By Karen Mitchell
Spring is in the air, and after one of the coldest winters Oklahoma has experienced in years, we’re all ready to get outside. So, after the kids have found their Easter eggs, why not continue treasure hunting in one of the most unique places in the world—right here in our own state?
The Great Salt Plains in northwestern Oklahoma is the only place in the world to find unique hourglass-shaped selenite crystals. These crystals even attract rock enthusiasts from around the world. Closed for several years to clean the area of World War II training artifacts, the area is once again open for public digging (from April 1-October 15, dawn to dusk). The treasure: large, intact, selenite crystals with a sand/ clay hourglass embedded within the clear, gypsum crystal.
My sister and I took our kids there last fall. What a treat! As my son said, “I don’t feel like we’re even in Oklahoma.” My nephew agreed that we appeared to be on the moon— the miles of flat, white ground certainly gave you that sense. While the crystals were certainly the highlight of our trip, they weren’t the only treasure we discovered.
The Great Salt Plains, part of the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, is home to
an abundance of natural wonders. We started on the eastern side of the refuge. Our first stop: the refuge headquarters. I recommend stopping there before continuing your visit. The headquarters contains historical and educational exhibits of the area which helped us appreciate what we might see. There we were greeted by a staff member who provided us area maps and directed us to the Eagle Roost Nature Trail; a beautiful, wetlands hike.
Eagle Roost Nature Trail
A short distance away from the refuge headquarters, the Eagle Roost Nature Trail, is another must-see for those who enjoy the outdoors. The walk takes about 30-60 minutes, depending on how many times you stop to appreciate the surroundings in this wooded wetland. Bring your camera! This is a great spot for wildlife photos, including shots of the sandhill cranes and other water fowl that nest in the area.
Upon leaving Eagle Roost, we headed north on the Harold F. Miller Auto Tour Route which meanders through a portion of the refuge. As we headed west on Highway 11, we noted areas to pull off for additional viewing including an observation tower and Sandpiper Trail. Turning south on Highway 64, we entered the town of Cherokee, a perfect spot to grab fuel for yourself or your car. The next stop is the entrance to the Great Salt Plains for selenite crystal digging.
We found that we only came partially prepared for our crystal dig, with only small garden shovels and gloves in our packs. Other recommended items for digging are buckets and larger shovels. Some of the more seasoned diggers at the site had makeshift screens to sift through the mud and water for crystals. Also, bring towels to wipe yourselves free of the salt and sand that will inevitably make its way into your car.
Crystal Digging Tips
- The white plains make it easy to get sunburned, so be sure to wear sunscreen and sunglasses.
- Bring water and a change of clothes—digging is messy!
- Bring a shovel—you’ll need to dig a hole about two feet deep by two feet wide to get to the crystals.
- Drive carefully; shorebirds, which nest on the flats, may not be easily seen.
- When you leave, wash your car to remove the accumulated salt.
- No permit is required for crystal digging and visitors may remove up to 10 pounds of crystal plus one large cluster (but it is illegal to sell them).
Eating and Lodging Info
We recommend packing a cooler with snacks, drinks and a picnic before leaving home as you can drive quite a ways before finding a place to stop. If planning an overnight stay, the Great Plains State Park contains several modern, well-furnished, lake-view cabins. Camping sites are also available. The nearby town of Cherokee also provides motel accommodations and restaurants.