Gem Mountain and Sweet Palace

Gem Mountain and Sweet Palace

Mining has a certain allure in the American west with tales of gold and silver fortunes going back over a century. Montana has plenty of statewide options for panning for gold, silver or gems such as sapphires. Montana’s oldest sapphire mine lies on the Skalkaho highway which connects Highway 1, the Philipsburg / Discovery Ski Area / Anaconda road, and Highway 93, the well trafficked Bitterroot Valley thoroughfare. Known as Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, it’s approximately 30 minutes from both Philipsburg and Georgetown Lake.

The mine has been operating since 1892 and in the early part of the 20th century, sapphires were used for multiple purposes ranging from industrial use in the U.S to watch making parts in Europe. Synthetic sapphires created after WWII diminished some of the commercial viability of natural sapphires but a thriving business was created for amateur miners and rock hounds. 

The operation currently sells buckets of gravel that contain sapphires, usually of a small variety. But the search is rewarding for kids and adults alike who sort through washed gravel to find the gems. Usually greenish and clear, they stand out among the natural rocks and sediment. However patience is required as the search is not easy. It can take a ½ hour or more to go through just one bucket of gravel. But as sapphire is discovered the excitement grows and often a fierce competition is started between siblings. We each found 6-8 sapphires from our chunks of wet gravel and what to do with them is the next question. The mine operation does offer additional services such as heat treating and faceting, but I suspect most kids bring them home to remind them of the reward of the hard work. Maybe one day they’ll turn them into art or special jewelry to remind them of the great experience.

No trip to that area with kids would be complete without a visit to the Sweet Palace in downtown Philipsburg, MT. It has been claimed by many as one of the greatest candy emporiums in the American West. It has fresh taffy and over 1,000 varieties of candy mostly sold by the pound and can be quite an overwhelming experience. Free fudge samples and friendly staff make this a great Montana family experience.  But make sure you periodically check or weigh your children’s loot bag as a heavy bag does ring up impressively at the cash register.  After that, the only challenge remaining is trying to prevent the bag of candy from being devoured before arriving back in Missoula.

For more information on Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine go here. Information on the Sweet Palace can be found here.

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