Sapphire Panning, Ranches & Wildlife in Montana

Certain high-adrenalin sports are meant to be addictive, but surely nothing is as addictive as sapphire panning. Certainly high adrenalin plays no part, but once you have found that first sapphire amongst the thousands of pieces of gravel, dust and stone, there’s no going back. You will be hooked forever with an addiction that no amount of psychiatry or counselling will cure!

Sapphire panning has come to me late in life. The thought had never crossed my mind until I was staying at the uber-luxury Triple Creek Ranch, just outside Darby in Montana, USA. Triple Creek is no ordinary ranch, in fact it is more like a country club surrounded by breath taking scenery with outstanding service and superb cuisine. The brainchild of Craig Barrett (formerly CEO of Intel) and his wife Barbara (a trained astronaut and allegedly the only woman ever to have landed an F-16 on an aircraft carrier), this is a place where attention to detail goes over and above expectation. I never did discover how, arriving very late one night, I walked into the dining room from my car and all the staff seemed to know my name….and I wasn’t the only arrival that night.

Sapphire panning

Sapphire panning

Activities abound at Triple Creek and I have to say that of all the ranches I stayed at, whilst it was by no means the most ‘authentic’ (it’s not meant to be), their horses were second to none. I rode King, a draft horse with the most lovely temperament and a hefty dose of fire in his belly – if I could have fitted him in the back of my car, I might have secreted him away…so much more exciting than the delightful fluffy white bathrobe. I have done a lot of riding in my life but he was truly one of the best…such was our extraordinary bond that I couldn’t bear to part company with him. Feel like a cattle drive? They will organise it. And if riding is not your grab, there is excellent fly fishing on the Bitterroot River….or better still, a float trip with fly rods. Or walk the trails through the most beautiful country imaginable. Float over the scenery in a hot air balloon or sit with a good book in your private hot tub.

Or go sapphire panning! Behind the stables lies a dozen bags or so of ‘dirt’ from the Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine in Phillipsburg….and here is the beauty…all the hard work of mine extraction is already done! You simply put on an industrial apron and pair of neoprene gloves (your hands will spend a lot of time immersed in very cold water) and tip a small quantity of dirt into a large miners sieve. Once the dust has been shaken out, you then immerse the entire sieve in a large water trough, rotating it forward and backwards and from side to side. The theory is that any sapphires (being heavier) will fall to the bottom. You then tip the entire sieve load upside down on an inspection table, carefully searching with a pair of tweezers for the ultimate sapphire. I found about 40 over the course of an afternoon, of which 15 were judged sufficiently large to send to the assay office at Gem Mountain. These were evaluated and I was informed that in actual fact, five stones were of excellent quality and would be worth sending for heat treatment and cutting. This of course, is just the tip of the ice berg, as you then find that apart from the cost of commissioning the latter, wives and daughters suddenly become very expectant in terms of having a piece of stunning jewellery made using the finished sapphires. So like all great things in life, there is a price to pay!

Riding at Ranch at Rock Creek

Riding at Ranch at Rock Creek

From the delightful Triple Creek Ranch, I headed east on Montana Highway 38 across the 45 mile dirt road Skalkaho Pass to the Ranch at Rock Creek, just outside Phillipsburg. This is a wonderfully authentic ranch with accommodation either in the Granite Lodge, in delightful timber built private houses, or even in superb ‘tented cabins’, a wonderful hybrid of both tents and cabins situated next to the meandering Rock Creek. Whilst Triple Creek doesn’t take children under 16, this ranch is the ultimate gung-ho, ride ‘em cowboy, ‘must have’ ranch experience. The scenery is quite simply magical, wagon rides, cook outs, line dancing, mountain biking, trout fishing, shooting, archery, paintball and a high ropes course…..the list goes on and on. Rather like being on safari in Africa, one is plied with food from dawn till dusk and inevitably, the plate of fresh baked cookies left on the bar proves how wafer thin is the veneer between iron will and human frailty. So expect to put on a few pounds, spend a few more (the best ranches are expensive but are at least all inclusive) but above all, enjoy all the fun of a ranch and especially, watching your children ensconced in the ultimate seventh heaven. It doesn’t matter at all whether you like horses, as if you don’t, there is so much to do that is non-equine. The caveat… early as all the best places are fully booked for the summer by early on in the New Year.

Old Faithful - Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful – Yellowstone National Park

And finally, to go to Montana without spending a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park would be a tragedy. This is an unbelievable place. Awe inspiring. The first national park in the world gazetted in 1872. Created by a massive volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago, it is essentially a super-wide caldera of some 45 miles containing 60% of the world’s geysers and home to 5,000 bison, over 500 black bears, 200 grizzly bears and 100 wolves. What is truly special is the pure diversity of topography and geology with spurting geysers, bubbling mud holes, smoking chimneys, pristine rivers, forests of larch, spruce and silver birch, stunning valleys heralded by spectacular waterfalls and the iconic Lemar Valley, known as the Serengeti of America. Do not miss it for anything but beware, there is currently no particularly good accommodation in the park which means you either have to suck up what’s there or stay further afield in Jackson, approximately a 1.5 hour drive from the south entrance. There are pros and cons to both options but a sensible solution is usually possible once we understand the make-up of your party.

George Morgan-Grenville


“We must not only protect the country side and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”

– Lyndon B. Johnson



For further information on ranch holidays in  Montana – and elsewhere in America – contact our specialist team on 01242 787800.