Catch Gold Rush Fever

Gold Panning: Relive the Gold Rush era by panning for your own gold with a local tour company.

Catch Gold Rush Fever

”Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!“ That banner headline, run in a special issue of the July 17, 1897 Seattle Post-Intelligencer, heralded the arrival of two tons of Yukon and Klondike gold in the Seattle harbor. It also signaled the start of a mad rush north to Alaska communities like Skagway, as an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 prospectors booked immediate passage to claim their share of the newfound riches. Even Seattle’s mayor, William D. Wood, quit his job on the spot and went looking for gold.

The journey was harder—and prosperity more elusive—than the prospectors had hoped. Still, quite a few people did find their fortune in the Klondike, among them the clever entrepreneurs that set out to “mine the miners,” selling everything from mining equipment to dance hall entertainment.

But the Klondike wasn’t the only place that gold fever struck: When reports of gold strikes in Nome reached the Klondike in the spring of 1899, some 8,000 prospectors departed Dawson for Nome in a single week. Again, all the claims along the creeks had been staked—but a judge ruled that land along the beach couldn’t be staked for claims, so the incoming miners camped there and extracted some $2 million of gold in a single summer.

You don’t have to endure the same hardships those intrepid miners faced more than a century ago to get your own taste of Alaska gold fever. Instead, you can learn about Alaska’s gold mining history in museums and tours laced throughout almost every community. You’ll find an especially rich collection of gold mining artifacts in Fairbanks, where miners had to develop special technology to dig down through hundreds of feet of permafrost before they hit gold-bearing gravel.

For an even bigger thrill, try panning your own gold on a guided tour that takes you straight to paydirt. It’s a real thrill to see those shiny flecks emerge from the muddy water in your very own gold pan, and you get to keep whatever you find. You can also retrace some of the routes the first miners took into the Klondike by hiking the famed Chilkoot Trail or riding the White Pass & Yukon Railroad; the conductor will tell you when to look out the windows for a glimpse of the old miner’s trail.

The rapid influx of gold-seeker into Alaska—and the infrastructure that followed them—shaped the state more than any other industry in history, including fur trading and commercial fishing. And the towns that sprang up during the Klondike Gold Rush now hold a priceless collection of artifacts and stories about how gold shaped this part of Alaska.

Chief among them is Skagway, which served as one of the main gateways for the Klondike rush, and its Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The frontier mentality of those days, paired with the isolation of those just-built mining communities, also created quite a few outsized characters. One of the most notorious was the scoundrel Jeff "Soapy" Smith, who essentially ruled Skagway and ran a number of rackets aimed at fleecing the hopeful miners.

Other familiar Alaska towns that were forever shaped by their own smaller gold rushes include Juneau, Girdwood, Hope and Fairbanks. The Tanana Valley around Fairbanks ended up being the biggest gold strike in the state—producing far more gold than even the Klondike—and is still being worked today, albeit on a smaller scale, with much greater care for water quality and the environment.