The short answer is yes. The vast majority of federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service (USFS) are open to mineral exploration. This means that you can go out and collect gold, gems and minerals. This includes panning, sluicing, digging with basic hand tools and metal detecting.
However, there are several exceptions which we are going to cover below. Even though most lands are open, some of the best areas are actually off limits due to a variety of reasons. Let's take a deeper look below.
General Rules about Prospecting on Public Lands
The vast majority of public lands in the West are managed by the BLM and USFS. Many of the most mineral rich states like Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona have lots of open ground that you can prospect on.Here is an exact quote from the BLM:
“It is Forest Service policy that the recreational use of metal detectors and the collection of rocks and mineral samples are allowed on the National Forests. Generally, most of the National Forests are open to recreational mineral and rock collecting, gold panning and prospecting using a metal detector. This low impact, casual activity usually does not require any authorization.”and also:
“Using a metal detector to locate gold or other mineral deposits is an allowed activity under the General Mining Laws…”
So as a general rule, it is perfectly legal for the casual prospector to venture out onto public lands and dig for gold. There are mining laws that have protected this practice since the days of the Gold Rush, and those same laws are still in place today.
Archaeological & Historical Sites
One area this starts to get tricky is when it comes to areas that are deemed to be “archeologically significant.” This in itself can be a bit ambiguous, and places that would not be considered historic to most might be very important to an archaeologist on staff at the BLM office.
The most basic example for our writing is a historic site where early day miners dug for gold. These might include old hydraulic pits, ground sluicing areas, or hard rock mines that were once active.
Obviously, these are the same places where a modern prospector is also going to look for gold. So the ambiguity of what constitutes a “historical site” will definitely vary. From my experiences, I would say that you should be ok searching for gold in areas with historic digging. The protections we have by the General Mining Law of 1872 grants us the right to hunt for gold in these areas.
Again, this could be interpreted differently by some. Particularly if you are near old homesteads and other areas that obviously have historical interest. I would suggest that you stay clear of clearly designated sites with signs. Best to find an area where you will stay unnoticed. Keeping a low profile is never a bad idea these days.
Active Mining Claims
The other major consideration you will need to keep in mind area active mining claims. Most of the best areas with gold and minerals on public lands are already claimed. Without permission, you are not allowed to do any prospecting on these lands.
To be clear, these are still public lands that you are allowed to recreate on. You can camp, fish, hunt, and explore these areas just like any other BLM or Forest Service land. However, the minerals are already “claimed” by someone else. You will need to seek out permission from the claim holder if you want to search these areas. In most cases, you are going to have to look for new ground that is not claimed.
Check out these links for additional information about mining claims, and how you can find areas that are not claimed.Public Land Gold Mining
Determining if Land is Open to Prospecting
Buying a Gold Mining Claim
Finding New Prospecting Locations
Special Areas of Interest
Not all public land is open to prospecting. Perhaps the most notable exception are designated Wilderness Areas. These are generally closed to all types of mineral exploration, and you are not allowed to collect minerals or any other types of material even if it is sitting on the surface.
The rules for gold panning on Wild and Scenic Rivers are a little different, and can vary depending on the area. Here is a quote from rivers.org.
“It depends on whether the collecting activity is commercial or noncommercial in nature and subject to river-administering agency regulation. Mining under the 1872 mining law is a commercial and business activity tied to valid existing rights of claims and is regulated as such (36 CFR 228, 43 CFR 3809, 8365, et al). Non-commercial mineral collecting for recreational purposes (e.g., hobby collecting, rock-hounding, gold panning, sluicing, or dredging) may be authorized by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service depending on the amounts collected, size and scale of activity, resource values impacted, and river management objectives.”
Most of us gold miners are generally annoyed by this sort of answer. After all, what exactly is a “noncommercial” gold prospector?
If you find gold in your pan, do you put it back in the river when you leave? Of course not!
Nonetheless, it should be noted that each area can be managed differently. If you want to do some prospecting on a Wild & Scenic River you should do specific research on the area to get accurate information on regulations. Some of them are open to panning and sluicing, others are limited to “hands and pans” only so you can’t even use a shovel to dig gravel. Make sure you are legal before you go.
So Much Land is Open!
Yes, there are some good areas that are off-limits, but there are also thousands of square miles out there that are wide open on both BLM and Forest Service lands.
Whether you are digging gold or you are hunting for gems, crystals, fossils, etc. you can go out and explore enough open ground to keep you busy for a lifetime. Enjoy your public lands. They belong to all of us!
Next: Find a Pound of Gold Nuggets per Year!