ONE TANK TRIPS: Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge

JET, OK (KSWO) - Hiking trails, endangered birds and 13,000 acres of wide-open flats full of one of a kind crystals are just a few things offered at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.

Located near Jet, Oklahoma near the Kansas border, the wildlife refuge is truly a sight to behold. It's about 3.5 hours north of Lawton. On any given day throughout the year, the refuge could be a completely different sight from the day before. Millions of endangered birds migrate to the area in the fall and winter, while during the spring and summer, visitors dig up crystals buried in the salt flats.

Those crystals are unique to the salt plains. They are a form of gypsum growing naturally about a foot underneath the surface.

"It forms a unique hourglass inclusion with some of the surrounding sand or clay it grows in," said Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge Manager Shane Kasson. "It's not a very hard crystal, it's kind of spear shaped and not a really durable crystal, but really easy to find and really collectible to some people."

Kasson said he guarantees that anyone who comes to the salt flats will leave with at least one crystal.

"Just start a hole and when the water table is high, you can splash water against the side and find the crystals. You can sometimes just feel around in the sand like this and pick them up if you're in a good spot," Kasson said.

Look up from your digging and the view is miles of endless plains. Those plains are topped with salt, the last remnant of one of the world's largest oceans.

"There was an inland ocean in this part of the country," Kasson said. "This was a low spot where that water over millennia slowly evaporated and created this huge salt deposit. It was then covered up with sand and silt and dirt that was being carried through on the waterways."

Kasson said between 80,000 and 100,000 people come to the salt plains to dig from April to October each year. While that is a popular activity, the refuge has a much larger purpose.

"We were established in 1930 as an area to protect migratory birds," Kasson said. "That mission has evolved over the years as we discovered some endangered species here that we have to manage that take precedent over other things."

Kasson said as migration season hits, millions of birds call the refuge home.

"Waterbirds, herons, egrets, cormorants, ibis, all of the grassland species, the sparrows, larks, birds of prey like hawks, eagles, owls," Kasson said.

Those aren't the only animals you'll see out on the refuge.

"They're going to see turtles, they'll see frogs and lizards, they may see deer and turkeys, they may see armadillos," Kasson said. "That's the native wildlife. In the end of summer when the monarchs migrate through, these trees will just be dripping with butterflies."

Kasson said the refuge being overrun with the migratory birds makes for some great memories.

"In the fall and winter when we're loaded down with birds, they roost on the water, spend the night in shallow water," Kasson said. They then go out to feed on us and on neighboring farmland and it's a thunderous roar really of all those wing beats at day break and all those birds flying out in different directions. It's a special scene."

It can give you a first-hand view of some of our nation's rarest birds.

"In the winter time we can have as many as 80 to 110 bald and golden eagles here that migrate down to follow their food source," Kasson said.

Plus, mix in three hiking trails, a few fishing spots and a self-guided tour that allows you to get right out into nature without ever getting out of your car. When you bring all these things together, you get a truly unique place that's a great learning tool for future generations.

"It's extremely important and it's extremely important to educate today's youth and get them out of the house and let them experience nature," Kasson said. "Whether it's fishing or bird watching or photography. The next generation of voters, essentially, is going to determine how we treat our public lands and our wild spaces in the future."

The wildlife refuge is open 365 days a year from sunrise until sunset. Everything is free, even digging for crystals. You can find more information on the wildlife refuge here.

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