Can You Pan for Gold in the Smoky Mountains?

The Smoky Mountains are well-known historically for the gold belt that runs through them. One method of extracting small amounts of precious ore from the ground is known as gold panning due to the pan used in the process.

But can you pan for gold in the Smoky Mountains today? Well, the simple answer is yes! This fairly straightforward procedure which in fact brought fortunes to many in the past remains a popular hobby in the area for anyone who fancies trying their hand.

Guide to Goldpanning in the Smoky Mountains

actual chances of finding gold
Image: Bureau of Land Management Alaska

Is Gold Found near Specific Geological Features?

There are many places in the Smoky Mountain region where you can try your hand at striking gold, as well as a few other precious gems yet to be unearthed.

The general consensus in the mountain regions is that gold is most easily-found near the water regions flowing through the area. This comes by way of mountain rivers and small streams and the weight of the ore will cause it to sink and settle at the bottom of watery areas.

Aside from that, it is likely to be found in the mountain soil and bedrock. After heavy rains have fallen many people may try their luck as the top layer of soil will have been washed away to some degree.

Of course one of the most accessible gold panning avenues for tourists is to drop by one of the special mining operations that cater to visitors.

Which Places Are Best for Gold Panning?

best for gold panning
Image: Cliff Dix

The main gold belt is known to stretch between Tennessee and North Carolina, and one of the most renowned gold mines in the entire Smoky Mountain region is Coker Creek—also known as the Coker Creek Gold Belt in Tennessee’s Monroe County.

The area around the creek was the center of a famous gold rush back in the early 1830s, although admittedly not for long.

This region is where most of Tennessee has been unearthed, and it reaches into part of the Cherokee National Forest. If you are looking to check out a few mines in the Tennessee region you’ll certainly find a few around Coker Creek.

The Tennessee Gold Rush

In the late 1800s, Tennessee encountered something of a gold rush after a gold mine was discovered in the Smoky Mountains. The mine later became known as the legendary Smoky Mountain Gold Mine.

The discovery came about from the efforts of one Perry Shults, who somehow managed to unearth a shallow vein of pure gold in the region of Webb Creek. Shults tried to dig out the gold with a couple of friends but they were unable to access it.

However, the subsequent events are somewhat shady. There were reports that more than $30,000 worth of the precious ore was taken out over the next couple of years or so throughout the ensuing gold rush, with miners struggling to keep up with demand.

Somewhat bizarrely though, the mine was closed down soon after and no one seemed to know where the gold ended up!

There were many people moving to Tennessee at this time after the news had hit, and although the gold eventually ran out, plenty did manage to strike lucky and get rich from the region.

Where Can I Find a Gold Panning Experience in the Smokies Today?

gold panning experience in smokies today
Image: Jan Kronsell

Some tourist-oriented operations still offer visitors the gold panning experiences in the Smoky Mountains today, although reports suggest gems like sapphires and occasional rubies are more likely to be unearthed.

Pan Fer Gold in North Carolina’s Cherokee is situated in the Smoky Mountains and provides family adventures searching for gold and other hidden gems like rubies.

The mine advertises itself as a gold and ruby mine although only a few reviews of the operation offer any hint of gold being found. Those that do relate to only small amounts, but this activity is still seen by many as a fun and unique experience to get the family involved in on a visit to the Smoky Mountains.

The mine offers gold panning packs to visitors as well as jewelry, and the main thing you are paying for here will be the experience rather than the chance of striking rich. You can learn how to pan for gold and you just might find some, although the amount is likely to be very small.

With that said, it might make more sense for the truly adventurous to get a pan and head for the natural regions like those previously mentioned. If you do go this route though, keep in mind that permits are first required.

Some parts of Coker Creek are still open for panning today. As this is within the borders of the Cherokee National Forest, anyone planning to pan must first register and then get their permit.

These are free and can be picked up from the  Coker Creek Welcome Center on Highway 68 or the Tellico Ranger Station.

What Are the Actual Chances of Finding Gold?

Well, there are certainly no guarantees when it comes to striking lucky, but many who try still find the experience a fun part of any visit to the mountain regions. In fact, it is actually more common (and easier, apparently) for those who go on panning and mining trips to unearth other types of minerals and gems.

Gold is typically found only in very small deposits, quite deeply entrenched. So if you fancy a spot of prospecting you might keep in mind that the search could be quite lengthy, if not challenging.

But as gold is still a highly-valuable resource, there are still plenty who get involved in the search for it. Patience may well be one of your key allies if you fancy trying your hand

Are there any Smoky Mountain Gold Panning Regulations?

There sure are. Tennesseans and visitors alike looking to indulge in a spot of recreational prospecting will need a permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. This permit is actually quite general though and covers a wide range of gold extraction methods.

That said, gold panners are restricted to water-based prospecting, and anyone looking to use different methods needs to obtain another permit which is somewhat more difficult to come by.

Can You Pan for Gold in the Smoky Mountains? – The Bottom Line

So is it actually possible to pan successfully for gold in the Smoky Mountains today? Absolutely—but it’s likely to be in minimal amounts.

If you are one of the few who strike it lucky, it’s possible that you won’t exactly be looking at early retirement. That said, for many visitors, this is likely to be a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience that enriches any trip to the Smoky Mountains.

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