Gold Panning: There’s Money in our Streams

Montana is known as the Treasure State. For some, the treasure is our mountains and wildlife. For others, the treasure is more literal and found in our streams in the form of sapphires, garnets, agate and GOLD. Finding gold is like finding money in the streets . . . okay, it takes a little more effort than that, but not much. This addictive hobby not only gets you out in the fresh air and wild beauty of Montana, it also holds the potential for making money.


Gold was first discovered in Montana in 1852. The old timers would “read” a stream to determine the best place for gold to be found. Gold is one of the heaviest minerals in the stream, so huge volumes of water are required to move it. As such, studying streams at high water can be very helpful in determining where gold may be deposited. Sketching what is observed, or drawing a map, can be useful when returning to pan at lower water levels when nothing appears the same. Finding areas or objects that slow the water is the key to finding gold. The flow of water slows in the inside of river bends, the end of a series of rapids, the top of a deep pool, or where a narrow, high-volume stretch widens out. Water will also slow on the downstream side of huge boulders. Downed trees lodged perpendicular to stream flow make natural ripples, so gold could be found on the upstream side of the trunks, as well.

Gold prospectors of old used metal pans. In a pinch, these useful tools could be repurposed to fry an egg. They would then be thrown into the fire to burn off residual grease because grease can make fine gold float. So, note to self: don’t use hand lotion when panning. Gold pans are now available in plastic as well. Lighter and easier on the arms and shoulders, plastic pans come in many colors, including: black, green, blue, pink and orange. A non-black pan is sometimes preferably because it offsets the gold, as well as the black sand that is typically found at the bottom of the pan. Today, most gold pans also have riffles on at least one side. These speed gold recovery and give the beginner peace of mind (first-timers are usually convinced that they are sending all of the gold back into the stream). A large-bottomed gold pan may also be preferably because it processes the material faster than one with a small bottom. Though it’s always dictated by personal preference, pan selection definitely requires consideration of a number of factors.

As a hobby, gold panning requires a minimal initial investment – pans start at $4.50 – and can be enjoyed immediately. However, there are a few things that can make optimal use of our short summer season. A screen that is the same size as the gold pan can help to quickly remove the larger rocks. A shovel or scoop and a digging tool are mandatory. A snifter bottle is a small plastic bottle with a tube that runs thru the interior. It can be used as a tiny vacuum to suck up the gold that is revealed at the bottom of the pan. And gold vial is handy for storing newfound treasure.

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Earth’s Treasures stocks everything necessary to start prospecting for gold. The staff welcomes questions and is eager to demonstrate how to pan. Whether you are a family wanting something to enjoy together, or a backpacker looking for another way to enjoy the mountains, Earth’s Treasures will outfit you for your next adventure. Located at 25 N. Willson, Earth’s Treasures can be reached by calling 406.586.3451 or visiting

Gold Panning: There’s Money in our Streams Photo courtesy of F.W. Byerly Archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: On behalf of myself and the rest of the staff here at Rey Advertising, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to Patti Albrecht regarding her recent moment in the spotlight showcasing her shop, Earth’s Treasures, and speaking about her passion for treasure hunting on The Today Show. Check out both the Today Show and KBZK stories by visiting and clicking on the links. Cheers, Patti!