People have been traveling to try their hand at rockhounding Montana for almost two centuries.
More than 150 years ago, prospectors overran the state of Montana after discovering its rich stores of gold, silver, and copper.
As time passed, they discovered other valuable natural ores in the state including sapphires, copper, and agates.
Due to the region’s Native American population and its geologic, anthropological, and zoological history, many individuals also find fossils in the state.
Finding Gems In Montana
Best known for its gold deposits, the state of Montana plays host to many other ores, too.
Finding these gems would be hit-and-miss unless you knew the most likely locations for them.
First, let’s look at the state by gem region, then we’ll list specific locations of where to find geodes in Montana.
Montana Moss Agate
In southeastern Montana, in the Yellowstone River Basin, you can find Montana Moss, an agate ranging in color from brown to orange to clear populated by mossy black dendrites.
You can see similar agates for rock collecting in northern Wyoming.
When in eastern Montana, visit Bighorn Canyon to mine for dryhead agate, an agate with a brown matrix, but with colorful nodules of red, orange, white, brown, or pink.
Explore southeastern Montana for these agates, especially the area within the boundaries of the Pryor Mountains, Big Horn Mountains, and the Big Horn River.
Typically, oval-shaped, you will find these agates in stream sediments and floating the stream soil.
Explore Dry Cottonwood Creek to mine for sapphire crystals among the Montana rocks and minerals.
Corundum gneiss with sapphire
You can find this type of sapphire in host rocks, such as gneiss, schist, and igneous dikes. Explore the Gallatin Valley for mining areas that typically use alluvial deposits.
You won’t find this girl’s best friend easily, but you could theoretically have similar luck as Darlene Dennis who discovered the “Lewis and Clark Diamond” in 1990 while strolling down a rural road in Craig, Montana.
This 14-carat diamond sold for $80,000 to a New York gallery.
Its name comes from the county in which she found it.
The find did not lead to a larger store of diamonds.
Some have found kimberlites, small diamonds, diatremes, and diamond indicator minerals in various areas.
Other Gems To Keep An Eye Out For
While you explore, keep a watch for one or two rarer formations that can occur in many gems.
- Japan Law Twin: two crystals attached at an unvarying angle of 84 degrees, 39 minutes.
- Scepter: two crystals, also joined with the larger crystal on the end of the smaller crystal
Where To Go Rockhounding In Montana
Where should you search for these treasures in the treasure state? This massive state offers a plethora of locations, (as does the nearby South Dakota). Many of which charge no entrance fee.
The information provided in this article by YesDirt.com is for informational purposes and is subject to change. Laws are updated. Accessibility guidelines and restrictions change. Be sure to confirm the land status and collection rules before you travel to an unfamiliar location or collect any material.
Beaverhead National Forrest and Butte Mineral and Gem Club maintain the Crystal Park, a byway located in the Pioneer Mountains.
You can prospect at 7,700 feet above sea level for just $5 per car.
The site opens Memorial Day and accepts visitors until Labor Day.
The park does not provide equipment, so you need your own screen and shovel.
This spot just southwest of Butte provides the opportunity to unearth amethyst scepter crystals and well-formed quartz.
Surrounded by a boundary fence, you can relieve yourself in portable toilets inside the park.
Calvert Hill Mine
Explore Calvert Hill Mine, located six miles west of Wise River for potential garnet, aquamarine, epidote, and scheelite finds.
The now-defunct tungsten mine makes it easy to find gems among its mine tailings and ponds. There is no entry fee. You simply drive up and hike down the ledge.
The Calvert Hill Mine was a surface mine that its owners filled with water before closing.
You should not drink the water, although it looks gorgeous.
Gallatin Petrified Forest
You need a permit to remove anything from the Gallatin Petrified Forest, but it is worth the time to obtain this permit in advance.
You can find crystallized or agatized petrified wood in the forest.
You can obtain your permit from the ranger stations in Bozeman, Gardiner and Livingston.
You may also find Montana agates in clear or white with orange, brown, and red interspersed.
You might get lucky and find some Madison Blue Agate, but you probably need to travel closer to Bozeman.
Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine
The family-owned commercial mine, Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine, allows its visitors to prospect for treasure.
Most people miss this opportunity because they hurry onto the major tourist sites of Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park for rockhounding northwest Montana style.
Their loss improves your chance to find a Montana sapphire.
You buy anything you need for mining at their business and ask questions of their employees.
Anaconda, Outside the Town of Lima
This area provides opportunities to find scheelite tailings and epidote, especially northeast of Georgetown Lake at Cable Mountain.
West of the lake you could find argillite or quartzite. Explore Lima, too.
You could unearth fossils, tempered rocks, and lava in its prehistoric seabeds.
These areas typically have no admittance fee.
Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine
You can rent mining equipment at The Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine and shop at its Gold Fever Rock Shop if you do not find any Montana sapphires on your own.
You do need to pay a small fee to prospect on the mine property. The mine, located on the Missouri River provides gravel terraces from which you can screen gravel for gemstone finds.
It makes a great stop on your way to Hauser Lake or Helena, Montana.
Stop at the Ruby Dam, on the way to Virginia City, to prospect for garnets.
Their translucent cranberry-color might make you at first mistake them for a ruby.
Fall, spring, and late summer provide the best times to visit since the water levels on the reservoir are lower.
You will need your own mesh screen or a gold pan.
You can find a few locations around the dam for panning for gold or garnets. Some charge a small fee while others are free.
Bannack State Park in Dillon
The ghost town of Bannack provides an exciting opportunity to explore how people lived in the mid-1800s.
During Old West times, Bannack teemed with activity since in 1862 prospectors discovered the first Montana gold here.
While the mines have closed, you can still look around and do a little prospecting on your own.
Lewistown, various sites
A few private claims in the area boast Yogo sapphire discoveries.
The Yogo sapphire gets its name from Yogo Creek where in 1879, prospectors struck gold.
It wasn’t a huge find and the numerous bright blue pebbles throughout the stream confounded them.
Without recognizing the pebbles or the vein of sapphire next them for what they were they walked away, and it wasn’t until 1894 that a property owner in the area sent a few of the blue gems to George Kunz, the chief gemologist at Tiffany’s.
Kunz, recognizing the find deemed the Yogo Sapphires “the finest precious gemstones ever found in the United States.”
You can mine for sapphires in two public areas — near Philipsburg and northwest of Canyon Ferry Lake near Helena.
Both of these options charge a small fee. You will sort and screen actual sapphire gravel.
They’re not all blue. You can find sapphires in translucent clear, pink, blue, orange, and green.
The finds in Southwest Montana range from gold to Dogtooth Calcite.
The area outside Bozeman also has Hyalite Opal and Montana Moonstone.
Check the local library when you visit to peruse local booklets and books that identify local finds and places in the region where you can pan or dig for gems or gold.
Two Medicine Dinosaur Center
Before you skip the out-of-the-way Dinosaur Trail, consider that this remote area sees few visitors because it is tucked away.
That makes it an ideal place for terrific fossil finds dating back to Montana’s prehistoric animal population. The center address is 120 2nd Avenue South, Bynum, MT, 59419.
Rockhounding Montana National Forests
For the entry fee to the national forest, you can generally prospect within it.
Many people do and each year the number of claims grows. When you find a gem on public lands, you can file a claim.
This gives you a right to mineral rights without your owning the land.
Essentially, you get to keep what you found.
If you go back to the same spot, you can keep what you find then, too, so long as another person did not file a claim faster than you did.
We discussed Gallatin already, but the other National Forests in the state also remains ripe for finds. These include:
- Deerlodge National Forest
- Custer National Forest
- Gallatin National Forest
- Helena National Forest
- Kootenai National Forest
- Kaniksu National Forest
- Beaverhead National Forest
- Lewis and Clark National Forest
- Cabinet Mountains National Forest
- Lolo National Forest.
The most prolific for claims, Deerlodge, has had more than 26,000 claims filed, but only about 2,300 remain active.
It also has the most active mines with 1,245. Custer has about 1,300 open claims.
Out of the entire collection of national forests in the state, you stand the best chance of finding a gemstone or gold or silver in these two areas.
Gallatin provides a wide range of finds and its active claim number nearly the same as Custer.
If you make a find, ask a ranger how to file a claim. Helena National Forest has nearly 800 active mines and nearly 1,100 active claims.
When exploring these forests, you must carefully access the areas.
Active mines should be marked as active claims should, but when in doubt, ask.
You do not get to keep what you find in someone else’s mine with an active claim. Determine where you can mine before you spend the time to find ore or gems.
If you explore the Cabinet Mountains, you will only find 14 active mines and only 164 active claims.
That does not mean the forest and its mountains have nothing to offer. It means reaching the ore can prove tough.
Most people exploring these areas stick to screening, panning, and digging with small, gardening-sized shovels.
Other methods exist, but you must check with the rangers to determine which means the federal government allows.
The active acreages in these parks vary from a little more than 3,000 to 48,000 acres.
These vast national parks still have areas not under active claim or mining. You will have plenty of areas to explore with no limitations except the national forest’s rules.
Rock Hunting and Mining Safety
If you explore a closed mine, inspect the outside for signage.
It may have been closed due to dangerous conditions.
Rockhounding should be fun.
Do not put yourself in danger to look for the next Lewis and Clark Diamond.
Do not drink the water.
Yes, it is Montana, not Mexico, but when commercial mines close, they typically get flooded with the water previously used to separate the ore from the tailings.
Tailings refer to the leftovers after the ore gets separated from the host rock and other minerals.
These tailings can be dangerous, such as the mine chat left behind when Oklahoma’s Pitcher mine closed.
The water used to flood these mines begins fresh but becomes poisonous during the ore separation process.
By the time it gets used in filing the mine, it has reached a poisonous level that cannot be mitigated.
Try to avoid exploring these waters, too.
Panning the rivers typically proves safe, but you should not drink, handle, wade, or swim in the waters dumped into abandoned mines.
Take plenty of bottled water with you.
You can also bring Borax tablets, but you cannot use them on the mine water.
You can use Borax tablets on the river water if you run out of drinking water.
Unless posted that it cannot be made potable most Montana rivers should provide water that can be made safe to drink by treating it with these Borax tablets, or by some other established backcountry water purification method.
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