Gold occurs in two types of deposits, lode and placer. Lode deposits consist of ore minerals in veins or disseminated in rock, which require blasting, milling or chemical treatment to recover the gold. When a lode deposit erodes, gold and other heavy minerals that resist weathering can be transported in streams, settling into crevices and other depressions in the streambed to form placer deposits. Gold in the sand and gravel in the streambed can be recovered by panning.
To protect streams and their habitat, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife administers the Hydraulics Code, requiring that “any person or government agency desiring to use, divert, obstruct or change the natural flow or bed of any river or stream or utilize materials from stream beds,” shall obtain a Hydraulic Project Approval. Although a formal HPA is not required for recreational panning and prospecting with a gold pan, mini-rocker box or small, nonmotorized sluice box, one must be obtained for sluicing and dredging.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife publishes the booklet “Gold and Fish” to provide details and definitions for use by recreational gold panners, which must be carried whenever you are panning. It also lists the classes of different streams and seasonal restrictions to certain activities.
It is important to know where in Washington you can go to find land that is open for recreational panning. Unless withdrawn, federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are open to panning and prospecting. These federal agencies provide maps showing their managed and withdrawn lands. Many cities own the watersheds that supply their water, so these areas are typically closed to the public.
State-owned lands are not open for panning unless a placer mining contract for a specified parcel of land has been obtained from the Department of Natural Resources. Privately owned land and mining claims are considered private lands, so you must obtain the owner’s or claim holder’s permission before panning. To answer questions about land ownership, check with the local County Assessor. When doing more than recreational panning on public lands, check with the appropriate land management agency to see if a Hydraulic Project Approval is required and to file operation plans with them.
Prospecting in and along streams in central and northeastern Washington offers the greatest chance of finding placer gold, although many of these areas are closed to the public. There are beaches up and down the Washington coast where gold may be found.