What Happens If You Find Gold On Public Land?

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Gold is one of the most valuable precious metals on Earth, and it’s a relatively low-risk physical asset that can appreciate over time. But what happens if you find gold on public land? Are you permitted to keep or sell it?

If you find gold on public lands maintained by the National Forest Service, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll be able to keep it. But collecting gold found on National Park Service properties is generally prohibited, with only a handful of exceptions.

Although the California Gold Rush happened more than a century ago, some adventurous folks still enjoy searching public lands for gold. This article will explain what happens if you’re lucky enough to strike gold while exploring public properties.

Finding Gold on Public Property

You cannot keep gold found in National Parks, with only two exceptions, but you can keep gold found on most public lands maintained by the National Forest Service. Additionally, some state parks allow visitors to keep the gold they find.

But before we can delve into the rules regarding gold prospecting on public land, we must first establish what public land is. 

What Is Public Land?

In the broadest possible terms, public land is property owned by federal or state government agencies. However, this excludes city and some state parks, as they’re owned by different agencies.

Examples of public land include:

  • National Parks
  • National Forests
  • National Historic Landmarks
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties

Somewhat confusingly, some of these public lands allow for prospecting, while others prohibit it. Understanding which public properties permit prospecting, and which don’t, is key to ensuring that your gold find remains yours.

NPS Lands That Permit Visitors To Find and Keep Gold

The National Park Service can be very strict regarding its properties. For example, visitors generally aren’t allowed to collect any rocks or minerals, including gold, from U.S. National Parks. Those that do can be criminally charged.

There are only two exceptions. Visitors are allowed to keep gold discovered at:

  • Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (California)
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve (Alaska)

However, the precise rules and regulations regarding prospecting at these National Park Service lands vary. To help you avoid unintentionally violating these policies, let’s take a moment to explore each property’s prospecting guidelines.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

California is home to the biggest gold rush in U.S. history, and the odds of finding gold along The Golden State’s public lands are slightly higher than average.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, located in Whiskeytown, California, is a favorite spot for prospectors of all ages and skill levels. If you’re 17 years old or older, you will need a permit to pan for gold, but it only costs $1.

Some tools are prohibited, including metal detectors and sluice boxes. 

It’s also illegal to sell any gold you might find at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Before visiting this public property, spend a little time studying the rules and regulations. 

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Alaska’s National Parks are a little wilder than those in the contiguous United States. Their rules and policies also differ from most other U.S. National Parks, including those concerning mineral collection.

At Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, visitors are permitted to pan for gold and keep what they find. However, metal detectors and digging tools aren’t allowed.

But visitors can’t keep other types of precious metals like silver or platinum they might find at the park. And like minerals collected from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, you can’t sell the gold you pocket at this Alaskan park.

Best Natural Forests for Finding Gold

Nearly all National Forest Service lands are open to prospectors. In fact, the Forest Service’s official policy is “that the recreational use of metal detectors and the collection of rocks and mineral samples are allowed on the National Forests.

But there are 154 National Forests scattered throughout the United States. As such, it can be challenging to narrow down the best place to pan or prospect for gold.

Generally, it’s wise to visit National Forests closest to you. Approximately 40% of all the gold in the world was formed billions of years ago, so there’s a fair chance of finding gold pretty much anywhere.

Still, if you’d like to increase your chances of discovering gold, you might want to visit the following National Forest Service properties:

  • Nantahala National Forest (Bryson City, North Carolina)
  • Tongass National Forest (Juneau, Alaska)
  • Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina)
  • Sierra National Forest (California)
  • Uwharrie National Forest (North Carolina)

These lands are well-known among prospectors for having above-average gold supplies. Of course, the more people that visit these public properties in search of gold, the less gold there’s likely to be there.

So, if you’d like to strike gold at one of these National Forest Service properties, you’ll want to read up on the rule and guidelines and head out as soon as possible.

Rules and Guidelines

Before you grab your metal detector and gold pan, you’ll want to ensure you comply with Forest Service guidelines and rules. Otherwise, you could find yourself facing hefty fines or legal action.

In most cases, you won’t need to secure a permit to prospect for gold on National Forest Service land. However, if you intend to dig deep in search of precious metals, you might need to obtain a permit before your visit.

The Forest Service protects natural areas throughout the United States, and digging is considered a form of surface disturbance. Disturbing natural surfaces, particularly those around river banks, is heavily discouraged by the Forest Service.

That said, using a metal detector and a shovel or pick to dig through dry soil away from streams and rivers is generally a permit-free experience.

But there are some general don’ts when searching for gold on Forest Service public lands. For example, you cannot:

  • Expose tree roots while searching for gold.
  • Use metal detectors in historical archaeological sites.
  • Enter abandoned mines.
  • Use mechanized digging equipment without prior approval.
  • Disturb or wash away river banks to expose soil layers.

If you have specific questions regarding what types of prospecting activities are permitted in a specific National Forest, contact the ranger district office associated with that land. Rangers can offer guidance about prospecting policies for specific Forest Service properties.

Furthermore, check out my article to learn how to tell if a creek might have gold in it: How to Know if a Creek Has Gold in It: 7 Signs

State Parks That Might Have Undiscovered Gold

Even though most National Parks don’t allow visitors to prospect for gold, some state parks welcome prospectors with open arms.

Some of the best state parks that allow visitors to find and keep gold include:

  • Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (Coloma, California)
  • Castlewood Canyon State Park (Colorado)
  • Independence Mine State Historical Park (Fishhook, Alaska)
  • Empire Mine State Historic Park (California)

But what happens when you find gold on these public land varies depending on the park. For that reason, let’s briefly discuss each of these properties to discover their prospecting policies.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

As the name of this California park suggests, prospecting for gold at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is a relatively common activity.

Visitors with gold panning experience can enjoy recreational prospecting on the east side of the South Fork American River. No tools outside a standard pan are allowed, so you’ll want to leave your sieve and digging equipment at home.

If this is your first time panning for gold, you can take advantage of the park’s gold panning lessons, which cost $10 per person and last just under an hour. But you’ll want to call the park ahead of time to ensure there are open spots for students, as the lessons are a popular attraction among visitors.

Castlewood Canyon State Park

Castlewood Canyon State Park in Colorado might not attract as many prospectors as state parks in California, but that could work in your favor. The quiet, slow-moving Cherry Creek that runs through this park provides an excellent opportunity to pan for gold. 

Most of the gold in the water is small, barely forming tiny flakes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find worthwhile nuggets hiding in the silty creek bottom. Unfortunately, those lucky enough to find solid chunks must present them to park staff

Because these lodes are technically state property, finders may not be permitted to keep them.

So, what happens if you find gold in Castlewood Canyon State Park? If you discover anything more than microscopic flakes, the answer is that you’ll probably have to surrender that gold to the proper authorities.

Independence Mine State Historical Park

The pale gray buildings that make up Independence Mine State Historical Park can be a little offputting. They stand like silent ghosts, poised at the precipice of a steeply dropping valley edge. 

However, the real draw of this remote park isn’t its buildings of mining history.

Instead, it’s the chance to find gold at the end of the Gold Cord Lake Trail, which leads from the park. Visitors armed with pans and sifters can try their luck at finding gold in this lake, though only during the late spring and summer months.

Although gold panning in this lake, and along its connecting streams, isn’t exactly encouraged, it’s also not strictly prohibited. So, if you’d like to prospect for gold throughout Independence Mine State Historical Park of Gold Cord Lake, exercise caution and be prepared to be told to put away your equipment.

Empire Mine State Historic Park

The Empire Mine State Historic Park gives the Independence Mine State Historical Park a run for its money in terms of eeriness. But that makes sense, especially considering both parks are essentially just abandoned mines.

Although staff might not let you whip out your metal detector and begin prospecting down in the mostly abandoned mine shafts, you might be fortunate enough to find a long-lost nugget of gold hiding in the park’s grassy lawns or along its tree-lined exterior.

Still, considering the historic nature of this site, visitors are probably required to surrender any gold they find on the property. All told, state parks that were once mines can be a bit of a coin flip in terms of finding and keeping gold.

Land Where Gold Digging and Panning Aren’t Permitted

As you can see, many public lands permit prospecting in one form or another. When you find gold on these properties, it’s yours to keep, but not to sell. But not all public lands allow gold panning and prospecting. 

For example, you’ll want to avoid searching for gold in:

  • Claimed mining areas
  • Most National Parks
  • Wildlife sanctuaries and preserves

It’s fairly straightforward to avoid taking minerals home from National Parks or government-maintained wildlife sanctuaries. These lands tend to feature large signage near the entrance, making it impossible for visitors to misunderstand what public land they’re entering.

But Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties can be a little trickier to navigate. 

This government agency owns and maintains approximately 10% of the land in the United States. But while most of this land is open to the public, you can’t prospect in some BLM properties.

For instance, BLM public lands with active mining claims are off-limits to all prospectors except those who hold the claim.

How Do Mining Claims Work?

Mining claims allow specific individuals the right to access, collect, and sell mineral deposits found on land owned by the BLM. These claims don’t grant claimants ownership of the specific site. 

But they do grant exclusive mineral extraction rights.

If you wander onto claimed BLM land while prospecting for gold and discover precious metals, the mining claim holder can demand that you surrender your newly found treasures, as they’re technically the claimant’s property.

There are more than 3.9 million mining claims in the U.S., and determining whether the land you’re on has an active claim can be challenging. 

However, the recently released Mineral & Land Records System (MLRS) has a map-based interface that makes it easier to identify nearby mining claims and avoid them. You can use this tool to ensure that any gold you discover on BLM properties is yours to keep.

How To Find Gold in Public Spaces

Now that you know what happens when finding gold on public land, let’s take a moment to address how to find gold on public land. 

After all, the chances of spotting gold sitting on the soil surface are slim, meaning that you’ll probably need to learn a few prospecting basics before heading out onto public properties in search of precious metals.

1. Choose An Area for Prospecting

The first step of finding gold on public land is choosing a property to prospect. 

Your best bet is to select a National Forest, as most public lands maintained by the U.S. Forest Service have comparatively lax policies regarding gold prospecting. However, you’re welcome to choose and public property that permits mineral collection.

2. Bring Tools and Equipment As Permitted

After selecting a public property, take time to read up on that property’s prospecting rules. 

Remember, gold panning and mineral collection policies vary depending on the agency in charge. The last thing you want to do is incur punitive fines because you forgot to read a park’s fine print about prospecting.

Besides, checking your chosen location’s rules regarding prospecting can ensure you bring the right tools for the job. As a general rule, National Forests permit metal detectors and shovels, but many state parks and National Parks do not.

3. Begin Searching For Gold

Once you’ve brought the allowed tools and equipment, you can begin your search for gold. 

Naturally, the most effective prospecting method depends on which tools you’re allowed. For example, if you’re permitted to use a metal detector, searching for gold can be as simple as switching your metal detector on and going for a stroll around a National Forest. 

Of course, you’ll probably want to carry a garden trowel or compact shovel with you just in case your detector goes off.

Panning for gold is a little trickier, but it’s a lot like riding a bike, and once you get the hang of moving the pan and sifting through silt, you’ll never forget how to pan for gold. Check out this informative video guide to get a better idea of how to pan for gold along streams and slow-moving rivers:


If you find gold in public land, your ability to keep or sell that gold depends on the government agency that maintains that land. For example, if you discover gold on National Park Service properties, you’re prohibited from keeping it.

The only exceptions are gold found at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and surface-level gold discovered in some of Alaska’s National Parks. But if you find gold on properties managed by the National Forest Service, you can probably keep that gold. 

However, it might be illegal to sell gold found on these lands.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of DiscoveryPit.com, a website dedicated to tips on finding and collecting precious items. Inspired by reading countless adventurer reports from the oldtimers, Alex is passionate about discovering hidden treasures and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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