A Complete Guide to Gold Panning in Montana

Jason Gass
Last Updated: February 27th, 2023

Montana has a long history of gold mining. Since the 1800s, those looking to strike it rich have traveled to Montana to try their luck at gold mining in the Treasure State.

While much of the state is no longer home to active gold mining activities, gold panning is still a popular activity in many parts of Montana.

When planning to gold pan in Montana there are numerous ways to partake in this fun and potentially profitable activity. Gold panning in Montana is also a great family-friendly activity that even your kids can enjoy.

History of Gold Panning in Montana

history of gold panning
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Gold panning is one of the many ways that prospectors coming to Montana searched for gold. Gold panning was for many prospectors the most affordable way to try to find gold.

The processes utilized just a shallow metal pan and a lot of patience. During the gold rush days, gold panning didn’t require a panner to stake a claim. Any reach of creek or stream that had gentle moving stream edges or shallow pools, was open for gold panning.

In many cases, gold panning was used as an exploratory method of mining. A prospector wishing to place a mine would often pan for gold in a creek for a number of weeks to determine if the creek could potentially yield a substantial amount of gold. Many of the placer mines in Montana began as productive gold panning streams.

Today, gold panning is no longer used by most people as a reliable source of income, but it has become a unique and potentially profitable hobby.

It is also one of the more popular tourist activities in Montana. Visitors come from all over the world to try their hand at gold panning, hoping to find even a tiny nugget that they can take home.

Best Areas for Gold Panning in Montana

best areas for gold panning
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While gold can be found in most streams and creeks throughout Montana, the best gold panning is found in the mountainous, western third of the state.

Today, most of the best gold panning in Montana still occurs in the western portion of the state. The area around the towns of Butte, Anaconda, Philipsburg, and Virginia City are great places to try your hand at gold panning.

This part of Montana was historically successfully mined for gold and other heavy metals. These communities also have a variety of businesses that can teach you how to gold pan, and either take you to a local stream to try your luck or provide onsite gold panning using a sluice box and imported material from a local stream.

Another good part of the state to try your hand at gold panning is the Sapphire Mountain range. While these mountain areas are more commonly mined for their gemstone, many people have been lucky to get a nice gathering of gold while looking for sapphires and other gemstones.

How to Gold Pan in Montana

how to gold pan
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If you are ready to try your hand at gold panning in Montana, there are three ways that are most often used by locals and visitors.

Gold Panning Company

These are generally considered to be tourist attractions, but they provide visitors an opportunity to get the feel for gold panning, and the material that you’ll be working with has likely been “sanded” with gold flakes and small nuggets, so there is a good chance for success.

If you’ve never gold panned before, this is a good way to learn the technique. Most of these businesses have employees that are experienced at gold panning and can show the best techniques so that if you want to try gold panning on your own, you have the proper skills.

Gold Panning Tours

Some of the gold panning companies in Montana offer guided gold panning tours that take you out to a stream that is known to have a good amount of gold remaining and help you pan for gold in an actual stream.

Lots of people that are serious about gold panning prefer this option since this is a true test of gold panning skills. These tours can be a bit pricier than panning for gold in a sluice box at a tourist-friendly location, but it is a more traditional experience.

Be advised that if you select this option, success is not guaranteed, and you may spend all day panning for gold and come home empty-handed.

Pan on Your Own

Gold panning on public lands is perfectly legal in Montana. If you have a pan and want to explore some of the creeks and streams within the many National Forest or State Forest areas in Montana, you are able to do so with no strings attached.

Montana does not require a permit for basic gold panning, and you can even utilize small, temporary sluice boxes without a permit. For more experienced gold panners, this is the best way to experience gold panning in Montana.

Best Gold Panning Companies in Montana

panning for gold
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Libby Creek National Gold Panning Area

Located in the National Forest 23 miles south of Libby, MT is the Libby Creek National Gold Panning Area. This designated national recreation area allows the public to pan for gold in a stream that is fairly productive for gold.

During the 1860s, the area around Libby, and Libby Creek were heavily mined for gold, but this rush was short-lived, and most miners were gone by 1875.

Today, the Libby Creek National Gold Panning Area allows visitors to mine for gold in a limited quantity, on their own.

Occasionally there are rangers or members of the NW Montana Gold Prospectors Club on site to provide basic instruction on how to pan for gold. Visitors to this area also need to have their own gold panning equipment.

Any gold that is found while gold panning in the recreation area is yours to keep. There are rules and limitations to how much material you can disturb during a visit to the area, but otherwise, visitors are left to their own devices to pan for gold. 

River of Gold

River of Gold is part of the Mining Museum located in Nevada City, MT. This small museum provides visitors an opportunity to pan for gold and garnets in a sluice box that is filled with sand and ore that is collected from local mining sites.

Museum staff provide basic instruction on how to pan for gold and garnets and are available to answer questions and provide great information on the mining history of the Nevada City area.

The museum is a very interesting place to visit and is worth spending some time walking through. One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum is the placer mill that was once used to dredge rock from stream beds in search of gold.

Yellowstone Gemstone Mining Company

Located in West Yellowstone, the Yellowstone Gemstone Mining Company is created with tourists in mind.

If you are visiting Yellowstone National Park and are looking for something different to do that will entertain the whole family, this business offers not only the opportunity to pan for gold and hunt for gemstones, but they also have a full zip-line adventure park that your kids will love.

Gold Panning in Montana – Conclusion

Gold panning in Montana is one of the most unique experiences the Treasure State has to offer. Trying your hand at gold panning will give you a glimpse into how difficult it was for many prospectors in the 1800s to make a living mining for gold.

Few struck it rich and, in the end, the gold mining boom went bust. Today, you can experience gold panning in controlled environments thanks to museums and tourist spots, or try your hand at gold panning in one of western Montana’s many mountain streams or creeks.

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About The Author

Jason Gass

Jason Gass is a Colorado based freelance writer and blogger whose goal is to share a good cup of coffee and great stories around a campfire with close friends. When he’s not working, he spends most of his time traveling, searching for the best breweries, and road-tripping in his teardrop trailer with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.

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