June 1st – 12th, 2011
Our big adventure of the summer was a trip to Montana and Idaho. I had planned this trip for 2010 but scheduling problems forced us to postpone it. This time everything fell in place, and our trip was on! My wife Litha took detailed notes along the way.
We left at 7:30am on a warm Wednesday morning, and drove all the way to our first campground near a lake which turned out to be a mosquito nightmare. We spent about two hours killing the little vampires inside the van before we could get some sleep.
The next morning we drove into Wisconsin where a deer almost darted in front of our van, but wisely turned at the last minute. There was lots of road construction in Duluth, and I decided to take US2 to 200 west which seemed like a much more peaceful drive than through the Minneapolis area. We drove through the north woods of Minnesota, and on through Fargo all the way to Bismarck, North Dakota, where the campground I had planned to stay in was right next to the now flooding Missouri River. We found a hotel for the night instead.
I told Litha that this would be a ‘day of wows’. Neither of us had ever been to the Rocky Mountains, and today we would see them for the first time. West of Bismarck we started seeing the buttes that the west is so well known for. Driving in western North Dakota the buttes continued until at one point the road curved and the amazing badlands formation of the Painted Canyon opened up before us. We couldn’t help but stop at the National Park overlook area and get some pictures. This area was in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
On into Montana where the road passed the Yellowstone River, known for its Montana Agates. You could tell the river was much higher than normal. Trees don’t normally grow in the river like that. Here the hills started looking more like mountains until just a little way west of Billings we had our next ‘wow’ moment. The snowcapped Beartooth mountain range came into view.
The morning sun warmed the eastern side of the mountains.
We drove on past Butte and over the continental divide at an elevation of 6393ft for the first time. On into north west Montana toward the Idaho panhandle. Lots of snow capped mountains. Near the Idaho border we stopped at a rest area, had lunch and fed some very tame prairie dogs (at least I think that’s what they were).
Practiced the art of downshifting on the long steep “Lookout Pass”. Saw signs for a street fair in Wallace, Idaho and stopped to walk the town. Beautiful historic little mining town.
After shopping around for an hour or so we moved on and found State Highway 3, “White Pine Scenic Byway” which is an adventure in itself; lots of blind curves, hills, steep grades, lakes, and even an area called ‘Hell’s Gulch’. This two lane highway led through Fernwood to the logging road to the Emerald Creek Garnet area.
Much of this logging road was washboard bumpy, and I got a bit concerned about the van being rattled to bits this far from home.
We got our site at the Garnet Creek campground and then drove down to the parking area for the collecting spot. We were surprised to see spanish moss hanging from the fir trees and realized that this must be a temperate rainforest.
I knew it was a little late in the day to start sluicing for Garnets, but I wanted to go up and get acquainted with the place, so we walked up the road which is gated making it a foot path only, stopping once to catch our breath, and met the young forest service people who were running the sluicing area that day. I saw the big stock pile of yellow sandy clay that the Garnets are found in; and checked out the sluicing area. It looked pretty simple, and I was eager to get started the next morning. We returned to our mosquito infested campsite, where I found a stack of firewood a previous camper had left, but recent rains had made everything wet. I had a heck of a time getting a fire started to cook dinner. Eventually, with dinner finished we escaped back into the van to get away from the little bloodsucking monsters.
We were awoken early by some little critter chewing on the van. I stepped out to scare it away but never saw what it was. We had breakfast and drove down the bumpy road to the parking area.
We hiked downhill from the parking area for about an hour. Trilliums and trout lilies were blooming, and spanish moss hung in the cedar and fir trees. We returned just in time for the sluicing area to open up and took the half mile uphill road to the check-in area. The forest service staff were friendly and helpful, and in no time we were sluicing like pros. Here’s a picture Litha took of me in the sifting area.
You can see the clay stock pile on the right, and the sluices on the hillside at the left. We sluiced through the morning and returned to the van for lunch, then
hiked back up and continued. Fill up your buckets, sift, sluice, dump your tailings in the proper spot and repeat. We were told that this was a slow day, but at times people were elbow to elbow at the sluices. I met a nice guy named Harlan, told him our next stop was Gem Mountain in Montana, and he showed us a typical Sapphire you might find there. He had just been there the week before. He told us about hunting for Sunstones in Oregon, and even gave me a little Sunstone he had with him. I continued sluicing until about 4:00 when my back decided it was time to quit. Between us, we found 13 ounces of Garnets that day and found at least one ‘woo hoo’ as Harlan would say.
Our plan was to return for a second day of sluicing, but my back would be the judge of that. At camp I found some drier firewood and made a decent cooking fire. The mosquitoes soon drove us inside for the night.
We woke again to the sound of a critter chewing on the van, and I got a bit concerned. If whatever it was chewed on the wrong wire we could be in trouble. That and my sore back made me decide to head back toward Montana, but first we would make another stop in Wallace. On the way from the campground to hwy 3 I stopped to get a picture of this blue flower I later would learn is called a Camas Lily.
Back in Wallace, we got some groceries and found a laundromat to do some washing up, and while the loads were running we shopped around town. Wallace is right in the middle of silver mining territory, and there was an investment office that sold silver stock and other investments called Pennaluna & Co.
They had silver ore samples in the window for sale, and being a silver lover, I couldn’t help but go in and get a few specimens.
He even sold me a vintage mine stock paper he had in the window.
While in town I found a t-shirt for the local school sports team, the “Wallace Miners”, and at an antique shop I found a nice antique miners lamp for my collection. When the laundry was done we headed back to Montana. Lookout Pass with its long uphill slope gave all six cylinders in my van a work out. Lots more road construction. One thing we noticed was that just about any gas or fueling station in Montana has a casino of sorts. Still some wild in the west…
From expressway 90 we turned south on hwy 1 toward Philipsburg, and on the way we saw a unique sight. This area, like most of Montana, is cattle land, and in one village there was a dead tree COVERED in cow skulls. I wish we had taken a picture.
In Philipsburg we stopped at the Gem Mountain shop and got directions to the mine, and we were told there was free camping right at the mine. We bought some dry firewood in town and drove the 17 or so miles into the mountains to the mine. On the way we had one of our best wildlife sightings of the trip. Right on the steep cliff beside the road we saw this Bighorn sheep.
It looked like it had found a spot in the cliff that had some tasty minerals. We moved on and found the drive to Gem Mountain mine.
We picked out a campsite and I started to prepare a fire for dinner, when a very talkative older couple from Washington came over and introduced themselves. Long story short, we now have new Christmas card trading friends. Eventually we were able to get some dinner and retire for the night.
We were up early and running low on good water, so we drove back into Philipsburg and found a grocery store, and did some shopping in town. We stopped at Opal Mountain Gems and talked to the guy in there. I bought a couple bags of potential Sapphire gravel from him. I mentioned that we would be going to Spencer, Idaho for opal, and he knew the town well and suggested the best places to shop. After that we drove back to the mine and got our introduction in sluicing for Sapphires.
I caught on quickly and soon we were finding several nice small corundum and sapphire gem stones in each screen. I also found one lime green stone I was told is called Limetite, and decided to keep it.
At one point on this cold rainy day, a bus load of lucky school kids pulled in and they all got their chance to sift for Sapphires. After sifting two buckets we had found four small vials of Sapphires and other corundum. When finished, we drove back into town to the Gem Mountain shop and found a sweatshirt my size, and then took hwy 1 southwest through a winding mountain pass with steep cliffs, and then on to the city of Anaconda, where we found a Subway and got our dinner. This town is a story in itself with a huge mine including a giant smoke stack and great architecture down town.
From there we connected back up with expressway 90, and then south to 15 which would take us down to the eastern part of Idaho, and the Opal town of Spencer. On expressway 15 we stopped at a rest area to eat our subs where we saw a sign about the history of that part of the country.
The sign reads:
“Along in the 1840s the Americans were like they are now, seething to go somewhere. It got around that Oregon was quite a place. The Iowa people hadn’t located California yet. A wagon train pulled out across the plains and made it to Oregon. Then everyone broke out in a rash to be going west.
They packed their Prairie Schooners with their household goods, Gods, and garden tools. Outside of Indians, prairie fires, cholera, famine, cyclones, cloud bursts, quicksand, snow slides, and blizzards, they had a tolerably blithe and gay trip.
When gold was found in Montana some of them forked off from the main highway and surged along this trail aiming to reach the rainbow’s end. It was mostly one way traffic, but if they did meet a back tracking outfit there was plenty of room to turn out.”
After eating dinner we continued south past Dillon, and north west of Monida we must have been climbing in elevation because there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. Garfield Mountain and the Lima peaks were beautiful, classic snow capped visions of what you expect from mountains in the west.
After re-entering Idaho we found the Targhee National Forest and Stoddard Creek Campground with its fantastic valley scenery. It rained throughout the night.
After breakfast we drove into the small town of Spencer, and following the advice we got in Philipsburg, stopped at the first rock shop on the right called “Hot Rocks” where I found a type of Opal called ‘Ice Cream Opal’, white with swirls of pink, which should make some very nice cabs. I also found a couple of Opals with some thin layers of fire, some blue agate from Montana, and an unnamed type of picture Jasper. We moved on to the Spencer Opal Mine and Cafe and tried our luck digging in their stockpile without much luck. I found one small piece with a little fire. Next we moved up the street to the Opal Mountain Mine owned by Bob and Susan Thompson, who are trying to sell their shop and mine. There I bought a jar of pre-lapped rough Opal, each stone showing really nice fire. I’ve also learned how difficult it is to photograph the fire of a good Opal. Here are my best attempts.
I also got some quartz caps for the future triplets I intend to make.
From there we went to the south side of town to High Country Opal ‘The Opal Store’ and bought a nice specimen with many layers of fire.
Unfortunately none of the Opal mines in town currently allow digging at the actual mine, so after that we drove back to Dillon, Montana for some lunch, where we decided to drive up into the mountains and give Crystal Park a try. Crystal Park lies along the Pioneer Mountains National Scenic Byway, south of Wise River, Montana. It is operated by the National Forest Service, and during the summer months there is a minimal fee to use the parking area. I had been warned ahead of time that even in early summer you might encounter snow at the park. At an elevation of 7,800ft the snow can last quite a while. Up and up we drove, seeing more snow as we went. Wonderful mountain landscapes! Eventually we located the park, but there was about two feet of snow blocking the entrance to the parking area! Still, there was enough room to pull off the road, so I decided to give it a try.
We walked into the park, over slippery ice covered snow drifts. Breathing is noticeably more difficult at that elevation, and for us lowlanders it can be hard to catch your breath even standing still. I found a likely spot where someone had started a hole and dug into the wall.
I must have spent a couple of hours digging in that spot and found a few nice crystals including one very nice little scepter.
The day was getting on, so we left to find a campsite, intending to do some more serious digging the next day. That night it rained most of the night, but early in the morning the rain stopped tapping on the top of our van, so I had my hopes up about the coming dig…. until I stuck my head out of the sleeping bag. It was COLD. I got up to start up the van for some heat and got a shock looking outside. The rain had just turned to snow, heavy snow!
This changed everything. I didn’t intend to get stranded up in the mountains during a snow storm, so we quickly ate breakfast and, as much as I hated to leave, got the heck out of there. Here’s what the road looked like going north to Wise River.
By the time we got down to the elevation of Wise River the snow had changed to rain, and it was time to make new plans. While researching the 2010 trip that didn’t happen, I looked for other Sapphire mines in Montana, and one place I found was the Spokane Sapphire Mine near the state capitol of Helena. Going on two year old memories, this was my next planned stop. After a bit of searching I located the sign that led to the mine.
Here they sell different grades of Sapphire gravel starting at $75.00, so we bought the cheap one and began sifting our gravel.
It was a cold, raw, windy day and I only had the tolerance to sift one bag of gravel, but we found a few nice Sapphires. When finished, the attendant inside separated out the best faceting grade stones, pictured here.
… and the rest of the Corundum and Sapphires we found.
At this mine there is always a slim chance of finding gold nuggets in your gravel, but we didn’t find any in our bag.
When we were done, we drove back into Helena and found an International House of Pancakes for lunch, one of the best meals we had on the whole trip, and then headed back in the direction of home. East of Helena we saw an antelope in a field next to the road. Outside of Billings the mountains turn to buttes and mesas. We stayed at a Sleep Inn in Billings for the night.
We awoke to a sunny 51F degree day, and were out of Billings by 8:00am. All the rivers we crossed were over their banks. Near Forsyth we saw a hand made sign along the expressway selling agates, so I pulled off and we found the house of a very nice man named Perry. He had literally tons of Montana agates filling old bath tubs and around some small buildings. I found a small box of pre-cut agate slabs and bought them from him.
Here are some of the nicer ones I’ve found in the box so far.
He also had a few antiques for sale, and I found a few interesting pieces, including an old 1950s bug sprayer made in Saranac, Michigan that wanted to come back to home with me. We thanked Perry and headed back east.
When we first came west through Montana, we saw a sign for the Glendive Dinosaur Museum and decided that if we had time we would stop, so on our way back east we stopped to check it out. It turns out to not be a real scientific museum at all, but I will save that discussion for another time and place…
At 1:47pm we passed back into North Dakota, and stopped again at Painted Canyon for t shirts and photos, and right in the grassy area in the parking lot there were two beautiful Bison resting in the grass, and I got this great picture out the window of the van.
These wild beauties can get up to 2,000 pounds and sprint 3 times faster than a human. NEVER approach one on foot!
Driving through Bismarck Litha snapped a quick photo as we drove over the now flooding Missouri River.
My outdated road atlas showed a campground at Lake George, near Medina, so we turned off to find it, but its not there anymore. Driving back to the expressway a Fox crossed the road in front of us, being chased by a Deer! LOL!
We drove on to Jamestown and checked into a Holiday Inn Express and ate dinner at the neighboring Pizza Ranch; good food and a great hotel to rest for the night.
East of Jamestown there were no more buttes, just flat agricultural land with lots of standing water. We were back in Moorehead, Minnesota by 9:56am, and stopped at a nice park in Nevis to eat lunch. It was a lakefront park with a changing house and playground from the 1950s. There were even some hardy folks swimming in this cool weather (it was only 62F degrees out). At 3:17 pm we passed through Duluth and over the bridge into Wisconsin. In Wisconsin we stopped at two antique shops to hunt for goodies. Next we stopped at a Subway for dinner, and an A&W drive-in for rootbeer floats. We made it back into Michigan to our campground by the lake I’ll refer to as Mosquito Hell. This time I was ready for them and not so many followed me into the van when paying the camping fee.
We awoke to cold temps in the 40s, with the Mosquitoes still active outside the van and left at 7:15am. Along US2 we saw a Coyote, and with no traffic behind us, I slowed down. The little guy co-operated for a photo shoot.
We were over the Mackinaw Bridge and back to our ‘palm of the mitten’ home by 7:30pm. I drove 4,664 miles and we experienced some less than perfect weather, but had no serious problems with the van, and did everything we had intended and then some. It was a trip Litha and I will always remember.
Thanks for checking out my report!