One of our favorite places to camp – like really camp: without restrooms, or hookups of any kind, where you have to make your own fire ring out of rocks, and there are no quiet hours (yet it is quieter than any campground we’ve ever been in) – is along the Wise River in the southwest corner Montana.
A Scenic Byway follows the river, winding through narrow valleys, and up and over a mountain pass. Located 29 miles down this byway (from the north), is a fun and family-friendly destination called Crystal Park. This 220 acre park is nestled in the Pioneer Mountains and the only way to access it is by taking the gorgeous drive along the byway (if you are driving a big rig, we suggest that you both enter and exit the byway via the north due to the 5 mile long steep grade and s-curves of the road south of the pass).
Whenever we visit Wise River, we HAVE to spend an afternoon or two at Crystal Park! Popular with rock hounds and families alike, Crystal Park is a unique National Forest property that is open to the public for the purpose of finding hexagonal prisms. It’s a great destination for all ages and all rock hounding levels, and is a unique and memorable stop!
Crystal Park is one large hill, located at an elevation of 7800 ft, that has been opened to digging for the prized (but most having no monetary value) quartz; what the mountain lacks in visual appeal, it makes up for in hands-on fun!
While the scenic byway drive is stunningly gorgeous, Crystal Park itself is full of pock-mark holes, dead trees, and an occasional empty aluminum can. But it’s here that crystal seekers go to seek a complete prism (6 sided with faces on both ends); while most never see the perfect rock, everyone can find parts and pieces of prisms that make great souvenirs for their time spent dirt digging.
The park does have some rules to keep everyone safe, but they are few; no tunneling, no undermining trees (because you’ll really hate it if a tree falls on you), no digging within 5 feet of pathways and structures, hand tools only (no dynamite 😉 )… There are some areas of the mountain that are closed to digging, usually from others not obeying the rules and making the area unsafe, but those areas are clearly marked.
Crystal Park is handicap accessible to a degree. The park has a paved loop that leads from the parking lot to the top of the mountain. While the lower area of the park is easily reached, the path to get to the upper part of the mountain has grades ranging from 1 to 8%.
We love Crystal Park for it’s unique experience! The kids can dig for crystals/prisms, and we know that they will be rewarded by finding some. We also love for them to be outside; this is an active (you would be surprised how often they hop from hole to hole!) and healthy activity for all of us! And while Crystal Park itself is not the most gorgeous hill, the views are peaceful and relaxing, and the beauty of the surrounding National Park is just steps away!
Every single one of our kids still traveling with us (2 to 17) likes to spend an afternoon at Crystal Park. or 2.
~Crystal Park does have a daily parking fee ($5 as of this writing). Since it is a National Forest site, if you have an National Parks Pass, this fee is waved by displaying your card in your vehicle: date punch side out, on the hang tag you should have received with your card.
~CP is open from dawn to dusk May 15 through Dec.1, and is day use only; no camping is allowed.
~You may only dig during 5 days per season.
~No commercial digging.
~Water is available in season (pump well, handle removed prior to first hard freeze), and there are vault toilets at both the bottom and the top of the mountain (wouldn’t hurt to bring some of your own tp, just in case. Ask my little girls how we know this!).
~No big rig friendly parking. Class C’s should be fine, unless it’s busy. (and if you have a Big rig, you probably won’t care much for the switch-backs on the way up anyway)
Our Tips for Visiting Crystal Park:
~While there is no ‘required’ tool list, having a digging instrument will help, be it a shovel, hand trowel, pick ax, or rock hammer. We didn’t bring anything special since we were heading out for the winter and didn’t want to haul specialty tools around with us, but we did take out the guys’ hammers and a pry bar so the kids could loosen up the dirt with them. A sifter can be handy if you have one, and taking along a bucket to put your finds in is also a good idea (we use ice cream buckets). The kids like to take along water bottles and an old toothbrush to clean off the crystals so they can see, right away, what they found. The crystals are usually dull and dirty when you discover them:
~Wear sturdy shoes – the terrain is fairly rugged in some areas, and due to all the dirt moving and holes, not overly flip flop friendly! Choose comfy clothing keeping in mind that you will most likely be bent over, squatting, or sitting on the ground most of the time. If you are going during the summer months, consider a sun hat as much of the digging area lacks shade cover- once you get there, you will not want to be restricted to just the areas that have lots of trees.
~Mineral collectors often tote around 5 gallon buckets that they use for both collecting and also as a seat while they are sifting. Consider taking something to sit on if your back bothers you.
Tips for doing Crystal Park with Kids:
~Go looking to have fun!!! Crystal Park is a super fun place for kids because it is so easy to find crystals! If you go only looking for the perfect crystal, with faces on both ends, you are most likely to be disappointed – but you WILL find handfuls of prism fragments and pieces, and the fun is in the find!
~Stop at the bottom of the mountain; in between and just above the 2 parking lots, are several large signs that give an overview of the park as well as some educational information – do a quick review of the plaques, including showing the kids what the prisms look like. Also, if your kids aren’t used to the terrain, go over basic safety rules as parts of the park are quite steep (like no running downhill, side-hill instead), and full of holes (don’t step where you can’t see).
~Give your kids their own tools, even if it’s a plastic ice cream bucket or yogurt container and an old spoon! You all will have much more fun if each child can do their own digging and discovering! Water is optional, and depending on the age, it can mean some seriously muddy messes. lol. Even our older kids get in on the fun, and find and bring their own digging tools; I don’t see much of them as they tend to take off and find their own secret crystal digging spots! If I want to find out what they’ve found, I have to track them down!
~Set boundaries for each area you stop to dig in. This is a National Forest, and wildlife abounds here, including bear. Also, due to the density of the trees in some of the digging areas, it could be easy to get turned around and lost.
~Bring along snacks and drinks; if you are like us, once you get there, the ‘just for an hour or so’ stop will turn into much longer. 😉
~Dress your kids in comfy, OK-to-get-filthy clothes! They will be having a great time digging, sifting, and sitting in fine dirt and rocks!
Crystal hunting with littles? You’d be surprised how many crystals you can find without even digging! Find areas where the water runs off the mountain and look on the surface there; the crystals get moved by the water to the runoff lines, get caught up in the rocks, washed off by the water, and are patiently waiting, all shiny and clean, for little fingers to pick them up! Move a few pinecones and pine needles, and you are sure to find some great crystals. Teaching your littles to find crystals this way helps them to be more independent, and you might just get to dig a few crystals of your own!
Even Caleb (2) can find crystals, without help, this way, and it’s Molly’s fav way to find them even tho she is getting pretty good at spying the flat faces in the dirt too!
While we aren’t devoted rock hounds, Crystal Park does seem to be a popular destination for them. We tend to go during the off-season, and there are still usually several sets of serious diggers there! They bring in their row of covered buckets, Eastwing rock picks, and multiple sifters; and while they are pretty businesslike in their quest for the perfect amethyst prism (the purple hued ones are highly prized), they are almost universally happy to give you some pointers on prism finding!
The kids always come away with a handful of crystals, and a ton of great memories! Crystal Park is the perfect family-friendly destination, even if it is just a stop along the drive to expend some energy!