How to Pan for Gold in Washington State

By Si Kingston
Pan, gold, Washington state rivers, streams
river image by Bartek Jurkowski from

Washington state rivers and streams are popular destinations for gold prospectors and recreational gold panners. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) doesn't require any permits for recreational panning and prospecting using simple equipment, such as gold pans or non-motorized sluice box. Professional gold mining that will result in streams and rivers being diverted and obstructed require a permit from the DFW. Not all Washington state rivers and streams are open for recreational panning.

Purchase gold panning tools. Gold pans and panning kits, beach and sand scoops, screens and sieves for separating the dirt from the gold deposits are basic gold panning equipment. You only need a gold pan to get started. Tweezers, a magnifying glass and a container to store any finds also are recommended.

Go to a stream or river open for recreational panning. Most federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service in Washington are open for panning and prospecting, but state lands are not. A lot of gold deposits exist in waterways in central and northeast Washington, such as Kettle River, Negro Creek Bar, Granite Falls and Mad River. See Resources for a map of water systems open for panning.

Dip the gold pan into the river or stream bed and fill it full of sand or gravel. Remove the largest stones from the pan and drop them back into the water.

Place the gold pan underwater or fill it with water. Shift the gold pan from side to side quickly. This action allows the gold particles to separate from the sand and rocks.

Gently tip the pan away from you while continuing to shift it from side to side. Lighter and larger material will come to the top of the pan. Skim or scrape these materials over the brim of the pan with your hands.

Add more water to the pan. Continue to shift the pan from side to side, and remove lighter and larger materials. What is left on the bottom of the pan is referred to as the 'concentrate.' The concentrated materials are the larger materials, such as gold, that settle at the bottom of the pan.

Pour out excess water, if you still don't see gold. Be sure to leave enough water to cover the concentrate, and don't pour out the concentrated materials on the bottom. Continue to swirl the contents in the water to shift out any lighter particles.

Pick any gold metals out of the concentrate with your hands or a set of tweezers. Use a magnifying glass to see tiny gold particles in the concentrate. Place any gold in a bucket or container.