Digging the Great Salt Plains

Selenite crystals with a distinctive hourglass inclusion can be found in only one place on this planet.

My favorite crystal is selenite, one of the crystalline forms of gypsum. Several years ago I had heard about selenite crystals with a distinctive hourglass inclusion, that could be found in only one place on this planet, the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.  I have wanted to make this trip since, but my schedule had never allowed me to do so.  As chance would have it, I had a couple of days to spare and I was traveling through Oklahoma.  Yes!

Selenite crystals - Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
Selenite crystals – Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Factoid: Due to it’s uniqueness, the hourglass shaped selenite crystal was designated the Oklahoma State Crystal in 2005.

About the Refuge

The 32,030 acre Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge was established as a refuge and breeding ground for birds by President Herbert Hoover in March of 1930.  Divided into almost equal parts salt flat, open water, and vegetated land, including salty marsh, grasslands, and woods, it provides habitat for approximately 300 species of birds and 30 species of mammals. It is a vital stop over for migratory birds.

Because the salt flat is an essential nesting ground for many birds, the crystal digging area is divided into sections that are open on a rotating basis.  This also allows the crystal beds to rest, recover, and time for new crystals to grow.  Ironically, research shows that the human intrusion of digging for crystals actually aids the birds who call the salt flats home. Birds eat the brine flies that hatch in the abandoned water filled holes
and utilize the left over mounds to build their nests upon above flood water levels.  It is illegal to harass the birds or destroy eggs and nests.

The adjacent Great Salt Plains State Park provides plenty of recreational opportunities for area visitors such as hiking, swimming, fishing, RV and tent camping. They also have rental cabins available.

Where do the crystals come from?

Once upon a time Oklahoma was covered by a shallow sea.  Millions of years worth of sea level changes created the super salinated environment of the salt flats.  It is in this gypsum rich, salty sediment, that the selenite crystals grow.  With the rain comes the rising water level carries the briny solution to the surface.  The selenite will dissolve back into the solution.  When conditions are right, the crystals will begin to reform in the sand and clay soil.  As the water evaporates, it leaves behind a fresh salt crust.

An endless beach reminiscent of a moonscape. – Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

The crystal digging area is open April 1st through October 15th, sunrise to sunset.  No fee or permit is required to dig crystals. Collectors are allowed to take 10 pounds plus one large cluster per person, per day. It is illegal to sell crystals from the refuge.

Imagine Parker Franklin’s surprise when he unearthed this massive selenite crystal cluster at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: Chris Franklin   via: travelok
How to Dig for Crystals on the Great Salt Plains
  • Pick a spot.
  • Dig a hole about 2 feet deep and let the water seep in.
  • Splash water on the sides of your pit.
    The edges of the crystals may be seen sticking out, because of the brown color they blend in with the surrounding materials.  Gently feel the walls of the pit.  [Warning: Do NOT press hard or rub/swipe quickly.  Blades can be sharp and will slice your hands.  I have the cuts to prove it]
  • When you find crystals continue to splash with water from the pit to uncover the crystals.  Wet crystals are delicate; pulling or trying to dig the crystals out may break them.
  • Swish the crystals in the water to help rinse off excess sand and clay.
  • Lay them on a towel to dry in the sun.
  • Dig a hole. Let the water seep in.Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
    Dig a hole. Let the water seep in.

I rinsed the crystals with a gentle spray in my sink at home to further clean the sand and clay off. Do NOT rub it off. The crystals may break or you may dissolve the thin crystal layer, breaching into the inclusion, thereby destroying the entire crystal.  Again, this is an observation from personal experience.

Suggested Tools & Supplies

There is no need for specialized tools to dig on the salt flats. I do recommend wearing old clothes that you don’t mind getting ruined. I wore my boots on this trip to make shoveling a bit easier.  Barefoot seemed to be the most popular choice among the rest of the visitors.

  • bucket
  • shovel
  • garden trowel, fork / claw
  • sieve
  • pad to kneel on
  • towel to dry crystals on
  • container for dried treasures
  • wagon*  (optional – makes transport of gear much easier)

Temperatures can soar into the 90’s plus during the summer.  There is no shade.  If you plan on being out on the salt flats all day, it would be wise to bring a beach umbrella to rest under.  The white surface of the salt flat reflects light and heat very well.

  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen
  • bug repellent
  • cooler with plenty of water
  • snacks / lunch (Cherokee has several fast food places on the way out of town toward the salt flats.  I stopped at the Subway to pick up a sandwich and popped it in my cooler.)
  • towel to wipe yourself down
  • a change of clothes

Facilities are basic.  They do have some porta-potties near the dig area.

It’s a good idea to rinse your vehicle off after leaving the salt flats.

Salt coats everything on the salt flats.
Getting there

The dig area is on the other side of the refuge from the visitor center, 5 miles off of US Hwy 64 on Garvin Rd.  Beware, your GPS may not know of road closures.  Check with the USFWS park page for alerts. My GPS took me down two closed roads; one with no bridge over the river.  Oh joy!  The Refuge Visitor’s Center was closed due to a fire.  I was finally able to find a refuge brochure and followed the map through the quaint little town of Cherokee to Garvin Road.  You can’t miss the sign.

Turn here.

Get directions to:

 

USFWS Salt Plains National Refuge links:

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge
Selenite Crystals
Crystal Digging

Additional Resources:

Travel OK
Microbe Wiki
OK History

Page Photo Credits
Photos courtesy of Living the Crystal Life Crew unless otherwise noted.
Large crystal cluster, Chris Franklin via: travelok

Author: Cat

A Wander, a Traveler, an Explorer and Discoverer too.

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