If you’re a rockhound like me, you probably usually enjoy rockhounding where you can do it for free. But every once in awhile you’re willing to pay for it. One place that is worth it is Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine.
Located 22 miles outside of the town of Philipsburg, Montana, Gem Mountain lets you have the hands-on experience of loading up a two-pound bucket with dirt, gravel and invisible sapphires. I say, “invisible” because when they are covered with dirt and dust, you can’t see them in the bucket of gravel. Then you take a little shovel and put some of the mix onto a screen, which you then take over to a trough. There you put the screen underwater, shake it around a bit, then take it back to your table where you quickly dump it upside down. There on the top of the pile of gravel, will be beautiful shiny sapphires! Because they are heavier than the gravel, they settle at the bottom of the screen which becomes the top when you turn the screen over on your table. You then use tweezers to pick out the sapphires and put them someplace safe like a baggie or old film canister. After you have picked out all that you can see, it’s a good idea to put the gravel back into the screen and wash it another time or two – you might have missed some sapphires.
You can buy one bucket at a time ($20 each) or buy six and get one free. Yes, it’s a little spendy, but if you know you are going you can simply budget for it as you would any other entertainment. After finding all of your sapphires, you can either choose to just take them home that way, or if you have some spectacular ones, you can leave them with the mine office to be sent off to be heat treated and faceted (for an extra charge, of course.) Heat treating is what gives the sapphires that cobalt blue color. Otherwise they are a dull blue, but they can also be yellow or white.
Another fun thing you can do if you can’t make it there is have them send you a jug of dirt to screen at home. David did that for me for my birthday after we had been there the first time and had so much fun. He felt a little weird telling people he got me a jug of dirt for my birthday but I was in absolute heaven! Again, if you find some spectacular ones, Gem Mountain includes a return envelope and you can send one or two back to them to be heat treated and faceted. Be ready to practice your patience though – it can take up to six months to get them back.
There is a small store with limited snacks and water and six free first-come, first-served camping sites.
Sifting gravel and picking sapphires is one of the most fun experiences I have ever had. It was like an addiction, very hard to quit. Thank goodness they close at 5pm or I would have gone until I passed out!
We spent the entire day sifting rocks and picking out sapphires. By the time we left I was as worn out as a kid on Christmas day. David was driving and I said, “I’m so tired, I just need to sleep,” and he said, “Go ahead.” I leaned over on the seat and BOOM, I was out! THAT, my fellow rockhounders, is a GREAT day!
Gem Mountain is open through September, from 10am-5pm, seven days a week.
Getting there: Gem Mountain is located at 21 Sapphire Gulch Lane, at mile marker 38 on Highway 38, Skalkaho Pass Road between Hamilton and Philipsburg.