Top Things to Do in Philipsburg, MT: Sapphires, Ghost Towns & More
Forget silver and gold. When it comes to Philipsburg, Montana, it’s all about the silver and sapphires.
Philipsburg is a southwest Montana town located off Highway 1 about halfway between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
For those who want to get off the Interstate and take the more scenic route between Glacier and Yellowstone, Highway 1 is a good option, with Philipsburg serving as a good resting point on that drive.
Stay a few hours or stay the night and really get to know Philipsburg.
Philipsburg, MT History
Philipsburg was once a thriving silver mining spot. In fact, it was considered the richest silver hill on earth back in 1880s and 1890s. But then things went bust and the area was deserted. You can see what’s left of the deserted mining town in nearby Garnet Ghost Town State Park (more on that below).
Those who stayed kept trying their luck by panning for silver and gold, but instead kept uncovering some pale blue rocks. Eventually someone figured out how to treat those rocks to turn them into those gleaming blue gems we now know as sapphires.
Today, the town that was built on silver is much more widely known for its sapphires.
Sapphire mining hot spots are close to Philipsburg, and so prevalent are the gems that visitors can even sift through dirt to try and find their own special gem. We’ll get to more on this below.
And of course, if spending part of your vacation digging though dirt doesn’t seem that appealing, but a sapphire does, you can just head to a local jewelry store in Philipsburg.
Top Things to Do in Philipsburg
Now for the top things to do and see in Philipsburg, Montana, including the aforementioned dirt sifting for sapphires.
Gem Mountain Philipsburg
For a unique, Montana gem experience, you can’t miss “digging” for sapphires at Gem Mountain in Philipsburg. This jewelry shop has an area where you can sift through bags of gravel to find your very own sapphire gems.
The employees of Gem Mountain will teach you how to wash the gravel to discover the gems, and how to pick the quality ones to use to make a custom piece of jewelry – which as you may have already guessed, they can design and craft for you right onsite.
Gem Mountain has its own heat treating furnaces to make your sapphire gleam in a darker color if you wish.
Sapphire gravel digging is a fun activity for kids and grown-ups alike. If you don’t have time to dig for your own, then you can browse in the gem showroom to find the perfect sapphire souvenir.
Gem Mountain also has gravel sifting experiences available at the actual mine, though this is subject to seasonality and availability.
Montana Gems of Philipsburg
This is another place in Philipsburg where you can wash sapphire gravel to find loose sapphires that you can keep as-is or turn into jewelry.
Montana Gems has an outdoor area where you do the gravel washing. Panning for gold is also available, and kids even get a free geode. It’s a fun family-friendly activity that’s adjacent to a souvenir shop selling sapphire jewelry and other “Made in Montana” gifts.
Montana Gems of Philipsburg sources their gravel from Gem Mountain as well as the El Dorado Bar deposit near Helena.
The oldest operating opera house in Montana is in Philipsburg. Once called the McDonald Opera House, today it’s known simply as the Philipsburg Theatre.
Bet you didn’t think of opera when planning your Montana trip!
But one look at the historic opera house alone, and you may very well be wanting to buy tickets to experience the acoustics inside this marvelously colorful theater.
Phillipsburg Theatre was built in 1891. Since then, it has continuously hosted theater and musical performances, particularly during the summer months.
The theater also hosts movies and other live performances, often partnering with the nonprofit Philipsburg Playhouse Productions. The theater was established in 1891 and is currently the oldest operating theater in Montana.
If you won’t be there for a performance, check if a guided tour of the theater is available while you’re in town. You’ll get to see the stage, dressing rooms, and hear about the history and acoustics of the theater.
Granite Ghost Town State Park
Learn more about the silver boom that occurred in Philipsburg, MT in the late 1800s at Granite Ghost Town State Park.
You’ll see the Granite Mine Superintendent’s House, which has been preserved. Though lying in ruins today, the old Miners Union Hall is also interesting to see.
Learn about how this was once the richest silver hill on earth, and how quickly it went from a find worth $40 million to a bust town that was largely deserted for most of the 1900s. In 1969 the last resident passed away, leaving it truly a ghost town; one that is now overseen by the state of Montana.
It’s about four miles to Granite Ghost Town State Park from downtown Philipsburg. The road to Granite Ghost Town State Park can be rough. It is also winding and narrow, so be prepared to pull over for oncoming traffic. Vehicles with good clearance are recommended for the road.
Granite County Museum
If you want to find out what it was like to be an underground miner at the turn of the 19th century, then a visit to the Granite County Museum in Philipsburg is the place for you.
At this interesting museum, you’ll learn about the daily routine of miners and what they went through for the precarious, dangerous job.
The museum has created a replica of a silver mine right down to a prospector’s cabin, fire assay lab, and lots of equipment that would have been used back in the mining heyday.
Georgetown Lake: Fishing, Paddling, and More Fun Near Philipsburg
This is where you’ll find a ton of outdoor adventures near Philipsburg.
Georgetown Lake has fishing, boating, paddling, and hiking fun in the summer. In winter, icy activities reign supreme around the lake, including ice skating and ice fishing.
Skiing at Discovery Basin
Whether you want to cross-country ski or downhill ski, Philipsburg has the place for you: Discovery Basin.
Discovery Basin Mountain has epic downhill skiing with reasonable lift ticket rates and runs for all skill levels.
Farther down the mountain are the Discovery Basin Cross-Country Ski Trails.
Where to Eat and Drink in Philipsburg
Philipsburg Brewing Company
Philipsburg Brewing Company has a tasting room in downtown Philipsburg where you can try its brews created with locally-sourced ingredients.
Address: 101 W. Broadway St, 406-859-2739
For some sweets, head to the Sweet Palace, a Victorian confectionary that proclaims to be the World’s Greatest Candy. With over 1,000 different types of sweets to choose from, they may be onto something!
You can also watch candy being made, such as taffy being pulled and wrapped, which will no doubt get your mouth watering. Some of Sweet Palace’s specialties include taffy, truffles, hand-dipped chocolates, and decadent fudge.
The Sweet Palace is open year-round, but closed on Saturdays.
Address: 109 E Broadway St.
Silver Mill Restaurant
This restaurant has such a rustic cool vibe, with a gorgeous long bar, a smattering of tables, and gleaming wood accents. The menu has steak, savory sandwiches and salads, and yummy appetizers. And be sure to check out the cocktail menu, which has creative drinks like a huckleberry mule and a Montana mule among others.
Address: 128 E Broadway St.