Colorado is home to several world-class molybdenum deposits including the alkaline felsic intrusive deposits of the Climax Mine—once the largest moly mine in the world—in Lake County, Colorado, July 2010. Photo credit: Vince Matthews for the CGS.


Metals have been mined in Colorado since the 1800s. Metals are economic minerals that are used for a wide variety of products and are also valued as collectible specimens. The early history of Colorado parallels the history of metal mining in the U.S. and is directly tied to the first significant documented discovery of gold in the summer of 1858. A party of prospectors discovered placer gold in stream gravel at what is now downtown Denver, near the confluence of the Cherry Creek and South Platte Rivers (Auraria). This discovery led to the first Colorado gold rush. Pike’s Peak or Bust was emblazoned on many of the ox-drawn wagons carrying optimistic prospectors across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Many of the historical metal mining districts in Colorado were created during the initial gold rush of 1858-61 which lead to the discovery of other metals. For example, as summarized from RS-42 Geology and Mineral Resources of Lake County, Colorado, when the gold rush expanded throughout Colorado, mining in the Leadville District began with the discovery of placer gold in California Gulch in the early 1860s. The peak of placer mining lasted from about 1860 to 1863 and declined through 1875. During the mining of placer gold, heavy blue-black sands, recognized by some as lead carbonate, caused issues with the placer mining. Some of this lead carbonate contained silver however, the economics of the day made it difficult to ship this ore to far away smelters unless it contained an abundance of silver. As other deposits in the area were discovered around 1876, some with much higher concentrations of silver, closer new smelters including the lead-silver smelter at Georgetown were being constructed. In 1877, the ore deposits at Fryer Hill near Leadville were discovered, and the silver boom, considered one of the largest in the state, was on. Within two years, the population in Leadville went from 200 people in 1877 to a population of more than 15,000. In 1880, annual production increased to over 10 million ounces of silver and 66 million pounds of lead.

The Leadville, Colorado smelter of the American Smelting and Refining Company, December, 1942. Lead concentrates from Creede, Colorado were shipped to the smelter. Photo credit: Andreas Feininger.
The Leadville, Colorado smelter of the American Smelting and Refining Company, December, 1942. Photo credit: Andreas Feininger.

At various times throughout its history, Colorado has been the leading U.S. producer of gold, silver, molybdenum, lead, zinc, uranium, and tungsten. Other metals that have been mined in Colorado include copper, tin, vanadium, iron, beryllium, lithium, thorium, tantalum, and manganese. Many of the ore bodies that were initially mined for one commodity included other valuable base metals. As reported in RS-42, Leadville is one of the great metal producing districts of the world and contains six types of mineral deposit systems. Through 1999, Leadville produced ~28.9 million tons of ore containing 3.3 million ounces of gold, 265 million ounces of silver, 2,354 pounds of lead, 1,936 million pounds of zinc, and 110 million pounds of copper.

Currently, as of 2020, metals mined in Colorado include gold, molybdenum, and silver. Molybdenum is primarily used to produce engineering steels (e.g. superalloys, nickel alloys, and tool steels), stainless steel, molybdenum metal and other alloys, catalysts, pigments, corrosion inhibitors, smoke suppressants, lubricants, and chemicals. In Colorado, molybdenum is mined at the Climax and Henderson mines. A majority of the 2018 primary molybdenum production in the U.S. was from these two Colorado mines that produced approximately 35 million pounds combined. In the U.S., Colorado ranked second in molybdenum production following that recovered as a byproduct of copper mining at several Arizona mines.

The largest producer of gold in Colorado is the Cripple Creek and Victor (CC&V) open pit mine located in Teller County. In 2018, Colorado was the third state in the U.S. for gold production with 360,000 ounces produced from CC&V. Smaller amounts of placer gold is recovered from sand and gravel aggregate operations along some rivers and streams including the South Platte, Arkansas, and Colorado Rivers, as well as Clear Creek. Additionally, a few small lode gold mines operated by private individuals or small groups likely produce small tonnages of high-grade gold and silver ore.