Idaho is a fantastic state to prospect for gold. Over 2/3 of the state is public land, much of it managed by the BLM and Forest Service. These areas are generally open to mineral exploration, and Idaho has a rich history. Gold has been found throughout the state, with rich discoveries found throughout dozens of mining districts. Many areas that have gold are far off the beaten path, so a prospector who is willing to put in a little “leg work” has the chance of finding some very good places to mine.
Although early gold panning in the state occurred in the 1850s, it wasn’t until 1860 when a significant discovery was made by Elias D. Pierce at Orofino Creek near the present day city of Pierce – named after him. This area quickly developed into the Pierce Mining District with active placer mines that produced gold worth more than five million dollars. A couple of years later in 1862, Boise Basin became the magnet for prospectors.
Boise Basin Gold Strike
The Boise Basin gold strike in 1862 was easily the largest discovery in the state, with millions of ounces of gold recovered from the region. The Boise Basin encompassed an area that included several mining towns including Idaho City, Placerville, Pioneerville, and Centerville. All of the streams in this area produce gold, with extensive working done by hand placer, and later by
hydraulic mining and bucket line dredging.
Some of Idaho's richest gold mining was done just northeast of Boise. The Boise Basin had the states largest gold strike. Grimes Creek and Mores Creek were mined extensively. This area is heavily claimed now, so joining a prospecting club is the best way for a beginner to access productive areas to look for gold.
Within a few years of the first gold strike, the Boise Basin had a larger population than Portland, Oregon. This area is not known for producing large nuggets. It generally produces fines and small picker sized pieces of gold. Although large nuggets are not common, large specimens of gold in quartz have been found, weighing several pounds in size.
Major Idaho Gold Camps
Across the state, 41 districts spanning 20 counties have recorded gold occurrences. The top 5 gold producers were:
1. Boise Basin (Boise County) – 2,300,000 ounces
2. French Creek-Florence (Idaho County) - 1,000,000 ounces
With hundreds of lode and placer deposits, production in the state peaked in 1870 when more than 400,000 ounces of gold were extracted. Cumulatively, the state produced about 10 million ounces, a figure which does not take into consideration the gold shipped out by early prospectors to other states.
Idaho’s total production was almost 10 million ounces with the area that surrounds Idaho City and extends northeast close to Payette River’s South fork – known as the Boise Basin District – leading.
Sawtooth Mountains Gold
To the southeast of the Boise Basin in Elmore County were several gold districts worthy of mention. Shadowed by the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, the small mining town of Atlanta produced significant amounts of gold in both placer and lode deposits. There is still plenty of gold left to be found in this remote mining region.
Other notable areas in Elmore County include the areas near present day Pine and Featherville. Located near the headwaters of the South Fork Boise River, all waters in this area produced gold and are worth prospecting.
The Owyhee County Gold & Silver Mines
Silver City is a well-known mining town in Owyhee County, Idaho. Silver was found here on War Eagle Mountain in 1864, and thousands converged on the high desert valley. Although, the vast majority of mineral recovered here were from hard rock deposits, there is plenty of gold in Jordan Creek and a few other seasonal streams.
Silver City is also one of the finest existing ghost towns in the US, definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Southern Idaho. It's a popular day-trip from the Boise area. However, be aware that due to high elevation, the road gets snowed in and the town is not accessible during the winter season.
Florence, Murray, Pierce & the Silver Valley
Florence is a remote mining district in Central Idaho. Prospectors discovered this area after nearby discoveries in Pierce attracted thousands of men to the area in search of gold. The high elevation and remote location makes for a shorter than average mining season due to snow levels. 4000 feet below Florence is the Salmon River, which also contains plenty of fine gold, and good access along highway 95.
The Silver Valley Mining District is in the northern panhandle region of Idaho, and includes the mining town of Wallace. This regions is one of the most mineral rich areas of the state, although by far the most important mineral is silver, followed by lead and zinc. In fact, it is one of the top silver producers in the world, with nearly one billion ounces of silver produced.
Placer gold can be found in many of the nearby creeks and rivers in the area. Another place to visit nearby is Murray, a rich gold mining town north of Wallace that has produced its fair share of gold over the years.
There are literally thousands of mines and prospects scattered across the state of Idaho. Almost any creek or river in Central Idaho probably has some gold in it. Since placer gold is the most abundant across the state, numerous rivers and creeks have produced untold wealth worth millions of dollars for resilient prospectors.
Idaho Gold Production over Time
From 1870 through 1900, most of the production was from placer mines centered in Boise Basin, Silver City, Atlanta, Warren-Marshall and Elk City districts. The 1900s into the mid 1910s were dominated by placer mining which rapidly declined by 1930 giving way to the rise in the price of gold in the 1930s which in turn ramped up gold output in Yellow Pine, Boise Basin and Warren-Marshall districts.
The first miners to arrive in Idaho would panned and sluiced the creeks and rivers for placer gold. This gold was easier to recover, but it would get depleted after a few years.
In later years, the gold production went away from placer deposits and attention shifted to hard rock gold. Most gold mined today comes from lode deposits. You can still find gold by panning those same creeks and rivers, but they are nowhere near as rich as they would have been in the 1860s.
Idaho's most prominent gold-bearing rivers:
The Salmon River and its tributaries are rich with placer gold in the stretches that run entirely through Idaho. The first placer deposits were discovered in the river during the 1860s. The areas around Challis and Salmon cities are known to produce an abundance of gold for prospectors. Most parts of the river can be accessed using I-75.
While some parts of the river may be inaccessible to the public (for example the Main Salmon and Middle Fork within the Salmon-Challis National Forest), large stretches of it can be explored with emphasis on safety due to the strong currents as the river cuts through some of the most rugged terrain in the United States.
The South Fork of Clearwater River, the area near Pierce, Elk City and the region east of Lewiston have been known to produce decent volumes of placer gold.
The most productive area is definitely along the South Fork, from the headwaters downstream though the canyon to the west toward Grangeville. Both American River and Red River are tributaries to the Clearwater River that were mined extensively during the early gold rush. This area is still very rich, and quite remote.
This river largely flows through gold mining country including Sawtooth National Forest which provides opportunity for prospectors along its path. The Atlanta area along the Middle Fork Boise River, Pine and Featherville areas along the South Fork Boise River - all provide stretches that can be explored for gold.
This river has been of great interest to prospectors venturing out in the Idaho countryside. Numerous areas along the river, which is the longest in Idaho once yielded considerable amounts of gold. Areas of interest include near Milner Dam, at American Falls, below Twin Falls and near the mouth of Castle Creek.
Unfortunately, the alteration of the river from numerous dams has caused considerable alterations to the river. Now heavily silted, accessing the gold-bearing gravels is more challenging than it was when the first miners arrived here.
Early day prospectors found a decent amount of gold was found along the banks of the Snake River, but dams have altered the river considerably over the century. Not much prospecting takes place here now.
A few of Idaho's Richest Mines
During the gold rush era and into the 20th century, Idaho had hundreds of gold mines with most of them producing minimal quantities. Here are a few of the major gold producing mines in more recent history:
Golden Chest Gold Mine
This mine was the largest producer of lode gold at its height in the late 1890s. It is located about two miles east of Murray in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District. Recent exploration indicates that the mine still has over 254,000 ounces of gold.
This was an open-pit mine located about 100 miles from Boise and was the largest mine in Owyhee County. The areas around this mine and nearby streams such as Jordan (which can be accessed near Silver City) Creek contain lots of gold. This mine which operated between 1977 and 1998 produced more than 1.6 million ounces of gold.
This was the largest gold mine in Idaho and enjoys the honors of hosting one of the highest-grade gold deposits in the entire state. Located about 40 minutes from Salmon, the mine produced 600,000 ounces of gold when it operated between 1994 and 2000. The mine was shuttered when the price of gold dropped but is estimated to still hold more than 4 million ounces of precious yellow metal.
Stibnite Gold Mine
Located about nine miles east of Yellow Pine, this mine started operations in 1899 and continued intermittently for more than a century. Recent exploration indicates that the mine still holds 4 million ounces of gold.
Recent exploration news shows that an area with three open-pit gold mines in central Idaho covering parts of Boise National Forest and Payette National Forest contains more than 4 million ounces of gold. This puts Idaho on track to follow in the footsteps of Nevada as the new frontier for gold exploration in the 2020s.
Operated by Midas Gold, this project has the potential to become one of the largest and richest active open-pit mines in the United States.
More Rich Idaho Mining Towns
A few other notable areas that have produced gold in Idaho include the mining towns of Warren which was dredge extensively along Warren Creek.
South of Challis is the small town of Bayhorse, which was primarily a silver producer. It is now owned by the State of Idaho and is open to visitors.
The ghost town of Yellowjacket is deep in the central Idaho wilderness. Very few people have visited this remote mining camp, but it flourished for many years primarily as a lode gold producer.
Leesburg is yet another old mining district the was rich with placer gold. It is west of the town of Salmon and takes some effort to get to.
The Yankee Fork Valley produced a lot of gold during its heyday. The ghost town of Custer is still well-preserved. You can also visit the nearby Yankee Fork Dredge that churned up the valley in search of gold.
Elk City was a major mining town for a short time. Placers can be found in the Red River, American River, and all throughout the South Fork of the Clearwater River.
Finding Accessible Land to Prospect for Gold in Idaho
As indicated above that much of the land in Idaho belongs to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service. This makes it ideal for prospecting without the risk of encroaching on private lands, though it is advisable to check whether the areas that lie within these public lands have been claimed.
While normal gold panning on these public lands is acceptable, some restrictions are in place. Suction Dredging and other activities that involve excavation require special permission (Notice of Intent and Plan of Operation) from the nearest District Ranger.
Trommel operations that involve mechanized operation in or near stream banks also require a Plan of Operations.
As with any outdoor activity, make sure that you are not trespassing on private lands. Prospectors also need to be aware of any active mining claims that may be in the area.
The modern gold prospector venturing into Idaho can achieve more by engaging local gold prospecting clubs and associations to gain insights on how challenging the terrain is and where to venture for increased chances of finding gold.
Joining local mining clubs can be incredibly helpful when trying to navigate the laws of gold mining. The regulations involved with using large equipment in creeks and rivers is becoming more challenging in recent years.
There is a good chance that if you are on a creek in northern or central Idaho, you will be able to find some gold if you look hard enough. Even in areas that haven't had any significant mining activity, it is still relatively easy to find gold in many locations.
It is also worth mention that Idaho is the most remote state in the lower 48, so be smart when venturing into the backcountry. It is very possible to go days or weeks without seeing another person. Always carry the appropriate supplies with you, including tools, spare tires, food, water, first aid, and other safety gear.
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