Family Gem Hunting at the Montana Sapphire Mine

Last Updated on 24 Mar 2021 by Jim

Gem hunting at the Sapphire Mine in Montana is a fantastic day out with the family. We had so much luck that my daughter used one star sapphire she found in her engagement ring.


As you know we’ve taken a lot of time touring Montana. We’re lucky because we have family that lives here, so we often come to explore this beautiful state.

Some of our favorite Montana places include, Billings, Bighorn Canyon, Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.

In this article we cover:

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Tweezers in hands, searching for gems in Montana has begun.
Tweezers in hands, the family starts separating gravel from sapphires.

Lolo National Forest Drive and Adventure

On one of our Montana road trips, we took a dirt road over Skalkaho Pass to reach Philipsburg. Jim’s mother had told us about a place where we could look for sapphires,and we were all ramped up to do some legitimate rock hounding.

I’ve always picked up interesting rocks my entire life. Yes, I have more than five…a collection. They’re not very organized, though. They’re just memories.

I have a few cool ones, one with a ghostly face in it from driving the Haul road in Alaska, some amber from Japan, some obsidian from Easter Island, and such, but I’ve never gone out with the intention of looking for stones or gems.

Off route 38, in Lolo National Forest, we stopped at this gorgeous waterfall.
Off route 38, in Lolo National Forest, we stopped at this gorgeous waterfall.

After driving over the mountain through evergreen forests and passing a number of waterfalls, we entered into the valley where Gem Mountain is located. It is a river valley that is flat, flat, flat…until it’s not and then the mountains shoot up.

The sky was a crystalline blue with a few wispy clouds. We arrived about mid-morning, so it was just starting to get hot. Even though we knew what we were headed out to do, who brought head gear?

I had to go and buy a bandana, because the sun was beating down on us the entire time. Don’t worry, though, it didn’t deter us from our mission at any point.

Mining equipment on the grounds.
Mining equipment on the grounds.

Sapphire Hunting

At Gem Mountain there is a sapphire mine that is set up with buckets of gravel for anyone to come in and pick through to find their own sapphires.

It may not sound like fun, but you would be surprised how absolutely addicting it is. I talked with one man who had been coming two to three times per week for the last ten months.

This is not free, and it’s completely organized. The real mine digs up the gravel that has one of the best deposits of sapphires in the country, does the first straining and washing to get rid of the big rocks, then puts the remaining gravel in buckets.

There is a distinct process for finding the sapphires. First, you go pick out your bucket. Of course, you can’t tell which buckets are going to be loaded with gems and which ones aren’t, so you just hope the one you pick isn’t a total dud and you can find something.

An employee teaches us how the gravel is washed before we start searching for sapphires.
An employee teaches us how the gravel is washed before we start searching for sapphires.

A Sapphire Lesson

You take your bucket to your table, which is equipped with a mesh square strainer, you also take along a small film canister with an “X” slit in the top for the gems, a pair of tweezers, and a brush.

The brush is to sweep away the excess gravel that you’ve already picked through. My new friend told me he never uses the brush, because he wanted to make sure that no sapphire was overlooked.

After dropping off your pricey gravel and tools, you pour some of your gravel in the strainer, then take it all over to a trough of murky water where you swish and bang and try to get rid of all the bigger rocks and clean the gravel.

Returning to your table, you quickly flip the remainder on the tabletop to begin meticulously picking through it to find your treasure. It is at this point that we discovered that we needed to be really careful looking over the wet gravel, because most of the gems we found were laying right on top of the pile at that point.

Does that mean sapphires are heavier than the gravel they lay in? I just don’t know.

Jim pointing out what a sapphire is versus a rock.
Jim pointing out what a sapphire is versus a rock.

We bought three buckets for our group of five…to begin with.  Then we went and bought another two buckets.  At the time we were there, each single bucket sold for $15.00. There is also a Lucky 7 deal which costs the equivalent of six buckets and then you get the 7th free.

We should have bought the seven deal, because it was all Jim could do to stop me from buying more.  If we’d had better head coverings, we would have been there all day. Totally addicting! We all found sapphires.

The final and voluntary step, when you are completely finished is to take the sapphires you’ve found into the shop to one of the stone analyzers. You sit down, they separate your find by what’s really a sapphire, what isn’t, what might be worth heat-treating or setting, and what isn’t.  Jim and I had found seven…not worth anything but the fun of it.

What a Way to Get an Engagement Ring!

Then Erika and Michael took up their nine that they found, and three of them were worth heat-treating, and one was a third carat peach sapphire, which supposedly is a rarer color than normal.  They decided to make that one into Erika’s engagement ring. They were beyond excited. 

We were all thrilled.  The company doesn’t do any of the heat-treating or setting at Gem Mountain, so they send it off to be done. For us that just meant some paperwork and another charge on the card. Although, it’s not very expensive and I was surprised that there is no hard sell.  At all.

Philipsburg Main Street, the closest city to gem mountain.
Philipsburg, a quaint little western town, is the closest place to gas, eat, or stay when visiting the mine.

How to Get to Gem Mountain

Gem Mountain, surprisingly, is in the mountains and there are no large roads that really get you all the way there. On the larger roads, it will take you 1.5 hours from Missoula or 4.5 hours from Billings, mostly on I-90.

Taking I-90 as far as you can go will get you faster, but you miss out on a very pretty drive from Missoula. Our suggested route is head down to Grantsdale. Take a left and drive on Hwy. 38 through Lolo National Forest. It’s a beautiful drive.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a fun way to spend a few hours doing something you’d never thought you would do, go sapphire hunting! It’s not the cheapest of past times, but it is a lot of fun, and who knows? You just might find a great gem to set into a piece of jewelry.

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