Road Trip: Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania, Va.
WHY: Go-karts, activities by land and lake, and tours that pan out.
HOW FAR: About 55 miles from start to finish, and about 85 miles from Washington.
In these hard economic times, we could all use a lesson on how to strike it rich. This summer, Lake Anna State Park near Spotsylvania offers Stampmill Sam's Gold Adventure, which teaches visitors how to pan for the precious metal in the park's creek. Now in its second year, the two-hour program involves a quick history lesson on gold and gold mining, a van ride, a short hike and very hands-on instruction.
"If you were a gold panner, you needed to know where to look," explained interpreter Whitney Holcomb as she surveyed a creek bed in a forested section of the 2,800-acre park. After shoveling dark sediment into loaner pans held up by participants, Holcomb showed one fortune-seeker how to swirl water around the container to separate black sand from, hopefully, buried treasure.
Fellow park interpreter Adam Lynch interrupted her instruction. "Can I use your tweezers?" he asked after spying a golden flake. All that glitters is not gold, so Lynch wanted to pinch it: Pyrite, or fool's gold, is lustrous yet brittle, whereas gold is malleable. "See how it bent?" Lynch asked. "That's gold." (Per park policy, the gold -- fool's or real -- stays on the premises.)
The area isn't new to prospectors. Before there was a Lake Anna State Park, or even a Lake Anna, the land was known as Gold Hill, home of the Goodwin Mine. The operation was one of hundreds of prospects and mines worked during the Old Dominion's Golden Age, which peaked in the 1830s and '40s, when Virginia was the third-largest gold-producing state.
However, even in its heyday, the gold mine wasn't exactly a gold mine. The operation was abandoned in 1887 because it didn't turn enough of a profit. "Just like back then," says chief ranger Cathy Corker, "you get to go home with nothing." Except, of course, the rush of finding gold.
-- Scott Elder