Some of the most important prospecting sites in New England are located in the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire
By Alix M. Barnaud
From the hustle and bustle of Boston to the quaint hamlets of Vermont, the sandy beaches of Cape Cod to the white-capped mountains of New Hampshire, the ivy-covered walls of Harvard and Yale to the rugged wilderness of northern Maine, New England has something to offer to everyone.
Regrouping under a single name the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, the area was one of the first successful settlements by Europeans in the New World in the 1620s. With its rich history and its postcard-like landscapes, it is both incredibly diverse and easily accessible, the sights being within relatively short distance from each other.
As the stone walls sprawling through the forests and ancient cemeteries hidden in the most unlikely places stand witness, New England was once more densely cultivated than it is now. The woodlands were cut down to make room for fields and cattle or exploited to build ships and houses both in the New World and in England for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.
As the settlers, lured by the promise of fertile fields and friendlier climates in the rest of the country, packed their bags and moved out west, nature took back its right upon the land. Away from the densely populated regions on the Atlantic coast, it is once again easy to get lost in the wilderness without encountering a soul besides a roaming moose or bald eagle for days.
Although New England was never the scene of gold craze to the extent of western states, gold can be found in all six states. Between the countless streams and the mountainous areas located in western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in particular, there are many places where one can prospect to his or her heart’s content.
In the mid-1850s, the gold fever that engulfed the rest of the country also reached New England. Mines, some more successful than others, opened then closed and were forgotten until recent years. No fewer than 20 long-lost mines have now been rediscovered. However, it is in the rivers, streams, and brooks that one is the most likely to find the precious metal. In addition, New England is rich in gemstones mostly scattered throughout the mountains.
Much of New England is privately owned with the exception of state parks so it’s best to always inquire whether you need an authorization or a permit before digging.
White Mountains National Park
Some of the most important prospecting sites in New England are located in the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire, extending over the border into Maine. Prospecting is allowed in most of the park, except in the developed recreation areas, including within the immediate proximity of the roads, trails, streambanks, wetlands, designated rock-climbing areas, and cultural or historical features. Recreational gold panning is allowed within active stream channels only.
In an effort to preserve the natural beauty of the park, only small hand tools are permitted in the park, such as small trowels or digging tools. Sluice boxes, rocker boxes, dredges, and any mechanized equipment or explosives are prohibited. Excavated holes shall not be deeper than three feet, and the disturbed area should be put back to the condition you found it in before you leave the site.
The White Mountains National Park includes three sites particularly rich in gemstones. The Moat Mountain Smoky Quartz Collecting Area, located 4 miles west of North Conway, New Hampshire, is particularly rich in smoky quartz (as can be expected), as well as feldspar. Other gemstones, including topaz, fluorite, riebeckite, and cassiterite, can also be found in smaller quantities. A rock and mineral collecting use permit is currently being developed by the state park.
About an hour northwest of the site, the Deer Hill Mineral Collecting Area, in Stow, Maine, produces a large number of good-sized amethysts, as well as feldspars, beryl, garnet, columbite, pyrite, and muscovite. Collecting is limited to an area delimited by blue painted boundaries and requires a free permit, which is available at a self-service station at the head of the trail. The amethyst crystals are located in the sandy soil, so bring a shovel and a sifting screen.
Less than 10 minutes west of Deer Hill, the Lord Hill Mineral Collecting Area in Stoneham, Maine, was once exploited as a feldspar mine. It is rich in minerals such as quartz, topaz, phenakite, and garnet, but also rarer varieties including triplite, uraninite, vivianite, zircon, gahnite, fluorapatite, bertrandite.
Gold panning is particularly prevalent in the western part of the White Mountains National Park. The Ammonoosuc River basin, in particular on Tunnel Brook, Little Ammonoosuc River, and the Wild Ammonoosuc River, are popular prospecting areas. The Twin River Campground and Cottages in Bath, New Hampshire, is a great starting point for experienced prospectors and newcomers alike. With over a mile of river access on the Wild Ammonoosuc River, a well-equipped store, and the campground owner himself an eager prospector, it is well worth the trip. Non-campers can access the spot for a $5 daily fee, or $15 monthly. According to a previous prospector, a 9.2-gram nugget was recovered in recent years in the area.
Maine, especially the most western part of the state, is one of the best places on the East Coast for recreational prospectors. The Swift River, particularly in the area of Byron, Maine, and its tributaries, have had a great track record since 1849, causing some to believe that the river runs through a yet-to-be-discovered gold vein. Although large nuggets are relatively rare, you have an excellent chance to recover good sized flakes or smaller nuggets.
The Coos Canyon Rock and Gift Panning, located in a scenic gorge popular with prospectors, offers rental equipment and free, hands-on demonstrations for newcomers. You can also purchase paydirt in 8-ounce to 1-gallon containers, ranging from $5 to $50. Anyone who finds a gold nugget 3 grains or larger is eligible to have his or her photo added to the “Big Nugget Book.”
The Swift River Gold Panning Area, on the East Branch of the Swift River, is owned by Boise Cascade Corporation, but panning is allowed with permission from the timber manager.
Mineral hunting in Maine
Like nearby New Hampshire, western Maine offers an abundance of precious minerals. With the region being so prevalent with newbie prospectors as well as old-timers, an abundance of businesses catering to both have flourished in the area. Most operations are seasonal, generally going from May to September, and weather dependent, so call ahead to make sure they are available.
Maine Mineral Adventures in Bryant Pond, Maine, offers field trips to Mount Mica tourmaline mine for $65 on Sunday mornings. Keep what you find and bring back up to two additional 5-gallon buckets for $10 each. They also sell paydirt, priced between $25 and $100 depending on the size of the bucket.
Poland Mining Camps in Poland, Maine, caters to experienced and beginner mineral collectors. They propose camps ranging from one day to one week during which you can explore pegmatite quarries, which are generally closed to the public.
Maine Mineralogy Expedition, also known as The Sluice at Bethel Outdoor Adventures and Campground, offers paydirt.
Other New England areas
The area around Plymouth, Vermont, was the theater of a real gold fever in the mid-1850s and, although professional mining eventually ceased, gold can still be found in several rivers, including the West River, where the largest nugget (6.5 ounces) in New England was uncovered, the Buffalo Brook and the Gold Brook. Two industrial gold mines, Raymond Hill and Freetop Hill, were also successfully exploited during the second half of the 19th century. Gold panning is allowed in Vermont with hand tools only. Sluicing, on the other hand, requires a permit.
According to Timothy English, president of New England GPAA chapter, Keets Brook, in Bernardston, Massachusetts, is also worth the visit.
Although New England may not be the first place that comes to mind when it comes to gold prospecting or treasure hunting, the beauty of the scenery and the abundance of claims disseminated throughout the region makes it the perfect destination for the whole family, prospectors and non-prospectors alike. We hope to see you up here soon!
Alix M. Barnaud is a travel writer based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire