Finding Gold in Alaska: Golden Land of the Midnight Sun

Alaska is absolutely huge. Much is accessible only by float plane. Furthermore, that portion open to vehicles requires the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle when going off-road to prospect for placer gold. Before you pack your bag, give serious consideration to which of the various gold districts are known to produce the best results.

The Alaska Railroad, when combined with shank’s mare, is well-suited for the young and the young at heart. You can board and deboard almost anywhere along its route. Bring along a portable dredge or sluice, a gold detector and a backpack and you’re good to go!

The Aleutian Islands: But where should you go? If you choose to fly, you can land at Anchorage (and later fly to Fairbanks if need be) where you can spend the night in a comfortable motel before setting out for the railroad station or a car rental agency. Where to prospect is the biggest task you now face. For the moment, let’s pass up the region known as the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. Although rich gold deposits have been found there, recently in volcanic outcroppings on some of the islands, the difficulty and expense of getting there may outweigh any supposed advantage at this time.

alaska gold prospecting

I once knew a woman who lived in the Aleutians. She had made 16 mm motion pictures during her time in the military which were shown to our college geography class which illustrated how the weather could change quite dramatically without a moment’s notice. When a fierce storm rolled in from the sea, a howling wind would blow everything asunder that wasn’t nailed down and quickly soaked people with a cold rain if they didn’t take shelter. No, the Aleutians are not the place to set up a tent.

The Cooke Inlet-Susitna River Region: Let’s take a look, instead, at areas far more hospitable to prospectors. The Cooke Inlet-Susitna River region is comprised of an area drained by streams flowing into Cook Inlet between Cape Douglas on the south and Portage at the eastern end of Turnagain Arm. This region includes the Anchorage, Redoubt, Valdez Creek, Willow Creek and Yentna districts. The region includes much of the Alaska Range punctuated by the spectacular 20,300 foot Mount McKinley, a landmark for Anchorage.

Gold and silver have been recovered from lode deposits in many parts of the Cook Inlet-Susitna region in addition to copper being recovered in the Redoubt and Valdez Creek areas. In the southwestern portion of the Yentna District (north of Anchorage), 1.7 ounces per ton of gold was found in association with chalcopyrite, arsenopyrite and other sulfides. The amount of production from this type of ore was from the Willow Creek area north of Palmer that added up about five percent of Alaska’s total gold output between 1909 and 1942. The Yentna District includes the popular Petersville State Recreational Mining Site. The Cache, Rambler, Willow, Mills, Twin, Thunder, Peters, Nugget and Dollar creeks have been steady producers. Ron Wendt wrote a book, Petersville Gold, about this region which is available from Alaska Mining & Diving, 3222 Commercial Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99501-3048. For a list of books, log onto:

In the Anchorage District, much of the placer mining was done on Crow Creek near Girdwood. While the creek is only five miles long and is fed by a glacier, several nearby gold-bearing lodes were mined on a small scale. It’s worthwhile to note that the bedrock is composed of interbedded slate and greywacke cut by granitic dikes and sills. Gold, silver and copper are the main constituents of the pay streaks. Small amounts of gold and platinum were mined on Metal Creek.

The Redoubt District is that area drained by streams flowing into Cook Inlet between Cape Douglas on the south and, but excluding, the Susitna River on the north according to Edward H. Cobb in Placer Deposits of Alaska, Geological Survey Bulletin 1374. The Lewis River was the only place in this district where placer mining was successful.

Valdez Creek is that area drained by the Susitna River above the mouth of the Talkeetna River and includes the Chulitna River Basin. Since World War II, extensive placer mining has been done at Valdez Creek. Valdez Creek is also an area where two or three men set up operations to work lode mines consisting of gold and sulfide bearing quartz veins in the area on a small scale. The district can hardly be called an area rich in placer deposits. In the 1960s, mining efforts work the stream gravels at the mouth of Valdez Creek and the associated bench gravels by hydraulic methods and by drifting in buried channels.

The Willow Creek District, however, is a different story. The district’s an area drained by eastern tributaries of the Susitna River below Sunshine, by northern tributaries of Cook Inlet and Knik Arm east of the Susitna and by the Matanusk River.

Much of the placer gold from this district was recovered from streams that drain those areas where once productive lode mines were worked in the past. Two areas produced a little more than half the gold, Grubstake Gulch and that portion of Willow Creek below the mouth of Grubstake Gulch. From as early as 1897 thru 1969, wherever claims were staked along the gulch, the gold was derived from gold-bearing quartz veins in mica schist.

On Alfred Creek in the Willow Creek District, gold placers were discovered in 1911 and mined on a sporadic basis. However, the claims were not long-lasting nor were they particularly profitable.

In the Yentna District, however, profitability was a different matter. Values ran high, especially with regards to Cache Creek. This district includes the area drained by the western tributaries of the Susitna River between Alexander and Sunshine and by its eastern tributaries from Sunshine to, and including, the Talkeetna River. As mentioned, most of the placer mining took place in the Cache Creek area on streams draining both the Peters and Dutch hills as well as Fairview Mountain about 20 miles to the southwest.

Most of the placer gold recovered from Cache and Peters creeks was done using dredges. On the southeast portion of the Dutch Hills it was done by hand and non-float methods. Falls, Cache, Thunder, Bird and Willow creeks and their tributaries have all been major producers.

You’re probably asking yourself: Yeah, but where are the really big nuggets to be found? According to Ron Wendt in his book, Wiseman Chandalar Gold fields, the Wiseman Chandalar Goldfields is where some of the largest nuggets ever found in Alaska were recovered from these gold fields which are located in the northern part of the state near Fairbanks.

The Chandalar District is that region drained by the Chandalar River and its tributaries above Venetie. The district’s northern border is along the crest of the Brooks Range; a range which slopes toward the southeast from a crest line running between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Wide valleys of some of the major forks of the Chandalar River merge downstream into what’s known as the Yukon Flats, a swampy area varying between sea level and 1,000 feet.

While lodes in the Chandalar District contain gold, they also contain galena, stibnite and sphalerite. Production from these lodes was very small. Placer gold was discovered in 1906 in area streams and produced about 25,000 to 30,000 ounces. Most of the placer mining in the district has been on the Tobin, Big, Little Squaw, and Big Squaw creeks and St. Mary’s Gulch, all of which drain the area where lode mines have been developed. Most mining was done by one man or small groups of men operating drift mines or by hand methods (digging with shovels).

The Chisana District is that portion of Alaska that is drained by the upper White River and its tributaries and by the southern tributaries of the Tanana River above and including the Nabesna River. The district includes the summit areas and north slopes of the famed Wrangell Mountains, the Nutzotin Mountains and the southeastern portions of the Mentasta Mountains (part of the Alaska Range) and a lake-infested lowland. Except for the lowlands near the Tanana River, the area was once covered by ice and at least by two Pleistocene glaciations.

Metallic lode deposits are found throughout the highland portions of the district. On the other hand, placer gold deposits are almost all within a few square miles of the Bonanza Creek area. Other minerals found in the Bonanza Creek region include native silver, galena, cinnabar and molydenite. Bright rough and very large nuggets from Big Eldorado Creek that are attached to pieces of quartz have been found on a sporadic basis by suction dredgers in Bonanza Creek. While you’re in the region, I suggest you pay a visit to Mount McKinley National Park.

In my opinion, while the Chisana and Chandalar districts have produced a considerable number of big nuggets, it is in certain areas around Chicken, Alaska and in the Eagle District which have consistently produced the largest nuggets. The Eagle District is that area drained by the southern tributaries of the Yukon River that lies between the Charley River on the west and the Alaska-Yukon border on the east. Placer gold was discovered in the basins of American Creek and Seventy-Mile River in 1895 and on Fourth of July Creek in 1898. The source of the placer deposits was mineralized Quartz veins in metamorphic rocks. Since 1960, most activity has been on Flume and Alder creeks.

There are ghost towns and abandoned mining camps all over Alaska with Skagway being the best known of the tourist ghost towns. Most ghost towns are badly weathered by winter’s ravages, flood damaged or torn down somewhere along the line and moved to the next big boom. There are a few worth a visit in British Columbia where many old mining towns have been restored to their original splendor, especially: Fort Steel and Barkerville. Dease Lake in northernmost British Columbia is where Charley Ferguson and Clarence Catt visited friends who let them try their hand at placer mining.

The Yukon River Region: The Fairbanks District is the richest in the state. The district is that area drained by the Chatanika River and the northern tributaries of the Tanana River from Minto to, and including, Shaw Creek.

If you take a close look at any maps you may have, you’ll notice the district is a dissected plateau varying from between 2,000 and 4,500 feet that rises slowly from west to east forming wide valleys and the characteristic rounded domes that rise several hundred feet higher. Geologists have determined that…“the oldest rocks in the district are schist, crystalline limestone, quartzite, amphibolites and gneiss of Precambrian and early Paleozoic age intruded by mainly Mesozoic plutons and dikes …” according to Edward Cobb in his Placer Deposits of Alaska, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1374 who adds: “Nearly all the domes that rise above the upland surface are underlain by such rocks. Many serpentines ultramafic bodies are in the upper valley of the Salcha River in the eastern part of the district. Tertiary basalt outcrops on a low hill near Fairbanks. Except for a few local glaciers on the highest mountains, the district was not ice covered.”

The Fairbanks District has been the number one producer of gold in all of Alaska exceeding 37.2 percent of that state’s gold production up through 1961. Imagine what it’s been since the price of gold sky rocketed in recent years to over $1,000 an ounce?

While the Fairbanks District includes an undetermined but small amount of gold recovered at Nome Creek (not the beaches of Nome) some 45 miles north of Fairbanks in the Tolovana District that’s centered in the White Mountains, it was never considered worthwhile to pursue it by setting up a commercial mining operation. In 1902, however, Felix Pedro discovered rich placers on the stream that now bears his name. That same year was the date after Fairbanks had become a trading station on the Tanana River. Sad to say many of the high-grade deposits in the Fairbanks District were all but worked out by the use of elaborate drift and “scraper” mining operations.

The main creeks in the district in order of their productivity were: the Cleary and its tributaries, the Ester, the Fairbanks, Dome and the Goldstream and its tributaries. Each of these streams produced more than four million dollars in revenue at $20.67 an ounce by the end of 1909. After 1909, production fell until 1928 when large dredges moved in. These dredges were used until they shut down at the end of the 1963 mining season.

Mining methods other than dredging were used in other parts of the Fairbanks District. The main center where these methods were used were concentrated along Sourdough Creek, the Faith, Hope and Charity creeks and their tributaries, Caribou and neighboring creeks in the Salcha River basin and in what used to be called the Tenderfoot District. By 1963, placer mining in the Fairbanks District had practically ceased. Now look at it!

For some time now, the Forty-mile District has been a steady producer and sizeable nuggets recovered through dredging. The district encompasses part of the Fortymile River drainage basin. Interestingly enough, very little lode gold was recovered from this district with a small amounts being mined near Chicken. The lodes consisted of quartz veins in metamorphic rocks carrying gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, antimony and iron.

The Fortymile District is one of the oldest districts in all of Alaska. Gold was discovered in 1886 in the Yukon Territory near the mouth of the Fortymile River; hence, the name Fortymile District. Placers worked on a commercial basis were to be found in a number of places, most notably in the valley of the Walker Fork. From 1888 up through the present time, the placers in this district were worked during each and every mining season. Up through the 1967 season, a large dredge was in operation on Chicken Creek. After the dredge shut down, there were about a half-dozen one-and-two man operations that remained active. Now, since the price of gold has skyrocketed, the number of suction dredgers at work in any given season is anybody’s guess.

The classic locations for the recovery of placer gold in the Fortymile District are: Chicken Creek and its tributaries, Myers Fork, Stonehouse Creek and Mosquito and Dennison. Various forks of the Fortymile River, Wade Creek and Fortyfive Pup have been productive in past years. A 25 plus ounce nugget was found on Wade Creek and nuggets weighing several ounces were not uncommon. Both stream and bench placers, especially those benches along Chicken Creek and along Lost Chicken Creek, have been good producers.

In order to be successful at recovering placer gold in Alaska, you need to obtain and study U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps of the areas where you intend to search. You also need to obtain the necessary permits as well as check out claim notices of those areas where you intend to search. Before you head out to the placer areas, be sure to purchase a good suction dredge, a sluice (a high-banker would be a nice addition to your equipment list), gold pans, shovels and a gold detector. Reference books like those mentioned above (and others) are obtainable from: Alaska Mining & Diving, 3222 Commercial Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99501. For a list of books they carry, log onto: They also rent and sell mining equipment such as dredges, sluices and other mining equipment.