By Stacey Leasca
July 02, 2019
Stacey Leasca

It’s a freezing January day in Montana when I willingly dip my hands into a barrel of equally chilling water. My hands quickly go numb, but my eyes stay laser-focused on the pan filled with the rocks I’m diligently sifting through.

Inch by inch I search around each individual rock, plucking out stray twigs and washing away the last vestiges of dirt. The thrill of it all keeps my heart pumping and my mind off the prickly pins-and-needles feeling creeping up my arms.

This icy adventure isn’t for naught, because I’m on a mission to find a teeny, tiny sapphire hidden inside the murky water.

I'm staying at Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana, near the Idaho border. A 90-minute drive from the Missoula airport, Triple Creek Ranch is nestled inside 800 acres on the main ranch, which is then surrounded by another 26,000 acres of lush Montana forest.

Though it's an adults-only resort, it’s a place where people of all ages can feel like kids again.

Stacey Leasca

Each log cabin comes outfitted in the Old West style visitors crave when coming to a place like this, including plush leather couches facing a burning fireplace, a wooden, log-framed bed, and soft, thick blankets. Of course, each one comes with a stunning view of the Montana skyline that envelopes you like a warm hug from Mother Nature.

While it would be tempting to just stay inside all day and night and drink in the views from your personal porch, Triple Creek Ranch has too much to offer.

Just up the hill from the cabins sits its barn filled with ponies ready to take guests on short adventures or on a day-long journey through its vast private wilderness.

Stacey Leasca

Up the road a bit, the ranch offers mountain biking in the spring, winter, and fall, along with fat tire biking and snowshoeing in the winter. And, for those looking to get up-close and personal with the animal life on the farm, the crew at Triple Creek Ranch will happily take you for a drive through its private buffalo herd where a fuzzy baby or two may venture toward your car to check out the scene. They’ll even hook you up with the nearby dog sledding company, Evermore Adventures, for a thrilling ride through the backcountry when the weather permits.

Stacey Leasca

But, the best adventure of all is sapphire panning.

Montana itself is a gem, but lurking beneath its rivers is a literal goldmine. And guests on the property are invited to try their hand at panning themselves.

During the warmer months guests can sit riverside to try and find their own little sparkler, but even in the winter Triple Creek ensures guests can get in on the fun in its private panning room.

Inside, it’s a sort of choose your own adventure story. You pick a bag filled with dirt from the nearby river, scoop out as much or as little as you’d like, and start panning.

The process begins in that icy bath where you must carefully but thoroughly wash the rocks you chose. Sift back and forth, front and back, until you have your desired level of shine.

Next, guests take their pan to a table where they have to thoughtfully flip it over like a pan-fried egg without breaking the yoke. That way, your little rocks will sit tidily in a square formation. And, upon flipping, any larger gems can be found squarely on top; they are denser than the river rocks surrounding them, so they fall to the bottom of your pan.

But if you don't see anything right away, that's OK. All you’ve got to do is spend more time plucking through each and every stone until you find what you’re looking for.

Stacey Leasca

This is tedious work, but the fun is in the hunt. You quickly build a bond with the other guests, excitedly asking, “Do you think this is one?” and discussing the fabled multi-karat finds from previous guests. Though we all wanted success for our fellow panning compatriots, secretly we wanted to find the big one for ourselves.

After what seemed like hours I nearly gave up, until about my fourth or fifth pan. And there she was, a perfectly round, clear white sapphire. Though it was no more than a chip, it didn’t matter because I worked for it and found it all on my own.

The staff at Triple Creek played along like it was a big find, and I wholly appreciated their efforts in making me feel like a winning explorer during the gold rush.

As I departed the property the staff put my little finding in a vile so I could savor it forever. Though, every time I look at it now, I realize that one visit to this sparkling gem of a ranch just simply isn’t enough.