Many adventures begin as something overheard and must percolate a while before achieving something worthy of becoming a story.
I first heard about the Solo Creek area after I took my family on our yearly pilgrimage to the Lochsa River. I had read about crystals near Lolo Pass and decided to finally seek them out. This was to become an adventure of another type, the infamous sort.
We found the dig site after driving some serious 4x4 roads and jumped out of the truck with shovels and screens in hand, only to hear the hissing of air escaping tires.
I immediately realized that I had left all my tools down in our camper, 20 miles away. We drove out of the mountains on a rim to the Lolo Pass Visitor Center and borrowed tools from the ranger to change the flat tire.
We made it back to our campsite, then woke in the morning to find more flat tires. We ended up with three flat tires on that trip.
We drove to Missoula the next day with one spare, one tire filled with green slime and another patched with a hand-carved wood plug and some silicone. (I have since taught myself to fix tires in the field).
With that adventure over, I returned the following weekend to the Lolo Pass site with my friend Monty and found some small crystals - small facets and one large feldspar point.
After returning to Coeur d’Alene, Monty found himself talking with a rockhound at a garage sale who asked why we drove all the way to Lolo Pass when we could have just gone to Solo Creek. With vague directions, I threw my daughters in the truck a few weekends later and discovered Solo Creek.
SWEAT, SHOVELS and HEADLAMPS
The dig site is sadly a moonscape of holes, dug anywhere and everywhere, under tree roots, under large boulders. It seems everyone has their secret spot and will hoard the knowledge of its location, but I have found most people to be friendly and willing to show you their treasures. It’s a lot of hard dirty work. I have found certain methods that seem to work best, but I’ve also found that those methods can be shot full of holes at any time. I have taken one last shovel to the ground, at the end of a long day getting skunked, and exposed the largest crystal I have yet found there. I have also returned to my very secret location after a week of heavy rains and found excellent crystals sticking out of the ground, and then never found anything else the rest of the day.
Mostly, people dig down to a sand-like layer that is full of mica and looks like cat litter, hollow out an area in this layer undermining the layer where the crystals are found, then pick away at the roof with a small hand tool. Homemade screens work well as you will often miss some crystals. The best advice I can give is to bring headlamps. The light will cause the facets of a crystal to flash when you shine across them.
DON’T DIG ALONE
An important part of this discussion is safety and good stewardship of the site. I have heard stories from old-timers about people digging alone and their holes collapsing on them, their bodies found days later, legs sticking out of the dirt. Maybe a myth, maybe just common sense. Gravity is real.
And then PLEASE, make an effort to return the area you work to as close as would be considered its natural condition as possible. I know you won’t want to do all that work digging a hole in the ground, finding awesome crystals, just to fill it in at the end of the day. But there is already a watchful state of concern regarding this area. There have been fires in this area, subsequent logging, road washouts and a moonscape of holes dug by crystal hunters. The Lolo Pass crystal area has already been closed due to overuse, it would be a shame to have Solo Creek shut down too.
To reach the Solo Creek site head north toward Priest Lake from the town of Priest River. Roughly 23 miles from Priest River turn left onto Squaw Valley Cutoff Road. Travel west on this road about 6 miles crossing into Washington. Turn left at the T onto forest road 659 and keep your eyes open for dig sites on your left. Bring shovels, small hand rakes work good, a screen and headlights. In the spring and early summer insect repellant is a must. We have been chased away by hordes of angry mosquitos. SERIOUSLY.
If you stay out late enough in the spring and summer, pause down at the bottom of FR 659 and listen. The wetlands in the valley are full of sweet sounding frogs on a warm night, and it would be a shame to miss it before heading back to the world of work and traffic.