What’s in a name? That which we call a park by any other name would look just as horrifying all dug up like a cratered exoplanet.
Crystal Park in southwest Montana will challenge your every notion of a park. I’ve long questioned the presence of private cottages within provincial/national parks. But this? This is a whole other level of wtf?
Yet, go I did. Took the whole family along as well. Even made a specific detour during an epic camping trip just to visit this place. And we joined right in with the masses in desecrating nature in pursuit of pretty, little rocks. This is why humans can’t have nice things … our hypocrisy trumps all nobility when desire comes into play.
In fairness, despite its name, Crystal Park is not actually a park. It’s officially a “recreation area,” and a unique one according to multiple internet descriptions. They ain’t kidding.
Reserved within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest by the United States Forest Service, Crystal Park is a 220-acre playground for rockhounds located approximately 63 miles southwest of Butte, Montana.
There are rules in force, like no tunneling, for instance. And only hand tools are allowed. But pretty much anything else goes and judging from the proliferation of holes and newly fallen trees as a result, folks spare no time for morality quibbles. It’s a small haven where rock nerds have been given a green light to assault Nature in hopes of finding delightful, but mostly worthless, quartz crystals. Many do; us included.
Somewhat ironically, the mountainous area surrounding Crystal Park is gorgeous. Accessed by the aptly named Pioneer Mountains Scenic By-Way, the drive from highway 278 in the south through to Wise River and highway 43 in the north was an absolute delight. With beautiful countryside, rustic campgrounds, and fascinating little towns, just getting to, and away from, Crystal Park was worth our efforts.
Distant hilltops with fading reminders of winter, dark conifer forests, and green meadows provided a lovely backdrop for the purple wildflowers in bloom during early July. Above, crowds of grey-white clouds held court in the azure sky as a squadron of small birds pestered a bald eagle into retreat. All of which made the landscape inside Crystal Park even more shocking.
I’d seen pictures on the web, but I wasn’t prepared to witness the reality of it in person. I admit to some guilt as I walked toward the detonated minefield that is the “digging area,” as depicted on faded signage at the park recreation area. But as another famous quote says: When in Rome. And with that, out came our shovels.
It didn’t take long for my son to find our first legitimate quartz crystal. Small, but surprisingly pristine, this quick find was all the incentive the four of us needed to get down and dirty in the beige, potholed hillside.
A wonderfully informative display explaining the geology of Crystal Park and providing some modest guidance on how best to find the quartz gems is located near one of the parking lots. This is a great resource and would have been fantastic to discover prior to our digging sojourn rather than after.
In retrospect, I probably should have done a bit more research prior to visiting. It would have limited a lot of fruitless digging on my part during the couple of hours we spent hunting the hexagonal prism-like quartz. But I honestly didn’t know if Crystal Park was a legitimate “thing” or just a gutted shell of former glory refusing to die online.
Well, it’s very real. By the end of our dig, we had a baggy full of quartz to take home and smiles on our faces. None of them were uniquely big or uniquely coloured, I doubt any even have magical powers in the minds of the crystal healing wingnuts, but they’re our crystals and we’re very proud of them. We even snagged a couple samples of the desiccated granite host rock in which the quartz first formed.
The digging was surprisingly easy. Having shovels was necessary for the hardened surface, but below that the desiccated granite was practically sand-like. You could pull away mounds of it with your bare hands. More enterprising diggers than we interlopers even used a shaker device to sift through buckets worth of this material.
The biggest issue confronting us was where to dig. Crystal Park has been worked hard and put away wet over the years, so you’re never entirely sure if you’re digging in a virgin spot or revisiting someone else’s tailings. And the most virgin-looking areas, based on the prevalence of ground flora, tended to be near the base of trees.
There’re limits to my willingness to suppress ethics, and killing trees is where I draw that line. Sadly, others are not so gallant and there were at least two places where still-green spruce trees had tumbled over due to their root ball being compromised.
The second issue I encountered was deciding how deep to dig. You can see evidence of the host rock all over the place. These fist-sized (sometimes bigger) boulders of crystalline, desiccated granite are found in a layer maybe two feet below the surface. They come out of the dirt easily and, in some cases, are appealing all on their own.
I never did figure out if it was worth digging below this tell-tale layer. I tried a few times and was never rewarded, so I suspect not. The aforementioned signage might have kept me from wasting my time digging into the seemingly barren depths. I suspect most crystals will be found above, or adjacent to the host rock. Just don’t hold me to that as gospel.
Crystal Park is far from a secret. It may not be the biggest attraction in Montana, but there was no shortage of diggers present when we arrived mid-morning on a July Monday. And I quickly got the impression that some of these folks were regulars. Everyone is friendly while mostly keeping to themselves.
And though Crystal Park is not a real park, it does an admirable job of pretending to be one. Immediately off the scenic byway, you’ll enter two large, paved parking lots. We easily found space for our SUV and small travel trailer next to another family doing likewise.
A few day-use picnic areas are found amongst the trees next to the northernmost parking lot. These have big concrete picnic tables and elevated bbq/firepits in a gravel-covered space perfect for a picnic either for a picnic’s sake or as a break from digging.
Near the picnic areas are two vault toilets and a good ole hand pump for fresh water. I used neither, so won’t comment on their individual quality. I suspect the vault toilets are less than stellar. Not gross, necessarily, but I sure as hell wasn’t tempted to find out otherwise.
There was no signage indicating that the water was inappropriate for drinking. Again, I didn’t taste any so don’t really know. Considering the picturesque wilderness all around, I’d like to think it’s crystal clear, cold, delicious water.
Trails are also present at Crystal Park, winding up the hillside. Some are dirt while what appears to be the main trail, is paved. The trails obviously take you to the digging area but are equally legitimate for simply hiking.
I didn’t explore the trail much beyond getting to the dig zone. I’m unsure how far the trails extend or if they venture beyond the recreation area. Whatever the case, if you’re not as keen on pretty stones as your kin, there’s still something for you to do while at Crystal Park.
I’m glad we made it to Crystal Park. It was an interesting, enjoyable and ultimately successful rockhounding adventure that we’ll remember fondly. The scenic drive only adding to our joy. But there was certainly some internal guilt-tripping on my part. Despite its name, this rose didn’t smell quite as sweet.