"I know what gold does to men's souls." - Howard (the old prospector) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
They call it "gold fever," and it has induced dozens and dozens of dashed dreams for every life-changing strike. But still the fever rages.
And why not?
That precious metal has been lying there for millennia, just waiting to be found and transformed into mansions and yachts and private jets for those bold (and lucky) enough to dig it up.
If you're of a mind to give it a try, what follows are our choices for your most interesting - and maybe, just maybe, lucrative - options.
10. Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas
Whenever you think about panning for gold, naturally your first thought is...Arkansas!
Okay, that's probably not true – but not so fast.
Gold in Arkansas was first reported by Spanish explorers who traveled through the state in the 1500s. Gold prospectors in recent years have explored the streams that drain the Ouachita Mountains, a mountain range west of Little Rock that extends into Oklahoma.
Ouachita National Forest allows visitors to practice gold panning skills using steel shot or copper BBs.
(Just between us...experienced Arkansas prospectors will admit -when pressed- that the pickings are slimmer there than in some other locations, but they point out that you could also dig up diamonds or crystals – so there's that.)
9. Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour, Colorado
Named after the first woman to strike gold in Colorado, this tunnel in Cripple Creek is America's only 1,000-foot vertical mineshaft.
Here, you don't get to actually pan for your own gold, but the historical value of this tour is so special, it's a can't-miss experience.
Descend underground as you partake in the real-life world of industrial gold mining, and witness veins in their natural state.
These miners were hard men and they lived hard lives. Ride the foreman's rail bike or push the worker's one-ton ore cart...then unwind at the Hard Rock Diner.
One advantage over the hit-or-miss nature of panning -- at the end of every tour, visitors are given their own gold nugget.
8. Alabama Gold Camp, Alabama
Sure, you know about the "bible belt," but did you know that Alabama actually has a "gold belt"?
And right smack dab in the middle of it you'll find Alabama Gold Camp.
For a nominal fee you can get admission with panning and sluicing included. Children 11 and under are free with an adult. Camping ("primitive" or "luxury" levels) is also available there.
Looking to hedge your bet? Factor in the possibility of finding garnet, citrine or fossils, too.
7. Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning Area, Montana
Montana has been gold country, almost as long as the California Gold Rush.
All told, Montana has produced over 17,752,000 ounces of gold that is ranked as the seventh largest gold producing state in the United States.
The history of gold prospecting around Libby, Montana goes back to the early 1860s. By 1867 there were between 500-600 miners working on Libby Creek in a mining camp named "Libbysville."
The Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning Area is located 23 miles south of Libby, within the Kootenai National Forest. The public is allowed to pan for gold within this area and any gold you happen to find is yours to keep. It's a great recreational opportunity for the whole family.
The gold found today is basically overlooked or left behind by the earlier dredging methods. It is estimated 10 to 15% of the original gold remains so the odds are fair for the fledgling or expert gold panning prospector.
6. Alta Ranch, Montana
The Alta Ranch is four hours south of Glacier National Park and six hours from Yellowstone. And if you hitch your mule (or drive, if you prefer) about three miles from the ranch, you’ll see what remains of a gold mining town of about 500 gold dreamers that cropped up around the turn of the 20th century.
The town is long gone but today, there is a small active placer gold mine a few miles upstream of the Alta Ranch.
It’s a great spot to try your hand at panning for gold -- gold pans are furnished in the Alta Ranch cabins. And for some historical perspective, about 30 miles away, near the town of Shoup, Idaho, tours of a historic hard rock gold mine are offered.
5. Consolidated Gold Mine, Georgia
You've heard the expression: "Thar's gold in them thar hills."
Well, that comes from a famous advertisement for gold mining in Georgia.
The Appalachian region of North Georgia was the site of a lesser-known American gold rush in 1928.
Consolidated Gold Mine offers the best of both worlds in gold prospecting – mine tours and panning.
Anyone who goes on the Underground Adventure will have the opportunity to try his or her hand at gold panning, too.
Instructors teach everything you need to know about striking it rich. Once found, your gold will be put in a bottle for you to keep as a souvenir.
Many of these “pro” panners regularly compete in gold panning competitions, and several hold prestigious awards, so you’ll get your tips from the very best.
4. Arkansas River Corridor, Colorado
The Arkansas River runs through some of the richest ore bodies in Colorado, and the stories strikes and fortunes and characters there have become legendary.
There's the Little Johnny Mine, where "the Unsinkable" Molly Brown's fortune was made. And the area was such a hotbed of activity that it saw a steady stream of visitors, as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Doc Holiday (who moved to the town of Leadville after the Gunfight at the OK Corral).
The main strikes were of silver and lead (hence the not-so-creative name "Leadville."), but gold was also an important part of Leadville's history.
Today, most of the area is claimed and private, but metal detecting goes on in the surrounding hills. From Mosquito Pass to Independence Pass, there is an extensive mining community, where visitors can prospect and explore.
You can pick up a pamphlet from the Chamber of Commerce in Leadville that will show you a marked car/bicycle tour of the mining district to the east as well as many other interesting things in the area.
3. Jamestown Gold Panning, California
If you're looking to try your luck at panning for gold, you might say that California is a (sorry about this) goldmine of possible locations.
The state is rich with gold mining history and remarkable finds.
You probably know all about Sutter's claim that started gold fever in America. But just south of that historic site, you’ll find Jamestown, CA.
The town is just a gold nugget's throw from Yosemite National Park, and there are numerous panning tours available.
Jamestown Gold Panning offers access to five different claims, equipment and instruction. Pricing will vary on your needs. Individuals or families can get instruction, equipment and a five-hour excursion.
2. Crow Creek Gold Mine, Alaska
Alaska is known for its incredible scenery and wildlife, as well as one other abundant resource – gold!
It’s there for the taking (if you're lucky), and Crow Creek Gold Mine welcomes you to come there and try.
Established in 1896, it was one of the largest producing hydraulic placer gold mines in South Central Alaska, and today it's Alaska's most popular recreational gold mining area.
No exact records are known that tell the true tale of exactly how much gold was taken from this mine, but estimates put it around 700 ounces a month during peak production.
(Disclaimer: Your results are likely to be less than that.)
Crow Creek Mine offers a unique blend of historical buildings, antiques, rare mining equipment, beautiful gardens, amazing wilderness scenery and hiking trails (including the Historic Iditarod Trail).
These claims are still producing gold to this very day and with a little work and a bit of luck, you might be quite surprised to find that you too can catch "gold fever."
1. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, California
In the true spirit of the strike that changed a nation, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park marks the eureka moment when James W. Marshall found several flakes of gold on his boss's sawmill in 1848.
Today, you can pan for gold in the American River and even if you're not as lucky as Mr. Marshall, you may ease your disappointment with hikes and picnics in an idyllic woodland setting.
Other Park activities include video presentations in the museum and sawmill demonstrations at the working replica of the original Sutter's Mill.
And overlooking the river canyon, where the man who started the gold rush is buried, there stands California's first historic monument -- the statue of James Marshall pointing at his gold discovery site.