One of the luxuries of living in Northern Nevada during a pandemic is there are still many family-friend things to do that allow for safe social distancing.
Heading to a beach at Lake Tahoe might not be the wisest thing given the current situation, but there are lots of safe hikes, biking trails and outdoor activities available for families.
One of those is The Crystal Mine, which we visited last Saturday on my wife's birthday. We've been trying to do something outside with our two kids, a 5-year-old and 12-year-old, so they're not cooped up in the house all day. My wife got a tip of the The Crystal Mine, which we had never visited before despite living in the Reno area for two decades.
We looked up directions online and headed west for some family-friendly treasure hunting Saturday morning. Our directions weren't the best, and I'm usually horrible at finding trailheads to start with, but The Crystal Mine is exceptionally easy to find in retrospect and requires basically zero hiking before you get to the top of the mountain.
If you're coming from Reno, go West on I-80 and get off on the Verdi Exit (exit No. 2). You'll take a right at the end of that exit and then a left on Bridge Street, which crosses over the Truckee River and heads into California. Bridge Street eventually turns into Dog Valley Road and shifts from a paved street to a dirt street, which also might be America's bumpiest road. Any car will get you up the hill, but an SUV would be best given how ruddy the road is (very ruddy).
After about nine miles on Dog Valley Road, which got its name because the woods were thought to be once inhabited by wild dogs, you'll see Lookout Campground, a nice day-tripping location, on your left. Our directions said to park there and hike to The Crystal Mine, but don't do that. Just continue on Dog Valley Road for another mile past Lookout Campground and you'll see a small sign for The Crystal Mine. Take a left there and it's about a three-quarter-mile drive until you get to the base of the "mountain," which is more like a hill, where the quartz is plentiful.
From the parking area to the top of the hill is maybe a five-minute hike. I had to carry our 5-year-old up a small portion, but that's because he was being lazy rather than the difficulty of the climb. Even at the bottom of the hill there are plenty of quartz just sitting there for the plucking. The main reason to climb to the top is to see the 360-degree views of the valley, which were beautiful on our low-70s day.
The entry sign says each family is allowed to haul 5 gallons of rocks out of there each week. I'd advise bringing one of those orange Home Depot buckets (or two if you don't mind breaking the rules) to store your quartz. I'd also bring a small shovel or some gardening tools so your kids can dig for crystals, although you could fill up a couple hundred Home Depot buckets with the quartz sitting on and around the hill. They're that plentiful.
We took more than our fair share of quartz and spread the rocks in our backyard, around the house and in our neighborhood, which has recently gotten into Inspiration Rocks. The backstory to all that quartz is interesting. During World War II, the crystals were needed in abundance for use in two-way radios. That area was prone to dynamite blasts to bring the crystals to the surface. If you want to dig deep you could find some whole crystals, and there were a couple of folks there with metal detectors. Crystal Peak, where the mine is located, was discovered in 1845, but it's amazing how much quartz still remains.
There were some real big rocks, probably in the 300- or 400-pound range at the entrance, but you're not allowed to take those babies home. You can either take a couple of bigger ones, like four- or five-pounders, or load up on smaller ones. That is if you want to stay within the five-gallon limit. It's tempting to go over, especially given how many rocks there are, but it's better to stay under so future generations get a chance to visit the site.
During our trip, there was strong foot traffic on the mountain, but there was still plenty of space to social distance. I'd suggest bringing face coverings, which we didn't because we didn't know there would be that many people on the hill. But we were still able to stay 20 to 30 feet away as we dug for our riches. The area is completely exposed to the sun, so bring sunblock and a hat, too.
After 45 minutes of treasure hunting, we headed back down Dog Valley Road, although in retrospect, we should have brought some lunches and eaten them at Lookout Campground, which has a number of park benches with trees providing shade. You also could stop at the Truckee River on the way home for lunch in Verdi.
No, it's not day at the beach, but The Crystal Mine was a hit with our kids, who decorated their rooms with their newfound treasures, which beats a day in front of the television. Your car might get a little beat up going up and down Dog Valley Road (mine made it in and out fine), but the fresh air and haul we brought home was more than worth it.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray. For previous Exploring Our Backyard features, click here.