With no educational level, dollar amount, or age requirement necessary to begin, rockhounding—the collecting of rocks and minerals—is an enjoyable way for the whole family to spend time together. Plus, the potential of finding something of monetary value in our mountains has a certain level of appeal—we’re called the Treasure State for a reason, you know. So grab your backpack, gloves, and magnifying glass (plus a rock hammer if you’ve got one)—here’s an area guide that’ll have you ‘hounding by this afternoon.
Whether crystallized or agatized, petrified wood can be found in many of the surrounding mountains and streams. A wonderful day trip is to visit the Gallatin Petrified Forest, just south of Livingston in the Tom Miner Basin. This site is geologically unique because many of the trees were petrified in the upright position. You will need a permit to collect samples here because it’s on national forest land, but the permit is free and available at the ranger stations in Bozeman, Livingston, and Gardiner. There is also a half-mile interpretive trail that highlights petrified wood stumps.
The closest location to find these is Crystal Park, located in the Pioneer Mountains, northwest of Dillon near Polaris. Crystal Park is truly a Montana treasure, offering approximately 30 acres of area open for crystal digging. This resource is open from mid-May to mid-October and they charge a small fee ($5 per vehicle) to maintain the facilities. Here, quartz crystals can be clear, purple (amethyst), brown/black (smokey), or tri-color with all three shades in one crystal.
These cranberry-colored translucent gems can be found at Ruby Reservoir above Ruby Dam near Virginia City. The best time to visit is when the water is low—generally in early spring or late summer. Here, a small mesh screen comes in handy to separate the garnets from the sand. However, a gold pan or pie plate can also be used. A leisurely way to find garnets is to walk slowly toward the sun with your eyes glued to the top of the sand. If the sun is positioned correctly, cranberry glints of light will catch your eye.
The most famous gems in Montana, Yogo sapphires are the only commercially available naturally colored sapphires in the state. While they’re primarily found on private claims near Lewistown, there are two wonderful places to mine for your own: one is near Philipsburg and the other is south of Helena, northwest of Canyon Ferry Lake. Both places charge a fee, but you can sort through actual sapphire gravel with the owner’s knowledgeable staff helping you find the goods. They’ll appear as mostly translucent blue, green, orange, pink, and clear. When they’re heat-treated, however, the colors are intensified beautifully.
Patti Albrecht runs Earth’s Treasures in downtown Bozeman.