Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rockhound and Barbarian Fan

Back before I wrote so much about rockhounding, gold prospecting, and fossil collecting, I used to spin out an e-zine called "The Hyborian Review." It was dedicated to Robert E. Howard, and I had a lot of fun with it. I also learned the ins and outs of keeping up a mailing list, using Adobe Acrobat, and general Internet publishing.

Here's a link to the old PDFs:

Not sure how much longer Ed will keep that site up, but I figure I might as well link to it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How to Carve Soapstone

By Garret Romaine and Marty Schippers

When you think lapidary, you might be put off by all the tools and technology that are required, but don’t lose hope. If you’ve ever carved a fire stick while shooting the breeze over a summer campfire, you have enough skill to work with soapstone. It’s the easiest rock and gem material to get started with, and a $10 set of files will have you fashioning amulets in no time.

In this How-To article, we’ll take it a few notches up from carving with a pocketknife – we’ll get some power tools involved. Primitive man can have his “Venus of Willendorf,” but we can do better.

Figure 1. Venus of Willendorf, a fertility fetish carved in oolitic limestone and dating to 24,000 BC.


Now don’t get the wrong idea – after reading this article, you won’t be able to match famed sculptor Donal Hord of San Diego, who fashioned a young woman’s head from obsidian and created the epic “Thunder” from nephrite jade.

Figure 2. “La Cubana,” by Donal Hord. Obsidian, 1937.

Figure 3. “Thunder” by Donal Hord. From dark green nephrite jade, 20” high. 1946.

Hord (1902 – 1966) worked with the hardest woods and experimented among various rocks and minerals, including granite, black diorite, obsidian, nephrite jade, and onyx. As a somewhat sickly and sheltered young man, he studied art in Mexico and developed a uniquely American style that celebrates the strength and nobility of ancient cultures. I grew so enamored with him I found a website where I could track auctions to see if his stuff ever comes up for sale:

Whatever your particular style, the part where art comes in is where you envision the form inside the rough material. You may not know it when you pick it up, or you may see it in a flash of light. I don’t know. This is the part I’m not so experienced in. I’m still at the crude pipes and fishies stage. That’s why I brought in Marty Schippers, an experienced carver in the Seattle area.

Safety precautions

Talc isn’t asbestos, but they hang out together. Around any metamorphic rocks you run the risk of harmful dust invading your lungs. Always use caution and ensure that you have excellent ventilation. If you are going to operate sanders, grinders, drills, and power saws, you should always use a mask, use eye protection, and maybe shin guards and a helmet, if possible.

Figure 4. Be extremely wary of getting dust in your lungs or eyes.

Mineralogy Lesson

Soapstone is a talc-rich schist, and has been fashioned for centuries into jewelry and tools. On the Mohs hardness scale, talc is a 1, and you can scratch it with your fingernail. The more talc present, the softer the stone. Wikipedia has a great write-up, explaining that soapstone occurs when tectonic plates grind against each other at great depth. The heat and the pressure, when mixed with the strange witches-brew of chemicals that circulate miles below the crust, is never quite enough to completely melt the rock, so it retains all its streaks and swirls.

Just to continue the geology lesson into mineralogy, soapstone can start out as dunite or serpentinite, but with more metamorphism, it cooks into a composition of talc, chlorite, and amphiboles, with trace to minor iron and chromium. Pyrophyllite is similar to soapstone and has similar uses.

Soapstone pipes are occasionally found among Native American artifacts, but catlinite, or pipestone, was apparently the preferred medium for fancy ceremonial purposes. As a side note, check out Pipestone National Monument at You have to be a member of a tribe and make reservations far in advance to dig there. So stick with soapstone!

Ten Easy Steps

Listed below are ten easy steps to follow when completing a soapstone carving project.

Step 1: Find a rock, get it home

There are multiple soapstone locales in the US, which you can track down using Mindat at Outside of Seattle, Washington, on the North Cascades Highway, the rivers and creeks near Marblemount contain some good soapstone material, but most of the mines are no longer active. That’s the general area where we collected from, plus another chunk from a Washington State Mineral Council (WSMC) field trip at Lake Wenatchee. If you want further information, consult the Council at their new home page: (In addition, a shameless plug: my book Gem Trails of Washington will help you find soapstone at Marblemount.)

Figure 5. Map of Marblemount soapstone area; click to enlarge (from Gem Trails of Washington.)

It’s possible to use a chainsaw or handsaw to remove large chunks of soapstone from an outcrop.

Step 2: Envision some kind of form

Now that you have a chunk, you need to figure out what to do with it. Marty explains, “I don’t know where it really comes from, but you just start to see something in there. I had a small boulder once that I just knew was going to be a frog, and out it came. I carved some salmon once, and it just seemed like the most natural thing to do with the piece. After a little experience, you see something and you just know you could get a small orca out of it.”

Figure 6. Envisioning the form that you are about to release is the tricky part.

Animals and figurines are more of a challenge, so you might want to start with easier projects. When carving simple shapes and abstract forms, there is more leeway in the approach. You may simply want to work with the stone and experiment. It takes practice to learn the art of the possible, so feel free to try different tools and approaches.

As Marty explains it, “Basically, you’re going from big to little. I'm sure just about anything used to shape wood or metal could be employed. A flat screw driver and a carpenter’s hammer would remove a lot of rock.”

Step 3: Cut off big chunks

This is where the dust starts to fly, so be prepared to make a mess. Your main goal is to reduce the amount of time you have to be more careful with trimming. A Saws-All with a good blade will work really well. I’ve seen rockhounds in the field bring a carpenter’s saw with them to cut out top-quality chunks of soapstone, so any saw will work. Power tools are more fun, certainly.

Figure 7. Use power tools such as a Saws-All to remove big chunks of material.

In this procedure, Marty wanted to create an interesting fountain, so he needed to taper the top and leave plenty of room for his imagination. He sawed one side basically smooth, then roughed in some beginning forms on the side for swirls and knobs.

Step 4: Rough out

Marty uses a pneumatic die grinder with rotary rasps and stones for the rough stuff. You might find that a chisel removes pieces more easily, so if you have one, consider using it. This step is optional; the photograph below is from a bowl project. Marty has a better collection of tools than I do, so I never know if he needs to use something or is just giving it a try.

The goal at this step is to have a good roughed-out form. If the piece will be sitting on a pedestal, you can get a flat bottom going. If there are arms or fingers, they should start to emerge. You should start to see your piece better at this point.

Figure 8. The air chisel can help with material that will chip away. Marty used it more on the bowl project than on his fountain, so your mileage may vary.

Step 5: Drill hole

Now that the form is roughed out and sits on a pedestal, it is ready for the fountain hole. The drill bit for this fountain project was insanely long, and required a good, straight aim, plus patience, and some luck. The fountain hole can be one of the trickiest parts to get right, because you sometimes have to drill the hole from the top AND the bottom, requiring pinpoint accuracy. Marty’s advice is to invest in the longest bit you can buy, as, the “two-hole” approach is maddening and can stop a project in its tracks.

Test the water flow of your fountain hole at this point, as the water won’t stain the raw soapstone.

Figure 9. Drilling holes for a fountain requires the right bit and a lot of patience.

Step 6. Fill cracks

Now that most of the rough stuff is over, it’s time to repair the damage. If you sloughed off a piece when drilling, or otherwise saw a crack emerge, all is not lost. Invest in a few tubes of Superglue and get a good fill on the problem areas. Let the material dry for a minimum of what the label says. Be extra patient here, or you could repeat the step.

Figure 10. Some material cracks more easily, but a strong glue will fix the problem.

Step 7: Add detail

At this point, Marty had zeroed in on the forms and shapes he wanted, including a line of grooves on the face. He roughed in the parallel lines with a mix of power tools, including a grinder, and also used a set of files with various edges and tips.

“Just about anything will work,” Marty says. “You can use a hobby rasp or file, a Dremel, some wood carving chisels, smaller fine files, or a pocket knife. Avoid the temptation to try one of your wife's best pieces of cutlery.”

Treat this step as the final work before fine sanding can start. Make sure you have taken enough material off; you don’t want to rely on sanding to remove a lot of rock at this point.

Figure 11. A grinder is good for smoothing down the rough edges quickly.

Step 8: Sanding

At this point, Marty’s form is definitely taking shape. He’s put in a series of rough, parallel grooves, added various knobs and ridges, and worked with the piece’s natural streaking from green to reddish. But the surface is still coarse, so sandpaper is the next tool.

Figure 12. Wet-sanding with a fine-grit sandpaper ensures that you don't take off too much material with each pass.

“As far as the sanding goes, I start with 80 to 120 grit dry sand. It’s pretty dusty, but that’s why they call me ‘Dusty Fingers.’ When I get to 200 grit, I start wet-sanding, which simply involves keeping the sandpaper wet while working. I keep getting finer, going all the way up to 1000 grit. On a typical project, I wet-sand at 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000, and even 1200 grit.”

By the way, the finer grit sandpaper is usually found at auto body supply stores – not at Home Depot or Lowe’s.

This is the final step where you take material off, so make sure everything is smooth and nice before proceeding.

Step 9: Polish + Seal

Soapstone will turn color with age, water, dust, or other influences, as it will oxidize and form a crust. The best you can hope for is to slow down the process. There are several different schools of thought here, but Marty reports on what worked best for him.

Figure 13. Marty uses Minwax Helmsman spar urethane to seal the sanded soapstone.

“I would recommend the urethane for a piece you plan to leave outdoors, and any water feature should have a satin or gloss finish. Indoor art would be better served with plain beeswax or "BRIWAX" brand furniture wax. Any wax could be used, but these are my preferences. The point being that fine art does not encourage a hard coating like the urethane. It needs to be as natural as possible.”

Step 10 Present

Here is the finished piece, without any tubes or pumps showing. From some angles, it resembles a horse head, while from other directions it is more abstract. Marty calls the piece “Grooved Fountain.”

Figure 14. The finished product.


There you have it – ten steps to making your own soapstone carving with various tools. If you just want to make a fetish or amulet, or some ear rings, the process is a lot simpler, and less power tools are involved. Be aware that carving soapstone can lead to working with additional materials, and you can see what experts do with material like jade. The fun part of this project for me was that we collected the material ourself. Plus you can work at your own pace and learn something new. At some point, you may even start to see salamanders creeping out of their rocky prison, and you’ll know you have achieved the rank of a master carver.

South Dakota

I always appreciate reader emails – that’s why I put my email address at the bottom of the column. This one came in recently and I just had to check it out, right away, because it was a great excuse to focus on an area I don’t know much about.

Dear Garret:

I am new to gold prospecting, and have limited computer skills, but I am planning a trip to the Black Hills. I saw your address in Gold Prospectors magazine -- any info/directions on where to mine the Internet for gold in South Dakota would be appreciated – thanks!

- Dean Dahlheimer,

Great question! First off, let’s take a look at historic mining in South Dakota, and get an idea of the location of the state’s major gold mining districts from USGS Professional Paper 610:

Figure 1. Principal gold mining districts of South Dakota all lie in the Black Hills area, at the western border with Wyoming. Click to enlarge the graphics.

Clearly, the best gold you’re going to get from this state is in Lawrence County and Pennington County. That’s the heart of the Black Hills. Custer County, to the south, is probably also in play, but not a strong contender. For that matter, it might make sense to check the drainages headed east from the Black Hills if you catch wind of a 100-year flood…

I went out to the South Dakota geology web page and found this relief map of the state:

Figure 2. Black Hills appear like a giant oval uplift on the western border of South Dakota in this relief map.

Now you can start to see the Black Hills, on the far western border, and what a significant mountainous region it truly is. And that drainage pattern isn’t too bad, either – I count about ten drainages that end up in the Missouri River.

Check the Claims Guide

First, before doing a lot of Internet searching, let’s check the GPAA Claims Guide and see what it says about South Dakota. According to the guide, gold was first discovered along French Creek in the Black Hills during Custer’s Expedition in 1874. The resulting influx of miners upset the Sioux, who had supposedly gained ownership of the Black Hills by treaty. Eventually, as most history buffs know, Custer was killed but won the war, and the area went back to public lands. The area’s big producer was the Homestake Mine, which eventually produced more than 30 million troy ounces of gold before closing.

The guide suggests the following placer opportunities:

For Lawrence County: ‘All streams, bench and terrace gravel deposits, including Deadwood, Whitewood, Gold Run, Bobtail, Blacktail, Spring, and Strawberry Gulches, plus Spearfish and Elk Creeks and their tributaries, around Deadwood. Squaw, Yellow, False Bottom, and Annie Creeks show promise. Blacktail and Sheeptail Gulches, and all other area streams and benches around Lead are worth checking. The Negro Hill district, including Sand Creek, Beaver Creek, and Bear Creek, shows gold. Also Potato, Negro, Poplar, Mallory, and other creeks and gulches should be checked.’

In Pennington County, try ‘Spring Creek, Rapid Creek, Castle Creek, and Battle Creek.’

In Custer County: ‘All stream, bench, and terrace gravel deposits, especially on French Creek, site of the first discovery, along the eastern slopes of the Black Hills, near Custer.’ So my earlier thoughts about Custer County need revising.

Here’s where your full GPAA membership pays off; there are four member claims in South Dakota, all in the Black Hills. In Pennington County, check out MIGG 1-4, comprising 80 acres near Rochford on Rapid Creek; also try the Mary Ann and Rainbow Claims nearby. Or, if your Harley is tuned up, check out a spot near Sturgis, known as the Husker #1 claim.

Given all that, an Internet search should at least verify what we know, plus provide answers about state rules and regulations. I like to get an idea of how many people I’m going to trip over, where the museums and camps are, etc. It’s the concept of “local color” that defines an area, so you know what to expect on your first visit to the region. Aerial photography is good, but I like to develop a complete appreciation for a spot so that the trip is more in the category of ‘verification’ rather than ‘discovery.’

Finding Gold in South Dakota

This is a comprehensive site that offers clues about finding gold in most states. For South Dakota, the site recommends these starting spots:

· Several Black Hills streams due west of Rapid City, from Custer in the South to Lead and Deadwood in the North area. An interesting area is Castle Creek, Hoodoo Gulch, Crooked Gulch, and Chinese Hill, all of which are near Mystic.

· You can look in Rapid Creek, which is located near Placerville and Rockerville, and are both southwest of Rapid City.

· Along the banks of French Creek in Custer County.

Mayhill Press

Here’s what Mayhill Press says about South Dakota’s two noted gold-bearing counties, with an emphasis on hard-rock mining:

LAWRENCE: Bald Mtn District - 3 m West and SW from Lead, Mogul Mine.
.....Deadwood-Two Bit District - around Deadwood. Mostly from placers in Deadwood Gulch and the following creeks: Two Bit, Elk, Strawberry. Also Strawberry Gulch. Mines: Cloverleaf, Mascot.
.....Garden District - 1-3 miles N from Lead. Maitland mine - 3 miles NNW from Lead.
.....Lead District - at Lead. HOMESTAKE MINING COMPANY.
.....Squaw Creek District - 6 miles W from Lead. Includes Elk Mtn, Carbonate, Ragged Top areas. Placers at Squaw and Annie creeks. MORE MINES: Gold Reward - 2 miles SW from Lead; Wasp No 2 - 2 miles S. Gilt Edge - 5 miles ESE; Spearfish - 7 miles W; Uncle Sam - 7 miles SE; Lundberg, Door and Wilson - 2 miles WSW; Hoodoo-Union Hill - 5 miles ESE; Reliance - 5 miles W; Hidden Fortune - .5 mile N.

PENNINGTON: Hill City District - near headwaters of Spring Creek and around Hill City to the NW. JR mine - 3 miles NE from Hill City.
.....Keystone District - 1.5 miles SE to 3.5 miles NW from Keystone. Mines: Keystone-Holy Terror.
.....Rockerville Placer District - E from Rockerville.

So now you have the names of some hard rock mines to check as well as placer locales. I’ll leave the hard rock mining to concentrate on placer locales. Whenever I see a creek called “Two-Bit Creek” I know I want to try it. I’ve been on Ten Cent Creek in Oregon and recently spied “50-Cent Creek” in Wyoming.

Black Hills National Forest

Check out the links to the US Forest Service map page, as there are lots of files to download and plenty of good information. This will give you ideas about camping in the area, too. You’ll probably want to order the Black Hills National Forest map if you plan to do any exploring at all; it’s practically a must-have.

Here’s what the Black Hills National Forest says about rockhounding, gold panning, and fossil collecting:

· Rock collecting in small amounts for personal use is allowed on the Forest. Make sure you surface collect only, with no digging or excavating.

· Recreational gold panning is allowed in some locations. Contact the closest Forest Service office for more information on locations and rules.

· Metal detectors are allowed, as long as you don't dig holes.

· Federal law prohibits the collection of fossils.

If I’m not mistaken, the last bullet about fossil hunting is new. Collecting non-vertebrate fossils used to be fine for amateurs. Also, what’s the point of metal detecting if you can’t dig a target? Just remind people to fill in their holes and move on!

Here’s the address:

Black Hills National Forest

Highway 385 Northg

Route 2, PO Box 200

Custer, SD 57730

(605) 673-2251

Geology Information

Check out links for abandoned mines (there’s a name and phone number if you want to contact the office about promising mine dumps) and links to geology maps. There is a nice section of web links at as well. You could spend a lot of time tracking down documents and links from this page. For example, the South Dakota University School of Mines and Technology is located at this address:

More Geology maps

The maps on this page include a geology map for the entire state in PDF form, which you can zoom in on. There’s also a statewide topo map.

Figure 3. Note the ancient geology of the Black Hills, with an abundance of Precambrian rocks at the core.

Tourist Info

If you can plan far enough ahead, contacting a tourist-focused website can net you a full envelope of brochures about an area. If nothing else, I’d hate to miss a promising brew pub (Black Hills Brewing Co., 51 Sherman St. in Deadwood). Here are two tourist sites for the Black Hills area:


Request their brochure, entitled The Official Guide to Deadwood. Figure out where the gas stations, mini-marts, and taverns are situated. Check for museums and other attractions – especially if you have kids with short attention spans.


Lead is not all that far from Presidents Park, Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Spearfish Canyon, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Custer State Park, and Devils Tower, to name a few sites. It would make an ideal vacation headquarters, as this site points out.

Gas Prices

Here’s a site I learned about during the big price run-up in 2008. Actually, it wasn’t just the prices I was worried about – just FINDING gas is often a challenge.

First off, you can add to your Google maps. I went to and entered “gas prices” in the search box. The first link was to Google Maps, with easy instructions to add prices to the overlay. You can also go to to get the widget. I find this interface tough to use, but by clicking through I got to and the map of “gas temperature” comes up. This is a graphical representation of where prices are red hot. The trick here is to set the time limit in the bottom right corner to “All Stations.” That way each gas station shows up, even if the reported information is “old.”

Google Earth hack,-South-Dakota.htm

I’ll just assume you already have Google Earth loaded, since it’s such a great tool for checking an area before you visit. Label this link under “advanced” Google Earth – it’s a user-created “hack.” This is pretty neat – if you already have Google Earth installed, click on the link for the .kmz file and you’ll bring up the Homestake Mine.

Amateur Geologist

This site is always a good source of information if you’re trying to puzzle out some likely spots missed by earlier prospectors. You’ll need to understand schists, quartz veins, dikes, sills, pegmatites, and ancient metamorphic rocks if you want to sort out the Black Hills geology. Roadside Geology of South Dakota is often sold with the Geological Highway Map for the Northern Great Plains region.

SD Department of Energy and Natural Resources

Get a small-scale mining permit at the DENR’s “one-stop shopping” site. Check out the FAQ if you have questions. A small miners permit – a state level permit issued by the DENR – is required for anyone who uses motorized equipment, such as a dredge or high banker or panning wheel. It appears that if you want to use a bucket, shovel, and sluice, you also need to check in, but it’s always good practice anyway. At the very least, contact the National Forest if you are planning to do anything other than pan and trowel work. But it’s a good idea to just get the permit and start accumulating concentrates by the bucket.

Broken Boot Gold Mine

The Broken Boot Mine is noted for its underground tours. It wasn’t the greatest gold mine, but makes for a dark underground experience. Here’s a snip from their home page: “…gold wasn’t the only metal Seim and Nelson found in their mine. They also found plenty of iron pyrite, or fool’s gold. Fortunately for the miners, iron pyrite was in demand. Since it could be used to make sulfuric acid, which was used in the processing of real gold, the miners could get decent money for iron pyrite. Indeed, the mine made more profit from selling fool’s gold than they did real gold.”

South Dakota history

If you just want a snapshot of the history of the Black Hills, Infoplease is a good site. Here’s a snip:

“Rumors of gold in the Black Hills, confirmed by a military expedition led by George A. Custer in 1874, excited national interest, and wealth seekers began to pour into the area. However, much of the Black Hills region had been granted (1868) to the Sioux by treaty, and when they refused to sell either mining rights or the reservation itself, warfare again broke out. The defeat (1876) of Custer and his men by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall in the battle of the Little Bighorn (in what is now Montana) did not prevent the whites from gradually acquiring more and more Native American land, including the gold-lined Black Hills.”

If you want to spend hours tracking down obscure historical facts, there’s no better site than the South Dakota State Historical Society. The link is is still one of my favorites. Try and click on South Dakota. Then you’ll get a list of old towns, such as Rochford or Rockerville. Be sure to think of them if you return from the area with photos, as they can use all the updated information and photographs they can get.

South Dakota GPAA

The site isn’t real active, but it’s a good start. I always get the best information when I talk to a GPAA member directly. The phone number is listed as (605) 341-0483 but is subject to change. Check in the Pick and Shovel Newsletter (free with membership) for the most updated info on state claims committees.


Since that’s where three of the four GPAA claims in South Dakota are located, I used the BLM’s Geocommunicator site to check the Rapid Creek area in Pennington County for active and abandoned claims. Here’s a snapshot of the area from the BLM’s LR2000 database:

Figure 4. Active claims on Rapid Creek as shown by the Geocommunicator tool.

Note that if I were to flip the switch on this display to show the expired claims, most of the streams and creeks in this area were under claim at one time, but there are a few open spots now.


With all that gold mineralization in the Black Hills, you know there is bound to be some rockhounding as well. I checked Treasurefish and got this report about South Dakota:

“Don’t forget the gems - The State's best known chalcedony is its colorful and beautiful Fairburn agates. Named after a community near a very prolific agate deposit in Custer County, these brightly colored banded agates are similar to Lake Superior agates found in Michigan and Dryhead agates from Montana. The color patterns are alternating bands with one of the bands always white. The colors that alternate with white include yellowish-brown, dark red, salmon pink, black, yellow, grayish-blue, and milky-pink.

“The agate nodules range in size from about 20 millimeters in diameter to some that weigh as much as 20 kilograms. The nodules are recovered from the weathering of the Chadron Formation in an elongated belt covering parts of Custer, Pennington, and Shannon Counties, with the community of Fairburn at about the center of the belt. Nodules similar to the Fairburn nodules weather out of a limestone formation in an area that includes parts of Custer and Fall River Counties.

Other varieties of agate are found in the State. Moss agate, much like the famous Montana moss agate, can be found in river gravels of the Little Missouri River system in Harding County. A wide variety of agate can be found in the gravel pits in the entire eastern part of the State.”

The reliable Western Gem Hunter’s Atlas (Cy Johnson & Son, 1994) has good information about South Dakota. Here’s a snip of their map for the area around Deadwood and Custer.

Figure 5. Rockhounding map of western South Dakota, from Johnson (1994).


This should be enough to get anyone started on a fantastic trip to South Dakota. You can see why the reader got the idea in the first place – the place drips with history, the gold should be good, and there are a lot of things to see in the nearby area. I can even suggest a snip from a Beatles song to hum to yourself as you tour the area:

Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota
There lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon…

Garret Romaine writes from Portland, Oregon.

Stevens Pass, Washington

As gold rushes go, the area to the west of Stevens Pass, Washington was just a minor footnote in western history. Located about 50 miles east of Seattle, the old mining districts were often located in remote, steep terrain, where rain and snow made conditions miserable. Today, few traces exist, yet there are still colors in several of the creeks, including my favorite, Money Creek.

In this article, I’ll describe a prospecting trip in late September, 2009 that took me to several different locales. I can update you on some of the road conditions, and maybe give you a few ideas of your own. The major producer in this general area was the Monte Cristo district, mostly wrapped up in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and off-limits. So we hit it briefly, then concentrated on the next drainage south, along the Skykomish River, including Beckler River, Foss River, Miller River, Money Creek, the Sultan River, and the North Fork of the Skykomish.


First, let’s understand where the area fits into historic gold mining in Washington, by consulting “old reliable” – U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 610:

“Gold was first discovered in the state in 1853 in the Yakima River valley by a party under the command of Capt. George McClelland exploring for a possible railroad route (Huntting, 1955, p. 28). By 1855, prospectors were active in the Colville district, although the first discoveries were not made until 1883. In 1855, small placers were found along the Columbia and Pend Oreille Rivers. From the 1850s through the 1890s, placers were worked along streams in Okanogan, Whatcom, Chelan, and Kittitas Counties and along the major streams of the state – the Columbia and Snake Rivers. By 1900, however, most of the placer deposits were exhausted.” (Koschmann and Bergendahl, 1968, p. 260)

For Snohomish County, the authors have a little more detail of interest:

“In south-central Snohomish County gold was produced from several districts in the western part of the Cascade Range. These districts – Monte Cristo, Index, Silverton, Silver Creek and Sultan—are more or less contiguous and occupy an area about 10 miles wide and 20 miles long extending from about the center of the county south to the King County boundary…The Monte Cristo and Silverton districts produced most of the gold in the county. Patty (1921, p. 282) estimated that the combined early production of all metals, but mostly gold, from these districts was worth $7 million. From 1903 through 1956, production was 9,595 ounces of lode gold and 535 ounces of placer gold.

“Spurr (1901, p. 804-805) believed that ore deposition began in late Pliocene or early Pleistocene and continued to the Recent. The most important deposits are mineralized joints within or near tonalite masses. Ore minerals are galena, sphalerite, chalcopyrite, pyrite, and arsenopyrite. An upper zone, with is nearest the surface, contains galena, sphalerite, and chalcopyrite and is richer in gold and silver…” (p. 261)

So what does that mean? Basically, you’re looking for sulphides, including fool’s gold, or pyrite. Western Washington’s incessant rain will turn sulphides veins black by liberating sulphur, and sometimes you can even sniff out a pyrite-rich zone.

Here’s a rough map of the major gold areas we’re talking about, taken from the Gold Digger’s Atlas:

Figure 1. Gold districts near Stevens Pass, WA. Cick it to make it larger.

Monte Cristo


Monte Cristo

GPS reading

48.01887, -121.44429

Land Status

US Forest Service




Active claim near road;

Old mines on private land


South Fork Sauk River

Nearest town


Figure 2. Mountains near Monte Cristo.

The simplest way to reach Monte Cristo is to drive south from Darrington on the Mountain Loop Highway, which is actually a gravel road in its more remote stretches. There is plenty of camping in the area, with primitive spots throughout but also organized camps, especially out of Verlot. At Barlow Pass, you’ll usually spot many cars parked along the road near the trail head. Be sure to lock your valuables. You’ll need to hike about a half-mile, as there is an active claim along the S. Fk. Sauk River.

This GPS reading is right on the road; it’s the best early place to hike down to the water on the easy, level trail. There is a big jumble of mossy boulders; go a little further, and you should locate a trail to the river that is short and doesn’t take you through the underbrush. Gravels are extensive here. Look for traps up and down the river. Rockhounding material includes gneiss, schist, quartz, granite, marble, etc. We chose a spot at the head of a big gravel bar and found good black sand in the first pan, and color in the second pan. The quantity of the black sand and the size of the colors increased with depth. Fill in your big holes.

There are mines everywhere in the hills above the ghost town, but most are private. It’s a gorgeous area, great for a day hike to the town site of Monte Cristo, now barely recognizable. Rockhounds talk about decent quartz crystals at high elevation above Monte Cristo. We took a detour up to a famed garnet collecting area on Sloan Creek, out of Bedal, but the road was washed out and we ended up collecting small garnets until we lost the battle with horse flies near the Sloan Creek trail head.

Traffic gets heavy along this scenic highway during the summer, and many tight passing spots along the loop are dangerous. Not all drivers are as courteous as you’d like them to be. Heavy rains have washed out this road in the past, and there is no way to predict if the road will always be open; be sure to email or phone the Snoqualmie-Baker National Forest at Darrington any time you plan a trip up here.

Beckler River

GPS reading

47.73496, -121.33371

Land Status

US Forest Service


Panning for small garnets




Beckler River

Nearest town


The rest of the locales in this article are south of Monte Cristo, in the Skykomish drainage. We camped in the Beckler River campground, a very nice spot with no road noise from US Highway 2. An outcrop of garnet schist up river from the camp provides lots of garnets in the river gravels, and a little black sand, but we didn’t pull any colors from this locale.

A few years ago, the road looped from Skykomish, up Beckler River, then down to the Index area and back to Highway 2. In 2009, we ran into a sign that indicated the road was open only to local traffic when we were closing in on the old Galena area mines. This means that there is no public access to the Silver Creek district, which is a shame. On the other side of the loop, just outside of Index, the main road to Galena and Silver Creek is badly washed out, also preventing access. It’s a pity, because there is probably a good opportunity to pan from Silver Creek, and anyone interested in a challenging alpine hike can actually reach Monte Cristo by hiking up Silver Creek and across Poodle Dog Pass. Hopefully the road situation will improve in the future if there are enough forests to log up there.

Foss River

GPS reading

47.63053, -121.30924

Land Status

US Forest Service


Limited panning




Foss River

Nearest town


Figure 3. Foss River flood zone.

About two miles east of Skykomish (which has gas and a liquor store) the Foss River Road heads south into the steep mountains. We followed it (also known as NFD 68) for about 6.5 miles, until it dead-ended at the trailhead. There are two old mining claims along the Foss River that date from decades ago, located below Trout Lake. There were hard rock mines around Trout Lake, but the area is accessible only via hiking trail. We walked in a little less than a mile and found a likely spot on the river, but the panning wasn’t that great. We pulled a little black sand, but nothing to brag about, and not enough color to spur us to look harder or longer. Honestly, the area looked like it had witnessed a horrific flood, and most of the small sand was blown away. Before I completely cross it off the list I’d want to hike all the way to the old mines at Trout Lake, but it isn’t high on my list.

Miller River

GPS reading

47.71073, -121.39742

Land Status

US Forest Service


Panning, sluicing




Miller River

Nearest town


Figure 4. Entrance to the Mohawk Mine, near the Miller River.

To reach a good panning spot on Miller River, head west from Skykomish along the Old Cascade Highway about 2.3 miles until you see a left turn, south, on Miller River Road. This is NFD 6410. You’ll join up with the Miller River after less than a mile, and you can start looking for river access. Alternatively, you can turn off of US Highway 2 at the Money Creek campground turnoff, and you’ll see the turn onto Miller River Road after a mile.

We found good gravel bars that contained a tan-brown jasper, and some of it was so swirly that it is called picture jasper. What interested us were the boulders covered with moss, which we sampled with excellent results. There are also several decent bedrock traps, where the black sand was excellent, and the colors got better with depth. Unfortunately, the boulder we were carving under shifted and nearly claimed a miner, so we retired for lunch and moved on. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Later, we hooked up with Daryl Jacobson of the group Northwest Underground Explorations. They’ve written three books on Washington underground mines, and each is a fabulous resource. Daryl helped us find the trail up to the Mohawk Mine, which was a small prospect along the Miller River. His group had been out recently, and there was flagging along the dim trail, so we easily found the entrance. The miners were apparently chasing a vein of blackened sulphides, and we got a couple samples before leaving.

There is excellent primitive camping throughout the area along Miller River, and the developed Money Creek campground is good, but has a little too much road noise for my tastes.

Money Creek

GPS reading

47.70719, -121.44274

Land Status

US Forest Service


Panning, sluicing, etc.




Money Creek

Nearest town


Figure 5. Mossy boulders along Money Creek.

This was the best spot of the bunch, which must be why it’s called Money Creek. To reach our spot, turn off US Highway 2 at Money Creek, go past the campground, over the railroad tracks, and about a mile from US 2, look for the sign for Miller River. As soon as you turn onto Miller River Road, look for Money Creek Road. This is NFD 6420. Take it for about 2.3 miles to reach our spot, but you can stop anywhere creek access looks likely.

We found more of the tan picture jasper in Money Creek, and petrified wood is reported from the gravels in this area. There is bedrock here, which makes for excellent gravity traps, and the moss mining and crevicing was fantastic. The black sand was abundant, and we got color with the first pan. Again, there is good primitive camping all along the creek, and the developed Money Creek campground is OK, just close to US 2.

If the road isn’t washed out, the Washington State Mineral Council used to mount an annual expedition to the Damon & Pythias Mine on NFD 6422. If you enjoy going underground, your best option is to hook up with WSMC because they get the right keys to the right gates and get to swing their picks in the mine itself. There is nothing like seeing a little pinpoint of daylight at the end of a long mine tunnel, if you’ve never experienced that sensation.

Sultan County Park

GPS reading

48.01887, -121.44429

Land Status

US Forest Service


Light panning


No dredging in the park


Sultan River

Nearest town


Because the water was low and there wasn’t much going on, we stopped at the county park right on the Sultan River, practically in “downtown” Sultan. Take Albion Street north into the park, and angle over to where the river forms a nice elbow. There is an impressive little gravel bar there, and for many folks, this is about as close as you’re ever going to get to the Sultan placers. Since it’s a park, we didn’t go crazy, but we dug a couple holes on the inside bend of the elbow and panned out a lot of black sand before the rain drove us off. This is one of those spots where you might draw a crowd, you’d have to fill in your holes completely, and you might even make a good show of picking up some litter.

The problem with the Sultan River is access. We wanted to hook up with the Washington Prospectors and have them show us around the Sultan basin, but we managed to choose one of the wettest weekends of the year, so those plans fell apart. Way back when I was in graduate school at the University of Washington my wife signed me up for a non-credit gold panning class as a birthday gift. The class met at Horseshoe Bend, on the Sultan River, below the canyon and the dam. It’s on private utility land, and was open back then, but for the last ten years Horseshoe Bend has been off-limits. The spot was listed in old GPAA Claims Guides in the mid-1990s, but again, it is no longer open.

In fact, the best spots on the Sultan are claimed up by the big Washington club, and they wince every time the local magazines and newspapers write a story about weekend panners and the high price of gold. The inevitable result is that too many folks come out, end up getting lost or confused, accidentally trespass or claim jump, and generally cause problems. So I didn’t even stray up the Sultan, and I don’t advise that you do, either, unless you join the club first.

Sultan Bridge

GPS reading

47.86002, -121.81380

Land Status

US Forest Service




Bit of a hike


Skykomish River

Nearest town


Figure 6. Short beach near Sultan bridge.

Barring access to the Sultan River itself, you can do some decent panning around the point where the Sultan dumps its load near the Sultan Bridge. You should be able to spot a fisherman’s access and parking area just across the Skykomish River from Sultan. At 5th Street, cross the river on Ben Howard Road, but once you reach the other bank, look for the parking area. There are two trails from the lot – one goes more or less northeast, while the other goes northwest. We tried the northeast route first and reached a steep bank with a small beach, and what looked like the pilings to an old bridge. Just for grins, we scraped some moss into a plastic bag someone had littered, and when we got it back to camp, we washed the moss in a five-gallon bucket and poured a good sample into a pan. The pan held a nice showing of black sand and a fine line of tiny gold pinpoints.

If you go on the other trail, which is longer, you can access a gravel bar directly across the Skykomish from the mouth of the Sultan River. The bedrock isn’t accessible, so you’re limited to float gold trapped in the gravels, or more moss mining.

Skykomish River

GPS reading

47.84517, -121.92648

Land Status

US Forest Service


Panning, crevicing


Fishing spot


Skykomish River

Nearest town


Figure 7. Bedrock along the south shore of the Skykomish River near Monroe.

Because so many mines dot the hills above the Skykomish River, and gold enters in from the Sultan River, Miller River, Foss River, North Fork of the Skykomish, and Money Creek, we gave the big river a chance outside of Monroe. To reach this spot, from Monroe drive south on Lewis Street, which is also WA 203, for a mile until you reach Ben Howard Road. Take Ben Howard for about 2.1 miles until you spot the fisherman’s access point.

This public access spot has a bedrock outcrop at the upper end, and it’s covered with moss. There are gravity traps in the crevices that replenish constantly. The gravel bar itself can be crowded with fishermen during the fall season, but when its less occupied, you can rockhound the gravels for lots of interesting material for the tumbler.


The Steven Pass area has a lot more mining history than you might think. We sampled from multiple spots in a fascinating three-day tour, then set up a few of our panning machines in camp to figure out which area was best. Hands down, Money Creek was the winner. We ended up with the best colors and the most black sand from Money Creek, but Miller River wasn’t bad. The Sultan is promising, and spots on the Skykomish, such as the Gold Bar area, or our bedrock discovery near Monroe, were decent enough.

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources wants you to have a “Gold and Fish Pamphlet” with you whenever you pan, but the good news is that they finally relented and you can pick it up off their website, rather than get it mailed to you. Without the pamphlet, you can get a ticket, so be sure to follow up with the links below.


Department of Natural Resources

Info on collecting, plus the home of the infamous Washington minerals checklist.

Geology Adventures

Bob Jackson leads Washington field trips for newcomers and experts alike, priced accordingly. If you liked Hansen Creek, try Spruce Ridge or Big Rock Candy Mine.

National Forest pages

Crucial for road and fire information; always good to check in before you visit. Links to all Washington and Oregon forest offices.

Washington Geology Maps

Those pretty colored maps that show the bedrock geology. Interactive; describes formations.

Washington Prospectors Mining Association

Energetic group with tons of gold knowledge. Plus, they own their own claims.

Washington State Mineral Council

The grand-daddy of all Washington rock clubs.


Johnson, Robert Neil, Gold Diggers Atlas. Cy Johnson & Son, Susanville, California. 1971; 64 pgs.

Koschman, A.H. and Bergendahl, M. H., U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 610: Principal Gold-Producing Districts of the United States, 1968. 283 pgs.

Northwest Underground Explorations, Discovering Washington’s Historic Mines, Vol. 1: The West Central Cascade Mountains. Oso Publishing Co., Arlington, WA. 1997. 230 pgs.


Garret Romaine is the author of Gem Trails of Washington, Gem Trails of Oregon, and Rockhounding Idaho.