Family Fun at Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine in Montana

How about an awesome wow-day to add some excitement to your Montana vacation? Try the ultimate treasure hunt in a gorgeous wilderness setting. You will feel like you have stepped back 100 years while you pan for sapphires and enjoy fun with the whole family! Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, located outside of Philipsburg, MT is the perfect place for a family treasure hunt. We are fortunate this little “gem” is so close to home, and every year we take visitors for the day to sift through rocks looking for gems. It is always a hit no matter what the age of our guests.

What Will You Find at Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine in Montana?
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine is touted as the best sapphire mine in the world with over 180 million carats produced in the past 120 years. It is never disappointing and you will always find sapphires. Some can even be worth thousands of dollars! Heck, I think I have easily found over 200 carats of sapphires throughout the years, and my 9-year old daughter is hands-down the best sapphire spotter. She can find those little glistening rocks with amazing precision.

Getting to Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
Nestled in the heart of Skalkaho Pass Road (MT Highway 38), Gem Mountain is an easy day trip from numerous cities in Montana such as Missoula, Butte and Helena. It’s located outside of Philipsburg, MT which in itself is worth a visit to see a restored historic mining town with vibrant activity reminiscent of the old west.

The drive is spectacular, and you will more than likely spot eagles, foxes, deer, elk, moose and maybe even a black bear. Once you begin to wonder where this place is, a large post and beam entrance materializes to welcome you to the sapphire mine. As you drive across a small bridge towards the gravel parking lot, I guarantee you will be overcome by the fresh scent of pine and the bubbling sound of a meandering creek. The facility appears quite understated and somewhat primitive, but rest assured it has all the necessary ingredients to make your day enjoyable.

Panning for Sapphires
After you arrive at Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, head up to the central little wooden building with a quaint deck. This is where you will find all the information needed to make your day successful.

Panning for sapphires is really easy (albeit messy!) but does require you to purchase “sapphire rocks” which are really five-gallon buckets of rocks which you will wash in a large water trough and sift through carefully. You have the option of purchasing single buckets, the Lucky 7 special where you buy six buckets and get the seventh free, or the ultimate Dirty Dozen where you buy 10 buckets and get two free! We usually purchase the Lucky 7, and it takes us a good 4 to 5 hours to go through all the buckets.

After purchasing your bucket(s), you will head back outside to the pit of sapphire rocks. Here you will find extremely helpful college-age kids that help you find sapphires and give you the necessary supplies: pans to wash the gravel, tweezers for picking out small rocks, old film canisters to fill with your gems, and a big brush for cleaning off the table when you are done.

Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine Montana
A nice overview of Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine in Montana where you can see the rinsing area and tables to sort through your sapphire rocks.

There is an art to panning and spotting sapphires, but it gets truly addicting once you know what you are looking for. You begin by dumping rocks into your pan and taking them over to the large water trough that snakes through the tables. Large wooden blocks are available for shorter visitors to help them reach the water and comfortably wash rocks. The kids love this part as well. I mean, really, who doesn’t like playing in dirty water?

There is a special method to washing the rocks that allows the sapphires to ideally fall to the bottom of the pan. Again, the eager young employees love showing how this done, so definitely allow them to help you out. They take personal pride in your success and everything you find is yours to keep.

Once the rinsing is over, it’s time to take the pan back to the table and flip it quickly onto the table top. Now this is where if the rinsing was done correctly your beautiful sapphires will be gleaming back at you in the center of the rock pile. However, it is still important to carefully pick through the gravel as more sapphires may be scattered throughout and you don’t want to miss them! Many times when I have thought my rock pile was exhausted of sapphires, I find a beauty lurking towards the bottom.

Once you have finished, the fun and friendly staff will weigh and bag your rough sapphires. For a nominal fee they can examine the stones and determine which ones are gem quality. They can also heat treat your sapphires, which turns them into beautiful gemstones suitable for jewelry. It’s fun to build a piece of jewelry with a gemstone you found, and the finished gemstones are almost always worth significantly more than the cost of heat treating. This is the ultimate Montana souvenir!

Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine is open seven days a week beginning in May and closes not long after Labor Day in September. I recommend checking out their website for the most accurate information on their hours. If you can’t make it to this location, they have a satellite store downtown Philipsburg that is open year-round.

Tip: To make your day as comfortable as possible, I recommend you bring large sun hats, long sleeve shirts you don’t mind getting dirty, sunscreen, and bug spray as there can be mosquitoes. Bring a cooler with snacks and drinks as the nearest grocery and restaurant is in Philipsburg, which is 22 miles away.

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Sapphire photo by Wisebwoy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Lara D. Are you interested in traveling to Philipsburg? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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