The Sapphire Range is one of Montana’s most beautiful. While its peaks are not nearly as tall as the Bitterroot Range or the Anaconda-Pintler, the Sapphire Range does offer visitors and Montana locals plenty of opportunities to escape the hustle of life and enjoy the peace of the outdoors.
The Sapphire Mountains stretch from Missoula in the north to the east fork of the Bitterroot River in the south. The 85-mile-long range is filled with recreational opportunities and includes 320,000 acres that are roadless and 29,235 acres of federally designated wilderness area.
The Sapphire Range is named for the gem that made this area of Montana famous. In the 1890s when most of Montana’s mountains were being mined for gold, miners along Rock Creek carefully searched for sapphires. Montana sapphires were mined in this range for 110 years.
Today, visitors to the Sapphire Range can still try their hand at sapphire mining near Phillipsburg. However, the real draw to this mountain range is the wealth of recreational activities and access to pristine wilderness.
Sapphire Mountain Range Statistics
- Highest Elevation (ft/m) – 8999 feet (2743 meters)
- Most Recognizable Peak – Kent Peak
- Season (when can it be accessed) – All Year Around
Sapphire Mountains Recreation Activities
For many years, during and after the rush for Sapphires, this range was heavily used for logging. Much of the range is crossed with old logging roads. These abandoned roads make for great 4-wheeling and snowmobiling, and even a bit of low-key mountain biking.
However, these are not the only recreational activities that the Sapphires offer. There are plenty of hiking trails, campgrounds, and places to cast your line.
Though many visitors to this area come to enjoy the miles and miles of logging roads for motorized recreation, there is no shortage of places to hike in the Sapphires as well.
With much of the Sapphire range designated as wilderness, where motorized vehicles are not allowed, if you are looking for a peaceful hike where you can enjoy nature without the noise of 4-wheelers or cars, check out the trail offerings in the Welcome Creek Wilderness Area or the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area.
The northern part of the Sapphire Range is located in the Lolo National Forest and the southern part of the range is tucked into the Deerlodge National Forest. Both of these areas also offer plenty of hiking trails.
The Bitterroot National Forest also provides plenty of access to hiking trails.
Mountain biking is another popular, non-motorized activity in the Sapphire Range. Many of the trails within the National Forest areas are open to mountain bikes along with hikers.
However, you’ll need to be mindful of the trails you choose. Trails that pass from the National Forest to the Wilderness areas, will not be accessible for mountain bikes.
The Sapphire Range has plenty of spots to toss up a tent or park your camper. Many people enjoy the opportunity to hike to one of the many backcountry campgrounds located in the Sapphire Mountains.
However, if you are looking for something a bit less difficult to reach, one of the most popular campgrounds in the area, thanks to its location along Skalkaho Creek is the Black Bear Campground.
This forest service campground is located just off Highway 93 (Skalkaho Road) making it easily accessible to most vehicles.
Snowmobiling is one of the most popular activities in the Sapphire Range, thanks to miles and miles of old logging roads. Most of the logging roads are no longer in use, due to changes in logging rules. However, this loss is your gain if you love to snowmobile.
Do make sure that you are fully aware of where you are traveling on your snowmobile, however. Some logging roads cross into the wilderness areas in the Sapphire Range, and these areas prohibit motorized vehicles.
Entering the wilderness areas on your snowmobile could result in a hefty fine, so bring a map and follow it closely.
If you’re out to enjoy a bit of fishing while you’re in the Sapphire Range, you’ll be pleased to know that one of Montana’s best blue-ribbon streams is located in the Sapphire Range.
Rock Creek isn’t just known for its sapphires, it’s also one of the best trout fishing streams in Montana. Rock Creek runs along the east side of the Sapphires, near the town of Phillipsburg.
If you’d rather stay on the west side of the Sapphires, Skalkaho Creek is another great fly-fishing spot. It’s considered one of Montana’s best small-water fishing creeks.
Here you can practice your short casts and leave your waders behind.
Wildlife is abundant in the Sapphire Range. Besides the numerous acres of land designated as wilderness or wildlife preserve areas in the range, the area has seen a few recent wildfires that have opened up habitat and created lush, green meadows that are popular spots for deer, elk, and moose.
The Sapphires are also a great place to birdwatch, being along a migratory route for a number of songbird species.
Do be aware, that the Sapphire Range is home to two active wolf packs, as well as bears. If you are out in the wilderness hiking and watching for wildlife, make sure that you pack bear spray, bear bells and be fully aware of your surroundings.
Deer and elk are the two most popular game animals in the Sapphire Range. Elk herds in this mountain range are particularly large, and healthy, making the Sapphires a great place to hunt for elk.
Before hunting, make sure that you check the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks website for information on hunting licenses and regulations that pertain to game hunting in Montana.
Hunt for Sapphires
It may seem like a bit of a novelty, but one of the most popular activities for visitors to the Sapphire Range is to hunt for sapphires. Rock Creek was once home to one of the largest sapphire mines in the world.
The placer formation of this creek was a bust for gold miners, but for over 100 years, was even more productive than the sapphire mines in the Yolo region of Montana.
If you want to try your luck mining for sapphires in the Sapphire Range, visit Gem Mountain Sapphire Mine located off Highway 38 between Philipsburg and Hamilton.
They offer visitors the opportunity to sift through gravel from the mine in search of sapphires. There is a small fee for the bucket of gravel, and for an additional fee, you can have any sapphires you find polished and cut, ready for a beautiful piece of jewelry.
Drive the Skalkaho Pass Road
This road is known as Skalkaho Pass Road by locals, but for the rest of us, this road is Highway 38. This scenic road connects the Flint Creek Valley and the Bitterroot valley with a steep, winding road over Skalkaho Pass.
One of the highlights of this road is Skalkaho Falls. These impressive waterfalls are right off the road, so no hiking is necessary.
The Skalkaho Pass Road is a great spot to camp, with a number of Forest Service campgrounds along the route. Oh, and if you’re into fly fishing, the road follows Skalkaho Creek, which is well known for its trout fishery.
Sapphire Mountains Trail Routes
Wyman Trail #226
Pick up the trailhead for this trail along Rock Creek Road. The 7-mile hike wanders you above the Skalkaho Game Preserve, where it opens up to wide meadows that offer amazing views of the Bitterroot Mountains, and the Rock Creek Valley.
Gird Trail #86
This trail is best for the experienced hiker. With plenty of steep climbs and steep descents that you’ll scramble down, this is a big hike, and there’s no easy way out if you are over your head.
This is a point-to-point trail that intersects with the Alternate Palisades Trail #44. The total trail distance is 5.5-miles, with 1,700 feet of elevation gain.
Chaffin Butte Trail
The Chaffin Butte Trail is a short and easy 2-mile hike that passes through the valley sagebrush up to the top of Chaffin Butte.
From the top of the butte you’ll have perfect views of the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains. While this hike is pretty easy, it does have some good elevation gain from the parking lot.
Also, you’ll pass an archaeological site along the trail, for some extra interest.
Note: This trail is currently closed, you can check updates on AllTrails for when it is open once again.
Willow Creek to the Palisades Trail #300
One of the longer hikes in the Sapphires is the Willow Creek to Palisades trail. This trail is a 9-mile round trip hike, but it is well worth the 9-miles of walking. This hike provides a variety of environments to walk through including pine forests and wildflower meadows.
If you want to scale the Sapphires, and summit where you’ll have some of the most amazing views, the Rooster Comb trails is your hike.
The trail on this hike can be faint, but if you stick with the hike along the ridge, you’ll reach the summit, where you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views.