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Visiting Sanford Underground Research Facility

In our travels through South Dakota, we heard about the prevalence of gold speculation and how the discovery in 1876 was a major driver of pioneers into this area. We had to then visit the old Homestake gold mine as we travelled through the Black Hills National Forest to Deadwood to learn more.

The Old Homestake gold mine near Lead South Dakota was once a major mining operation generating 40 million troy ounces (1.24 M kg) of gold during its lifetime. Due to the depth and size of the mine, it has since been transformed into the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF).

Before our travels to the Black hills, we kinda knew about the gold found in the area, (and how it was stolen from the Lakota Indians), but we did not know how that was then leveraged to perform cutting edge research on neutrinos!

Table of Contents

Details on visiting Sanford Underground Research Facility

Visitor Center

We visited the site, not knowing exactly what to expect outside of see a massive hole in the ground (and it has that in spades.) The visitor center is free and provides a wealth of information about its purpose as a research site, some information on the past gold mining operation, and also a safe viewing platform to see the massive hole.

The main purpose of the lab is pretty simple, to understand the nature of the universe. Okay, maybe not that simple. 

There are several reasons to use a deep underground mine for a laboratory. When trying to conduct scientific experiments, the physicists need a place that is very stable, quiet and where the impact of cosmic rays is greatly reduced. Underground facilities around the world provide a great space for this type of work. What would be better for an underground laboratory than in the deepest gold mine in North America?

inside Visitor Center lobby of Sanford Research Laboratory in Lead SD


The displays in the visitor center do a good job in explaining why the research facility is there and what they are looking into. Investigating Dark matter, trying to understand neutrinos and the role the deep mine plays all are questions researchers are trying to find. 

One cool feature was a detailed display that shows all the drifts and shafts dug for the Homestake mine. It really provides some context as to just how far much dug in the mine to pursue rare ore.

There are also some interesting displays from the gold mine era, such as an old Cage/elevator from a mine shaft dug in 1932.

Exhibit sign at SURF of 1932 mine elevator while Visiting Sanford Underground Research Facility Visitor Center

Fun Facts on the Sanford Underground Facility

  • Deepest underground laboratory in the US
  • Rated at 4,300 m.w.e  (Meters of water equivalent)
  • Currently developing DUNE, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment in hopes of understanding the role neutrinos play in the universe.

Outside View of a Big Hole

You can go out on an outside observation deck to safely view the big deep hole. The view of the mine is amazing and is hard to imagine the level and amount of work that was needed to move that much rock and ore over the space of 120+ years.

Homestake Mine view from observation deck on clear blue sky day

Fun Facts about the Homestake Gold Mine

  • Longest running continuous mining operation in US History (1879 – 2001)
  • Second largest producing mine in the United States (43.7M oz; 1.24M kg of gold and 9.87M oz; 280k kg silver;)
  • Generated huge amounts of arsenic into the Cheyenne River
  • Largest and deepest gold mine in North America (8,000 feet or 2,438 m)

Trolley Tours

If you have time, and can plan in advance, the visitor center offers trolley tours from May – Sep on select days. The tour takes you through historic Lead, a surface tour of SURF. This will include the hoist room that have been running since 1939. 

There is a fee for this tour. Unfortunately, the facility does not offer public tours.

Nearby Sites

Other sights to consider while you are in the area:

  • Deadwood: A historic western town in the black hills, known for Wild West history where you can visit museums, go on cemetery tours, and also check out modern casinos. We found the city was a little cheesy, with a lot of souvenir shops and general a schtick to pander to the tourists.
  • Black Hills National Forest: With hiking, camping, mountain biking, scenic byways and reservoirs, this massive National Forest has over 13,000 acres of wilderness. Surrounded by the National Forest, the town of Lead is a great starting point for some of these activities.
  • Custer State Park: Hosts the Needle Highway, which is an amazing one-way road taking you through some tight tunnels and majestic views. Also has camping and hiking, sitting right next to the Black Hills National Forest.

Special Photo Op

Make sure to get a picture in the Davis Ring, which was part of a Nobel Prize winning experiment by Ray Davis’s solar neutrino experiment in 2002.

Man standing in giant metal circle with arm outstretched outside under blue sky Visiting Sanford Underground Research Facility

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