Gold Panning on the Snake River

Many people are surprised to learn that the Snake River in southern Idaho has gold in it. Actually, it has an exceptional amount of gold in it (some estimates put the total value in the billions!), but it is so fine textured that there is no good way to mine it economically on a commercial scale.

You may find a few specks if you use your gold pan in the right places though.

It has been said that the flakes of gold in the Snake River are so fine that it would take thousands of individual specks to add up to one penny’s value! Fine gold can be found for almost the entire stretch of the river for the hundreds of miles that if flows through the state.

Historically, there was quite a bit of interest in a few areas along the river. The richest areas were below Shoshone Falls and downstream towards Murtaugh. During the 1870’s, there was a time when as many as 400 men were panning and sluicing for gold along the river.

Those early miners soon realize that there were richer areas in Idaho to find gold than along the Snake River. Although they could recover a few dollars a day for a while, it didn’t take long for the richest bars to get worked. Soon the gold concentrates were depleted and most miners moved on.

Some of the remnants of old stone buildings that you can see in the Snake River canyon are left behind from early miners in the area.

There have been a few attempts over the years and lots of money spent to try and profitably mine the Snake River, but the gold is just so fine textured that it takes a whole lot of it to add up to anything substantial.

Some of the gravel pits along the river run operation to capture the gold, but they are only able to do this profitably because of their already existing gravel operation. We wouldn’t recommend investing a significant amount of time or money in prospecting along the Snake River, however there IS gold here, and for folks in southern Idaho it is very accessible and a decent options if you are getting some “cabin fever”.

The big trick to finding gold on the Snake River is to actually get to the gold. The river has changed substantially since the first prospectors came to Idaho. With so many dams on the river now regulating water flows, along with runoff from farms and other erosion, the Snake River is just a shadow of its former self.

The biggest issue is the amount of silt and sediment currently in the river. Try to picture what things were like prior to any dams, back when spring runoff would cause massive water flows. Find those elevated gravel benches and other areas that expose gravel that gold could be hiding in. Avoid the mucky, silted in areas. Carefully pan the gravels and be especially careful with your technique, since this is true “flour gold” and can be extremely easy to lose out of your pan.

There are several chapters of the Gold Prospectors Association of America in southern Idaho. You might want to check with other miners in your local area to get specific information on where you will have the most success panning for gold along the Snake River.

Additional Reading:

Gold & Silver Mining in Atlanta, Idaho

Idaho's Boise Basin

Basics of Gold Panning