need to get out and hike — or even camp in the backcountry — to fully appreciate the natural wonders on offer in what is a truly unique environment.
Another option for those who have prospecting in their blood is a trip to Jewel Cave National Monument. And while there’s no panning for gold, you will strike it visually rich observing what is considered to be the third-longest cave in the world with over 195 miles of surveyed passages.
You can take a guided tour that will introduce you to the cave system’s most popular chambers, or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous (and not at all claustrophobic), you can opt for a “Wild” caving tour that will bring you off the well-lit path to make your way through a strenuous gauntlet of caving techniques that will bring you to rarely seen caverns.
Either way, you’ll be face to face with more of the astounding geology of the region.
All in all, this remote corner of the Dakotas has more than its fair share of prospects — both in terms of mining as well as natural attractions.
Something that hasn’t even been mentioned thus far is the tremendous history and culture found in the region, but that will be covered in another article.
Suffice to say that in both literal and figurative terms, there’s gold in them Black Hills, and you won’t have to look all that hard to find it.
Ben Pastore is a travel writer, consultant, and public speaker based in Houston, Texas.