Time for change

Katherine Sears
Managing Editor
Friday, September 9, 2022
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The popular Crystal Lake Campground is scheduled to undergo extensive updates July through September 2023. It’s been about 20 years since the site saw major improvements. Photo by Katherine Sears

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Bruce Williams and his son, Jake, enjoy the beginning of a camping trip at Crystal Lake in August at a site that used to be surrounded with trees. Williams was quick to reminisce on when the campground was much more attractive, but was hopeful the trees would grow up in the coming decades for the next generation to enjoy.

While newly planted trees are taking off at Crystal Lake Campground, it might still be a decade or two before the area begins to look anything like it did before the all the trees were removed in 2018 due to disease and decay. But, those looking to camp at the high elevation site can look forward to a few upgrades next year. 

Signs hung at the campground this summer indicate it will tentatively be closed from after July 5 to Sept. 2, 2023, for updates, including to the campsites, water system, and bathrooms. 

“We’re looking to improve the area for the future and make it a lot better than what is now,” said U.S. Forest Service Recreation Management Specialist Bob Gliko.

Changes to the campground are slated to accommodate the bigger camping rigs in use today.

“The circumference of the loop will be the same, but some of the camp sites will be wider and longer to fit bigger RVs,” said Gliko. 

There will also be a total of four pull-through sites.

“This will make it easier for people instead of backing in and parking,” said Gliko. 

The campground hosts 28 sites now, and Gliko said that number will increase by one when the upgrades are complete. The group site will also see a wider parking area. 

Stumps remain throughout the campground from the tree removal process four years ago, and Gliko pointed out they will only be removed if they are in the way of lengthening or widening a campsite. 

Some picnic tables will also be redone and a couple new fire pits will be installed. Campers can also look forward to new signage.

Gliko is particularly excited about a major overhaul of the campground water system, which has been defunct since the beginning of July. Water has only been available at the spring, which flows 24/7 near the entrance of the campground.

“We have water coming out of the well, but not to the campsites themselves because of a hole in the line somewhere that hasn’t surfaced yet,” said Gliko. 

Gliko thinks the current system was installed over 20 years ago, which has made it difficult to locate the underground water lines. Water currently runs from the well behind the cabin at the south end of the campground to a tank above on the mountain to the west. From there, the water flows down into the campsites. 

  “We’ll be installing a new tank behind the cabin with all new lines,” said Gliko. “The lines will also be magnetic, so we can locate them [if there’s a problem].”

The water system will be solar powered, with the tank filling during daylight hours and water available for campers into the night. 

The toilet at the Ice Caves trailhead will be replaced, as well as the concrete toilet at the top (southern end) of the campground. 


Updating the forest 

Improvements to Crystal Lake Campground are part of a broader effort to update recreational facilities across the Lewis and Clark side of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Hay Canyon on the South Fork of the Judith River in the Little Belt Mountains will see some improvements, going from five campsites to eight. It will also change from a free campground to a fee campground. Gliko said updates are also planned for Thane Creek Campground in the Highwood Mountains in 2024. 

“How often updates happen depends on funding,” said Gliko. “It’s been about 20 years since something was done in the way of campsites at Crystal Lake.” 

With an increase in outdoor tourism during the pandemic, Gliko said recreational sites continue to see more use. 

“Crystal Lake is probably one of our bigger attractions because it is so beautiful,” Gliko added. “It’s just a really nice spot to be.”  

While the trails around Crystal Lake are open to horses, Gliko said there are no plans to add horse sites. 

“None of our fee campgrounds are horse campgrounds,” said Gliko. “You can have horses on dispersed sites, but developed sites don’t allow them.”


What about the trees?

The once full canopy that covered the Crystal Lake Campground is long gone after the clear cut conducted by the Forest Service in 2018. New seedlings were planted in 2021 and the spring of 2022, as planting older trees is cost prohibitive, according to Gliko.

“We can plant seedlings by hand, but bigger trees, you need equipment and a way to transport them,” said Gliko. 

In short, it will take some time before campers will see any shade, but Gliko is optimistic. 

“The trees are looking really good,” he added. 

Campers still have some time to take in the beauty of the area this year, as the campground usually closes in late October. Gliko said more information about the updates will be available next year.