You’ll be forgiven for assuming our epic Yellowstone (and Grand Teton … and Glacier) camping trip was as much about treasure hunting as it was sightseeing. That’ll happen when half the participants are mesmerized by shiny, glittery, and ancient things.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of the national parks. Mother Nature at her absolute best always gets me tingly. But it’s the thrill of the chase that comes with treasure hunting that really juices my intrigue. Even if I do have to pay for the privilege.
As such, I adapted our trip route to accommodate three such adventures. The first, slabbing Green River Formation rocks at American Fossil Quarry near Kemmerer, Wyoming. The second, digging quartz crystals at Crystal Park in the Pioneer Mountains of Montana. And our third, hunting sapphires at The Montana Blue Jewel Mine along the Missouri River outside of Helena, Montana.
Unlike the famed Green River Shale fossils, I only learned about sapphires existing in Montana thanks to Google. But once I gained this knowledge, it was fait accompli that we’d be adjusting our return drive a little further east than a straight shot home would require.
There are actually a few different businesses offering u-dig sapphire packages in Montana and they’re surprisingly dispersed. Some of them are better suited to those wanting to find gemstones without having to venture into the wilderness to do so. Those operators bring the paydirt to you, typically at an urban location, and you sift for sapphires in a more comfortable setting.
I fancy myself more robust than that. I like the real deal experience, so I chose an operator that runs their business from the actual mine site. Montana Blue Jewel Mine had a location that better fit our plans, so they won our patronage. We were not disappointed.
Montana Blue Jewel Mine Location
The Montana Blue Jewel Mine is found on the north bank of the Missouri River some thirty miles northeast of Montana’s capital city, Helena. The mine is actually closer to Helena than that, but the Missouri River is no creek and bridges crossing her are scattered. Therefore, that thirty-mile route includes a circuitous path through the Big Belt Mountains south and east of the mine.
It’s also not the smoothest drive. Once you’re crossed the river and made your way east to the village of York, you turn north and leave asphalt behind. The remaining ten miles are hilly and all gravel, becoming noticeably worse as you approach Montana Blue Jewel Mine.
There are residences and cottages in the area, so it’s not entirely void of civilization. You’ll be passed by locals and recreational enthusiasts blasting around in their ATVs. But those locals are almost exclusively driving large pickup trucks. Be cautious if you intend to venture forth in your sedan.
We made the trip in our Pathfinder and though it easily handled the trek, we were forced to progress extra slowly due to the cargo of fragile fossils we had in the back. No number of sapphires would have made up for the disappointment of busted fish fossils!
The final segment of road accesses two mines in the area; Montana Blue Jewel and Eldorado. I do believe the two have a relationship of some kind, but it’s the former offering pay to dig to the public.
At The Montana Blue Jewel Mine
In no way is this a fancy tourist destination. There’s no paved parking or elaborate visitor centre. It’s literally a surface mining operation with a small section of space dedicated to public digging. In other words, exactly what I was looking for.
There is a parking lot, but it’s nothing more than a gravel turnout a bit left of the main mine entrance. You find yourself a spot amongst the visitor vehicles and then walk to the mine. There are few scraggly “trees” around the parking lot but none that would fully shade your vehicle, so expect it to get very toasty in your absence.
Start times are quite nebulous. You are required to book a spot by calling the mine in the days (or in our case, months) before your arrival, but they only give you a starting window rather than a specific start time. Thus, there will likely be patrons already sorting through their pile of rocks when you arrive.
Montana Blue Jewel Mine as no reception desk or registration office. You simply wander in and find someone that looks important. Hint, they’re likely the most darkly tanned folks since they’re out in the sun all day.
Once you’ve found a staff member, they’ll give you a quick run through of the process, which isn’t terribly complex but is certainly hard work. I highly recommend you wear appropriate clothing for working with dusty rock in the blazing sun for a few hours. Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must. Proper footwear is equally important. Bring lots of water and some snacks as there is no food court here. Oh, and muscle power in the form of children is also quite helpful.
A large pile of source tailings is dumped to the left of the public sorting area. You are provided with a shovel and several five-gallon plastic pails. Whomever draws the short straw in your crew loads the buckets with the source tailings.
A quick tangent. The sapphires are found in the tailings from long ago gold dredging of the Missouri River. If I’m recalling the story told by the friendly and informative mine staff, during the second world war gold mining was stopped however in this area it was allowed to continue in order to harvest the sapphires which were used in the war effort. Otherwise, the sapphires were mostly seen as waste compared to the more valuable gold.
Today, those sapphires can be heat treated to liven their colour and sold as gem quality stones. They’re also a lure for rock nerd travelers like me who will happily pay money to work their ass off to find a handful of genuine gemstones. Humans are weird.
The buckets of tailings are then taken to your assigned shaker station where either you and/or your entourage classify the tailings. Classifying is sifting the rock through successively narrower gauge screens to weed out the too small and too large rock that will not be sapphire.
The classifying stations are home made jobbies of wood and steel. Three boxed screens (classifiers) are set on top of each other and placed in a saddle strung between the framing. Pour the rock into the top box and start shaking them back and forth. What is left in the bottom screen hopefully contains your sapphires.
You repeat this process until you’ve filled six pails to the brim with classified tailings.
This step requires mine staff. Your classified tailings are further concentrated using a high banker apparatus. A mainstay in gold placer mining, the high banker uses water and mechanical agitation to further separate the rocks.
Sapphire (like ruby), known as corundum, has a high specific gravity compared to other rocks likely to be found in tailings like quartz, for example. It’s even “heavier” than diamond. Thus, the high banker will preferentially keep heavy minerals, including any sapphires, and discard the lighter waste rock.
When this process is finished, you will be left with an astonishingly small amount of final, concentrated rock. The myriad buckets you dug and then classified down to six buckets and then ran through the high banker is now no more than maybe a third of a single bucket. It’s a bit of a shocker.
Time for another tangent. Running the high banker is not something you do yourself, so it’s a bit of down time. You might enjoy the rest if you’ve been doing lots of digging and shaking. But if you’re curious, this is a great time to ask questions of the mine staff.
The fellow who helped us was especially friendly and knowledgeable about the current operations and the history of sapphires in Montana. I’m not even a chatty person and I couldn’t help myself from asking questions.
This is where things get tedious. The remaining classified rock is now brought to a picnic table and dumped onto a slate platform. You and/or your crew use an assortment of screeners and tweezers to manually pick through the tailings to find your sapphires.
There are some spots located under the small wooden shelter, but you’ll actually want to do this in the sun. Why? Because the sapphires are best seen by the glimmer they make in the sunshine. This is also best done when the rocks are wet.
Admission time. This can get boring. The lure of sapphires will keep you going, but you’re not going to find hundreds of gemstones in this pile of sorted rock. We found roughly 21 in total. That’s a lot of work for limited return, though results will obviously vary. Lady Luck plays a big role in this endeavor.
It should also be noted that the likelihood of finding a deep blue sapphire is extremely unlikely. Most, if not all, will be very pale green/blue to clear. Honestly, they’re not all that electrifying but then again, nor are they cut.
This is gemstone in its raw, natural form. It’s been eroded form its host rock, sitting in the bottom of riverbed for millennia, run through a gold dredging operation and sitting in tailings piles, before finally being discovered by a Canadian tourist on a camping trip. That takes a toll on a stone.
One final tangent. In addition to sapphires, you will also find agates, a semi-precious stone. These are typically more colourful than the sapphires themselves. In fact, there’ll be some “pretty” rocks in the pile that are utterly worthless that rockhounds would find appealing. You’re more than welcome to take them as well.
When you’re finally finished sorting through your tailing concentrate (or given up) you tidy up your picnic table, place your treasure in a baggie, and make your way home wherever that may be.
If you wish to go all the way to faceted gemstones, Montana Blue Jewel Mine can recommend a local gemologist that can treat and cut your stones. For a fee, of course. You can also try finding someone closer to your home that can do the same.
We chose to stick with our raw stones. None of them seemed big enough to warrant the cost of making true gemstones out of them. Just having sapphires, even if they’re a bit bland, is cool enough for now.
So, the big question is … was it worth it? I think so. It was undoubtedly hard work in the sun and dirt. The fossil hunting was like that as well, but the payoff was far greater. Our little stash of sapphires and agates is cool (in my mind, anyway) but not as obviously or universally amazing as the fossils we got in Kemmerer.
That being said, I am very glad we went to Montana Blue Jewel Mine. For me, and I think my son, it was worth the detour on our way home and the unfortunate experience at the campground we chose for the night (stay tuned for a future story on that gongshow).
The staff at Montana Blue Jewel Mine were terrific. Helpful and informative, not to mention friendly, they were much better than their rough exteriors might lead you to assume (I feel shame).
I would definitely go back and do this again if I was in the neighbourhood. Perhaps not as readily as I’d go back to a fossil spot, but I would return. I recommend you give it a try if you’re traveling through west-central Montana.
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