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A Montana Trek

by Jay Bates

June 2005

On June 18 I left the San Francisco Bay area at around 5:00 am en route to Lewistown, Montana. I had my Jeep loaded including a car top carrier, with all the camping, digging and fishing gear I could squeeze-in and allow a place for me to sleep with the cooler removed. I pretty much maintained a steady uneventful course until I got to near Jackpot, Nevada where I left the pavement and headed into the Hubbard Basin to look for petrified wood.

At Hubbard Basin I found to my dismay that someone, probably the BLM after complaints from a grazing lessee, had bulldozed in the lovely holes where I had found such beautiful pieces of agatized wood the previous Summer. Not knowing where to dig, I floundered around a bit, digging here and there, then deciding to search the area for stray pieces of petrified wood. I did find some pieces, but none as lovely as those I had previously found digging.

Somewhat disappointed I headed back to the pavement to look for a place to camp for the night since rain seemed eminent and I did not want to get stranded in the back country on rain soaked snotty clay roads, as I had miles to travel to meet up with my brothers Lee and Scott. After heading down US Route 93 a few miles, I found a nice camping spot on Salmon Creek Reservoir. I cooked myself supper with a couple Golden Eagle and Nighthawks soaring and wheeling through the sky above. I got a good restful night's sleep before heading north to cross the Snake River Canyon, always a noteworthy event.

The following day I drove to Helena, Montana and camped at Hauser Lake. Next morning I went to Spokane Bar where I purchased a 75 pound bag of Eldorado sapphire gravel for future screening. I then drove to on Lewistown, via Great Falls, and met my brothers there. Since it had started to rain we needed to find a place to camp for the night. Scott, who lives in Whitefish, was aware of a Giant Warm Springs outside of Lewistown where the locals went to swim. We went up to the ranch house asked if we could camp at the springs. The rancher, seeing the rain, informed us we could camp there and that there was a Quonset hut there where we could get out of the rain. He indicated he would catch up with us later and collect $2.50 per night for us camping there. When we got there we found a large disk from a plow the rancher had welded legs on for a fire pit and dragged it into the front of the Quonset hut for a cozy fire prior to retiring for the night.

Warm Springs

My Jeep and the quonset hut

The next morning we assembled our fishing gear and headed downstream on Warm Springs Creek for some fishing. I caught a smallmouth bass and a huge carp. I saw some brown trout, but they didn't bite. Back at Warm Springs I put on my swim suit and tested the waters. The Warm Springs is not very warm, around 70 degrees, and is huge, gushing thousands of gallons of drinkable water to form a large creek. Several of the local denizens had showed up and were also swimming. Apparently we were somewhat of a curiosity, foreigners camping at their local swimming hole, and several wandered over to be friendly and chat. One, a local wheat farmer, had previously lived in the Bay area and spent a couple hours with us and the rancher/owner of the springs talking about ranching, haying, and the sights to be seen around Lewistown. The rancher had a Australian sheep dog he had sheared of his long hair for the Summer. Unfortunately with his hair shaved off, his testicles got sunburned. It just goes to show you that when you mess with nature, there are unanticipated consequences.

The next morning we headed for the Missouri Breaks. We were planning to take a jeep trail that started in a farmer's front yard, so when we crossed the Missouri River by ferry we called ahead to get permission to go through his yard. In spite of the farmer's reservations, we were allowed through only to find the trail so muddy as to be impassible. We backtracked and found another road in better shape that we took and got some splendid views and photos of the Missouri Breaks country. The Missouri Breaks, during prohibition, were a haven for bootleggers. Pieces of stills can still be found. Over the years, it has been a refuge for outlaws, hermits and other social misfits. On one road we espied a couple big mule deer bucks with what appeared to have Boone and Crockett eligible horns.

Road to the ferry


Missouri Breaks scenery

The next day we headed for the Judith Mountains to check out some ghost towns and find some double terminated smokey quartz crystals, locally known as Montana "diamonds" We found some, but the quality was somewhat lacking, although the shape was interesting.

Montana "diamonds"

We then headed to a couple old mining towns at Zortman and Zandusky near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. At Zortman, a couple Indians in a beat up pickup truck showed up at the local store and the driver informed us how great his old truck was, and how it was just like his wife. Back at Warm Springs we sat around in our chairs and observed the rituals of the local denizens of the North American steppes as they proceeded to court each other and perform manhood rituals of throwing each other into the cold water. A couple curious teenage girls in cutoffs wandered over to show us a leg and claw of a raven and ask us what it was.

The following morning we headed out into the steppes to look for petrified wood at a secret location we had promised to not reveal. We found plenty of nice agatized wood and several baculites, some with shell. We also found a coyote den which was quickly deserted by a bitch and a half-grown pup. The den stunk with bones and bits of fur scattered about.

Montana wood


More Montana wood

The next day Scott left to return home for work and Lee and I headed to the Big Hole River to meet up with my club, the San Francisco Gem and Mineral Society. We went on to the Lewis and Clark Caverns, screened for garnets near Nevada City, and spent the night at Potosi Hot Springs. I highly recommend both the Lewis and Clark Caverns, which are more like caving then any other cave tour I have ever been on, and Potosi Hot Springs, which while somewhat primitive and isolated is of excellent temperature.

Potosi Hot Springs

The following day we caught up with my club who were dribbling in from the long trek from the coast. We camped at the Andaconda Sportsman's Club on the Big Hole River where we each became members for the year for $5.00, allowing us to camp there as long as we wanted. The camp host even brought over some firewood for free. We quickly put up some tarps for cover as it was drizzling rain. After a quick supper, we sat around under the tarps and got caught up on the recent tales and adventures of various club members.

With the warming sun peaking through the clouds in the morning, we headed over to Calvert Hill to look for various mineral specimens. Robert Campbell and I worked some seams of epidote crystals in quartz. We were able to find some specimen crystals of blue beryl or aquamarine. We were also able to pry loose a few nice epidote crystals. Others found garnets, agate, and other minerals.

Aquamarine Crystals

Calvert Hill Pit

The wet weather cleared somewhat the following morning and we headed to Crystal Park to dig quartz and amethyst crystals. On the way, we passed a large herd of Rocky Mountain elk. Everyone found some crystals, but no one found any real pockets. We did find some large crystals of a couple inches in length. In the afternoon the thunderheads built up and the rains returned. Lee and I headed to the Elkhorn Hot Springs for a well deserved hot soak and a hot restaurant meal for a change. Lee was tired of eating the meals I cooked, and the unpleasant affects of beans. Others headed to Coolidge and other ghost mining towns in the local hills.

Quartz crystals from Crystal Park.

The next morning we headed to Gem Mountain to screen for sapphires. From seven buckets of gravel I got 80 carats of sapphires including 20 carats of facetable stones. In the afternoon Lee and I along with Bob Kozak went to Coolidge for a tour of the ghost town, mine and remnants of the mill.

We found old blasting caps on the tailings at Castle Mountain. Very dangerous.

Clockwise: Garnets, Sapphires from Eldorado, Sapphires from Gem Mountain

Lee Bates at Castle Mountain

Me on headframe at Castle Mountain

Blasting caps

Kilns near Castle Mountain for making charcoal
for a smelter for processing ore

Marmot in Coolidge ruins

Mine adit

Montana wildflowers

Montana mountains

The following day both Lee and I left the group, tired of camping, and headed home, arriving after a successful uneventful trek.

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San Francisco, CA 94122


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