“There’s gold in them hills,” said the grizzled miner pointing toward snowy mountains. Those rich words still hold true long after the vanished cries of “Pikes Peak or Bust!” brought hordes of treasure seekers to the Colorado Rockies in 1859. The first prospectors struck the precious metal along Clear Creek and around Central City and Idaho Springs. Later miners found veins of gold ore and nuggets along with silver near iconic Colorado mining towns like Breckenridge, Fairplay, Leadville, Creede, Silverton, Telluride, and Cripple Creek in what was called the “world’s richest gold district”.
Gold is still found in those hills, you just need to get out there and find it. Here are some of the best places in Colorado to learn about the mining heritage, get up close to gold in underground tunnels, and try your hand at panning for gold to strike it rich.
1. Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour
The Mollie Kathleen Mine sits in the heart of the Cripple Creek mining district, dubbed the “World’s Greatest Gold Camp” in the 1890s. The mine, with a 1,000-foot-deep shaft, was discovered by Iowa mother Mollie Kathleen Gortner in 1891. She became the first woman to strike it rich at the Creek. The mine operated until 1961 when it turned into a tourist attraction. Now miners lower you down the deep shaft for an underground mining tour. Guides point out gold veins, show mining techniques and tools, and sometimes let you push a one-ton ore cart. At the end, everyone receives a free chunk of gold ore to take home.
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2. Vindicator Valley Trail
The two-mile Vindicator Valley Trail explores Battle Mountain above Victor in the Cripple Creek Mining District, the richest real estate in Colorado. The easy trail, beginning on County Road 81, passes historic buildings and old mines including the Vindicator and Theresa. The mountainside was a hive of mining activity in the 1890s. Check out the metal-sheathed Theresa Mine, which began digging the precious ore in 1895 and eventually produced over $196 million of gold. The Vindicator Mine had its own rail line, an ore-sorting house, and several head frames. Along the way, the trail also passes the Anna J Mine and a couple brick buildings used to store explosives. Don’t leave the trail, and watch your kids. This is an active mining area with dangerous open shafts.
3. Phoenix Gold Mine
The Phoenix Gold Mine has yielded buckets of gold, silver, copper, and tellurium since 1871. The Phoenix lies alongside Trail Creek west of Idaho Springs. The 500-foot-deep mine offers an interesting tour on the main level and another lower down where the Rockford Tunnel intersects the Phoenix gold vein. The mine is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a murder victim and Tommyknockers, malicious mine spirits. After the tour, you’re welcome to grab a pan, take a quick lesson in gold panning from an old miner, and swirl gravel in the creek. You keep all the nuggets you pan.
4. Fairplay Gold Panning
The Fairplay Beach, a town park with a fishing hole, hiking trails, and picnic tables, offers gold panning along the rocky banks of the South Platte River for a mere five bucks a week. A lot of gold came out of the South Platte in Fairplay’s heyday and dredges still work the river. Get a permit from the city clerk or town website, and head for the river with your pan and sluice. Gold nuggets and flakes are panned from the river every day.
5. Hidee Gold Mine
The Central City area west of Denver was the center of the “Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush” and later dubbed “the richest square mile on Earth”. While the town’s casinos now dominate the landscape, over the hill is the Hidee Gold Mine. The Hidee offers great family fun with its 90-minute tour. Go underground to learn about hard rock mining and then use a hammer and chisel to pry gold ore off a vein for a souvenir. Don’t forget a jacket; the temperature is 42 degrees year-round in the mine. Nearby is a site where you can learn to pan gold.
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6. Argo Gold Mine and Mill
The Argo Gold Mine and Mill dominate the historic mining town of Idaho Springs on I-70 west of Denver. The mine and mill sit at the entrance to the Argo Tunnel, a deep tunnel built to drain water from flooded mines in Central City to the north. The mill recovered gold from chunks of ore, processing over $100 million dollars of ore. Now the mill is open for tours as a mining museum with photographs, mining tools, and artifacts. Visitors can also see the entrance to the Argo Tunnel. Afterward, you head down to the rocky banks of Clear Creek for a gold panning lesson.
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7. Panning Colorado Creeks
Everyone who gets the gold bug thinks they’re gonna strike it rich, no doubt fueled by gold prices hovering at $1,200 an ounce. It’s easy to get the fever by finding a nugget in a clear Colorado stream. The Gold Prospectors Association of America lists eight Colorado counties with gold deposits. You’ll spend about fifty bucks to outfit yourself with pans and info from a shop like Gold-n-Detectors in Golden and then you can start looking for paydirt. Good spots include Clear Creek, Fairplay Beach, and the Arkansas River, but don’t trespass on private mining claims. Most weekend panners find gold flakes, but there’s still elusive nuggets out there waiting.