In colorful Colorado, there is no hue that is as valuable as gold. Hidden throughout the towering Rocky Mountains and flowing within the state’s mighty rivers, Colorado is full of the coveted rock, although this has not been a secret for over 150 years.
Beyond world-class skiing and breathtaking landscapes, gold is one of the state’s most celebrated identifying features. There’s an NBA team named after it, the Nuggets. There are opportunities today to go panning for gold at various sites. With a rich history that can be relived today, it’s time to get your wagons ready as we take a ride exploring some of Colorado’s “hidden gems.”
History of gold mining in Colorado
Gold plays a very important role in Colorado history, as its discovery and influence were leading factors in the establishment of the state itself. To understand the rich past of gold mining in Colorado, let’s quickly dial our calendars back to 1807 when explorer Zebulon Pike was one of the first to receive word that gold had been found in present-day Park County.
As rumors of gold in the mountains continued to persist throughout the state, it wasn’t until after the California Gold Rush of 1849, when the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush began bringing hordes of prospectors (the ’59ers) to Colorado. Also known as the Colorado Gold Rush, the discovery of gold in the Front Range brought an estimated 100,000 hopeful miners to the state from 1858 to 1861.
Fueled with the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust!”, the influx of new people in Colorado led to the establishment of many large camps that would later turn into cities such as Denver and Boulder. By the time Colorado became a recognized state in 1876, gold mining operations were already being run near Leadville, Breckenridge, Central City, Idaho Springs, South Park, Summitville (near Del Norte), Telluride, and Cripple Creek.
Learn more about the history of gold mining during the formative years of Colorado, with this mining timeline.
Where to find gold in Colorado today
Although mining operations in Colorado have produced an estimated 45 million troy ounces of gold in the last 150 years, there is still plenty of ore to be found within the state, with many opportunities for the general public to find some for themselves.
Located west of Colorado Springs, the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine (previously referred to as the Cresson Mine) is the all-time highest producing and only remaining active large-scale gold mining operation in the state. Until recently, public tours of the facilities were available.
Today, all of the encampments created during Colorado’s Gold Rush have either evolved into a city, remained a small village, or have been left completely and turned into ghost towns, either slowly or overnight. Each with its own unique attractions, many of the state’s most popular former mining areas have embraced their heritage with tours, museums, and other hands-on opportunities to help visitors relive the Wild West.
Colorado gold mine tours
While we understand that heading down into a dark tunnel beneath the earth may be a scary idea for some people, a guided mine tour is undoubtedly one of the best ways to learn about gold in Colorado. With options from the Front Range to Western Colorado, there are many mine tours available in the state, such as:
- Argo Gold Mine and Mill Tour – Idaho Springs
- Edgar Experimental Mine – Idaho Springs
- Phoenix Gold Mine – Idaho Springs
- Capital Prize Gold Mine Tour – Georgetown
- Lebanon Mine Tour via the Georgetown Loop Railroad
- Hidee Gold Mine Tour – Central City
- Country Boy Mine Tour – Breckenridge
- Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine – Cripple Creek
- Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour – Ouray
- One Hundred Gold Mine – Silverton
With a full mine tour, visitors are able to see the exposed areas of the earth in which gold veins and other minerals have been discovered and extracted. In most instances, gold tours will also include some sort of an interactive mining or panning scenario in which small gold flakes can be found and kept as a souvenir.
Colorado gold panning areas
The aforementioned gold mine tours often offer some form of souvenir panning on-site. Although, it’s more for the thrill of it. However, if the idea of finding gold on the shores of a river sounds more like your style than a mine tour, there are also many places to pan for gold along the Arkansas River, San Miguel River, Clear Creek and other waterways throughout the state.
Before panning for gold anywhere in Colorado, prospectors without mining claims must be sure that they are only doing so on public land. Within designated recreational gold panning areas, visitors are welcome to bring home all of their lucky findings.
While most local parks allow for the removal of small, gold flakes, anything found within a CPW-controlled area technically belongs to the state, and any visitor lucky enough to find a large chunk or nugget is asked to show it to park staff on an honor system basis.
In the majority of Colorado’s National Forests and BLM areas, recreational gold panning does not require a permit, but visitors are encouraged to minimize disturbance to the natural surface of the earth. Without a permit or notice of intention, recreational participants are only permitted to use simple, non-motorized tools such as pans, sluice boxes, picks, and shovels.
Within the state’s parks and open spaces, there are many designated areas with a long history of successful prospecting. Tucked away into scenic canyons throughout the state, popular public gold panning areas include:
- Texas Creek BLM Prospecting Site – near Cañon City
- Piñon Bridge Recreational Placer Mining Area – near Naturita
- Clear Creek Open Space – west of Golden
- Norwood Bridge Recreational Placer Mining Area – near Norwood
- Cache Creek Prospecting Site – west of Granite
- Point Barr Prospecting Site – near Pueblo
For those local to the Denver metro area, there are also several great places within and just outside city limits to prospect and pan for gold. West of town, the Arapahoe Bar Gold Panning Park is a great free area on Clear Creek found between Wheat Ridge and Golden. Northeast of downtown Denver, the “Big Bend” of the South Platte River in Steele Street Park is another popular recreational prospecting area.
Going back to where it all began, the town of Fairplay also maintains The Fairplay Prospecting Park to pan for gold along the town’s waterways. Available to the public with a daily or seasonal pass, the well-maintained prospecting park, scenic views, history, and town services make Fairplay one of the best places to begin a gold-centric trip in Colorado.
Learn more about gold in Colorado
To learn more about the rich history of gold in Colorado, a visit to a mining museum is one of the best ways to see real artifacts and talk to local experts.
While there are mining exhibits in a few of the state’s larger museums,,such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado is also home to many prospecting-specific showcases of equipment, information, and, of course, real minerals on display.
To learn more about gold in Colorado, we recommend a visit to any of the following educational attractions:
- Western Museum of Mining in Colorado Springs
- Mines Museum of Earth Science in Golden
- National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville
- Creede Underground Mining Museum
From naming the Denver Nuggets to creating small towns like Gold Hill, the influence of Colorado’s Gold Rush is undeniably tied directly in with the state’s historical and present-day identity. And while the state’s population and tourism industries continue to boom into the 21st century, Colorado residents and visitors alike can still relive the Wild West with a gold mine tour or hands on prospecting experience.