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Public Gold Panning Access on the Catawba River, NC

gold panning Catawba Greenway

If you’re looking for the thrill of striking real gold in North Carolina, then Catawba River in Burke County provides an opportunity for the public to search for gold in the state that prides itself as the first in North America to enjoy a gold rush.

The year was 1799 (way ahead of the famous California gold rush) when the first gold discovery in the United States was made in Midland, Cabarrus County – a massive 17-pound gold nugget pulled out of a creek by a 12-year-old boy. This discovery opened up North Carolina to a frenzy of activity from gold prospectors.

And it didn’t end there; more gold was discovered in other counties including Burke County where the gold rush started around 1828. By 1829, dozens of mining operations were underway with thousands of gold prospectors. The initial epicentre of activity was at Brindletown in Morganton.

The volcanic rock found in this region coupled with the topography that feeds the Catawba River (the largest waterway in Burke County), the possibility of finding substantial gold deposits in the stream sediments is high. This is reinforced by the many tributaries whose actions deposit gravels containing gold into the Catawba.

Catawba River’s presence in Burke County starts from Lake James and flows on the outskirts of Glen Alpine, through Morganton. It then meanders northeast to Rhodhiss Lake, then through Rhodhiss on the boundary of Caldwell and Burke counties before exiting Burke county as it enters the town of Hickory.


What makes Catawba River a treasure for gold prospectors?


Catawba River flows through some of the richest areas for gold mining in Burke County. While any drainage in the county has the potential of containing some gold, the major drainages with placer gold deposits in the county pour their waters into the Catawba. The topography of the areas along the Catawba River provides the ideal scenario for any surface drainage to flow into the river. Most of these drainages originate in some of the most productive mining regions including;

  • Brown Mountain
  • The Piedmont with its rolling hills
  • Blue Ridge Mountains in the west
  • The South Mountains
  • Small Gold Nugget


    Catawba tributaries of interest to gold prospectors


  • South muddy Creek – many branches of this creek contain gold deposits.
  • Silver Creek – this Catawba tributary is known for countless gold discoveries in the last two centuries. It is fed by smaller streams that carry substantial placer gold from the South Mountains.
  • Baileys Creek – the Bailey Fork crosses the road to Rutherfordton about 6 miles southwest of Morganton on its way to join Silver Creek. It can yield some placer gold at various points along its length.
  • Upper Creek – a promising tributary for gold panning with various feeder creeks from Brown Mountain. In fact the Brown Mountain Mine’s location is on a tributary of Upper Creek known as Kingy Branch.
  • Johns River – it joins Catawba River to the northwest of Morganton having been fed by various creeks from Brown Mountain.
  • Hall Creek – In this creek, prospectors are likely to find placer gold in gravel.

    Other creeks that may yield placer gold


  • Brindleton Creek
  • First Broad River
  • Kingy Branch
  • Canoe Creek
  • Wilson Creek

    Public Gold Panning along the Catawba River in Morganton


    The area around Morganton has been known to have substantive gold deposits. Some of the early locations were in the area known as Brindletown, 10 miles southwest of the county seat. The Brown Mountain Mine on the other hand is only 13 miles north of the town.

    In Morganton, the Catawba River Greenway (part of the Morganton Greenway System) offers 4.4 miles of paved accessible trail along the river with a gold panning area. In this section you can pan for gold in the sand or bedrock as long as you follow some simple rules which include

  • No digging into the banks of the river
  • Only pans, sluice boxes and shovels allowed
  • No gasoline powered dredges or high bankers allowed

    Points to note


    Remain alert along the Catawba for rises in water levels due to releases from Lake James.

    Increase your chances of finding gold by looking for:

  • Areas where the river begins to widen or slow its flow
  • The insides of bends
  • Crevices within the bedrock
  • Potholes on the river bed

    The Rundown


    The Catawba River has placer deposits both in its main course and the numerous tributaries that pour into it within Burke County. Panning for gold along this river provides a real opportunity to strike the gold.

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