Places not to metal detect

As we all likely learn the hard way, metal detecting laws and regulations aren’t exactly easy to find. Especially when you are looking for laws and regulations at the local level. 

While there have been difficulties preventing good progress on my state-by-state guides, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends and family about where they can metal detect legally. In hopes of providing additional clarity, I’ve made a quick list of areas you should either avoid outright or generally steer clear of.

There are several areas in the United States where metal detecting is strictly prohibited or requires special permits. In the article below, I’ve focused on 10 areas to avoid and I’ve provided a link to the relevant laws and online sources to help you stay informed and compliant where possible.

National Parks

Law: 36 CFR 2.1(a)(7)

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The law that prohibits metal detecting in National Parks falls under Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which governs Parks, Forests, and Public Property. Specifically, the regulation can be found under Section 2.1(a)(7), addressing the preservation of natural, cultural, and archaeological resources.

National Parks in the United States are managed by the National Park Service (NPS), which was established in 1916 through the Organic Act. The NPS was created to protect and preserve the natural and cultural resources found within the parks for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of current and future generations.

Over the years, the NPS has faced numerous challenges in preserving these resources, including unauthorized excavations, looting, and damage caused by treasure hunting and metal detecting. As a result, 36 CFR 2.1(a)(7) was implemented to restrict activities that could potentially harm the parks’ resources.

The regulation states that it is prohibited to “possess or use a mineral or metal detector, magnetometer, side scan sonar, other metal detecting device, or subbottom profiler” within National Parks, except when authorized by a permit issued by the NPS. This restriction aims to protect the parks’ natural, cultural, and archaeological resources, as well as the overall visitor experience.

It is important to note that violators of this regulation can face fines, penalties, and even imprisonment, depending on the severity of the violation.

National Monuments

Law: 36 CFR 2.1(a)(7)

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National Monuments in the United States share the same regulation as National Parks when it comes to metal detecting: 36 CFR 2.1(a)(7), which aims to protect natural, cultural, and archaeological resources.

The history of National Monuments dates back to the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was enacted to protect and preserve significant historical, cultural, and scientific sites on public lands. This act granted the President of the United States the authority to create National Monuments by designating specific areas with unique features, such as archaeological sites, natural landmarks, and historically significant locations. Unlike National Parks, which require an act of Congress for establishment, National Monuments can be designated more quickly and easily by the President.

National Monuments are typically managed by various federal agencies, including the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Regardless of the managing agency, the prohibition on metal detecting under 36 CFR 2.1(a)(7) applies across all National Monuments.

National Forests

Law: 36 CFR 261.9

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National Forests in the United States are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which operates under the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service was established in 1905, and its primary objective is to manage and protect public lands for multiple purposes, such as timber, recreation, wildlife habitat, and watershed protection.

Regarding metal detecting, the regulation that governs activities in National Forests is 36 CFR 261.9, which falls under Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). This regulation addresses the prohibition of unauthorized excavation or removal of archaeological, historical, or cultural resources found within National Forests.

Unlike National Parks and National Monuments, metal detecting is generally allowed in National Forests, but it is subject to specific rules and regulations. These rules are designed to protect the natural, cultural, and archaeological resources within the forests while allowing for responsible recreational activities.

To ensure you do not run into issues while out in the field, which could result in an immediate fine or other consequence, it’s always recommended to do research on both the specific national forest and the specific location you’re going to. If there is a potential historical significance or archeological site nearby, it’s best to steer clear.

Always content a forest representative to inquire about the rules in the area. If you encounter someone outright opposed, don’t hesitate to contact other individuals in the department or local representation to get a second or third opinion.

I’ve encountered several cases where officials favor their own negative bias rather than the actual rules and laws in place for that area. By contacting other supervisors or higher-level administrative team members I’ve been able to get the official rules and appropriate permissions to detect in these areas. Remember, metal detecting is never worth getting in trouble for and there is always another location.

National Wildlife Refuges

Law: 50 CFR 27.51

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National Wildlife Refuges in the United States are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is part of the Department of the Interior. The National Wildlife Refuge System was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, with the primary objective of conserving and protecting fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats.

The regulation that governs metal detecting in National Wildlife Refuges is 50 CFR 27.51, which falls under Title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), addressing Wildlife and Fisheries. This regulation specifically prohibits the use of metal detectors and other geological or geophysical instruments within the boundaries of National Wildlife Refuges.

The purpose of this regulation is to protect the natural habitats, ecosystems, and the plant and animal species that reside within these protected areas. National Wildlife Refuges are specifically designated to provide vital habitats for various species, including migratory birds, endangered or threatened species, and other wildlife that depend on these areas for their survival.

By restricting the use of metal detectors and similar devices within National Wildlife Refuges, the FWS aims to minimize the potential for habitat disturbance, damage to natural resources, and disruption of wildlife behavior. This helps to ensure that these areas remain suitable for the species that rely on them, while also providing opportunities for public recreation, education, and enjoyment in a manner that is compatible with the primary purpose of conserving wildlife and their habitats.

Archaeological Sites

Law: Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)

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National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) in the United States represent places that hold exceptional historical, architectural, or cultural significance at the national level. The NHL program was established by the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) under the Department of the Interior.

The primary legislation governing the protection and preservation of National Historic Landmarks is found in Title 54 of the United States Code, specifically under Sections 307101-307108. These sections outline the processes for designating, managing, and protecting NHLs, including the prohibition of activities that could damage or disturb these significant sites.

While the law does not explicitly mention metal detecting, the general principle of preserving and protecting these sites from activities that could potentially harm their historical or cultural integrity is applicable. Metal detecting can lead to unauthorized excavation, looting, and damage to the resources and features that make these sites significant.


Law: Varies by state and local jurisdiction

If you’ve ever thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be fun to go metal detecting in a cemetery?”, I have a few concerns… Outside of the completely obvious reason not to, cemeteries are places of respect and solemnity, where people lay their loved ones to rest. They’re not playgrounds for treasure hunters or amateur archaeologists unless you fancy yourself a grave robber…

Joking aside, Laws and regulations regarding metal detecting in cemeteries can vary by state and local jurisdiction, but one thing is clear: it’s frowned upon if not outright prohibited. These rules are in place to protect the sanctity of burial sites, as well as to avoid disturbing the peace and causing emotional distress to families who have lost their loved ones.

Besides the obvious legal and ethical issues surrounding metal detecting in cemeteries, there’s also the potential for damaging valuable historical and cultural resources. Many cemeteries contain headstones, monuments, and artifacts that tell the stories of those who have passed, and these irreplaceable resources should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

So, if you’re still considering metal detecting in a cemetery, maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself what life choices you need to reconsider. After all, there are plenty of other places where you can responsibly enjoy your hobby without disturbing the final resting places of others.

Military Bases and Installations

Law: Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979

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Military bases in the United States are federal properties managed by the Department of Defense (DoD) and are designated for the housing, training, and support of military personnel and operations. These areas often contain sensitive information and materials vital to national security, making their protection a top priority.

The law that prohibits unauthorized access to military bases, including activities such as metal detecting, is found in Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S.C.), Section 1382. This law makes it a criminal offense to enter a military base or installation for any purpose without the permission of the commanding officer. Violation of this law can result in fines and imprisonment.

The rationale behind this law is to ensure the security and safety of military personnel, operations, and assets. Unauthorized access to military bases could lead to the theft, damage, or destruction of sensitive materials, equipment, or information. Additionally, unauthorized activities such as metal detecting on a military base could pose a risk to public safety due to the potential presence of unexploded ordnance or other hazards.

In summary, metal detecting is strictly prohibited on military bases due to the sensitive nature of these locations and the importance of maintaining the security and safety of military personnel and resources. Always respect the boundaries of military installations and seek other locations to responsibly enjoy your metal detecting hobby.

Native American Reservations

Law: Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) of 1979

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The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was enacted in 1979 to protect archaeological resources on public lands and Native American reservations. ARPA establishes a permitting process for the excavation or removal of archaeological resources and imposes penalties for those who engage in these activities without proper authorization. The law applies to federal public lands and Native American reservations, including lands held in trust by the United States for the benefit of Native American tribes.

ARPA was enacted to address the growing problem of looting and vandalism of archaeological sites on public lands and Native American reservations. The law aims to preserve archaeological resources for the benefit of present and future generations and to protect the cultural heritage of Native American tribes.

Under ARPA, it is illegal to excavate, remove, damage, or alter any archaeological resource on public lands or Native American reservations without a permit. This includes the use of metal detectors or any other activity that could potentially harm or disturb archaeological resources.

When it comes to metal detecting on Native American reservations, it is essential to understand that these lands are under the jurisdiction and protection of the tribes themselves and the federal government. Unauthorized excavation or metal detecting on these lands is not only illegal under ARPA but also deeply disrespectful to the tribes and their cultural heritage. If you are interested in metal detecting on Native American reservation lands, you must seek permission from the appropriate tribal authorities and adhere to any rules and regulations they establish.

Historical Sites and Battlefields

Law: The Antiquities Act of 1906

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The Antiquities Act of 1906 is a landmark piece of legislation that was enacted to protect and preserve historical sites, monuments, and artifacts found on federal lands in the United States. The Act was the first federal law to provide for the protection of archaeological, historical, and cultural resources and laid the groundwork for future preservation laws in the country.

Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Antiquities Act grants the President the authority to designate national monuments on federal lands that contain significant historical or scientific features. This law also prohibits the unauthorized excavation, destruction, or removal of any historic or prehistoric ruin, monument, or object found on federal lands. Violation of the Antiquities Act can result in fines and imprisonment.

The Antiquities Act has played a critical role in the preservation of numerous historical sites and battlefields across the United States. Many of these sites contain invaluable historical resources that provide insights into the nation’s past and help to tell the story of its development and evolution.

When it comes to metal detecting at historical sites and battlefields, it is crucial to understand that these locations often fall under the protection of the Antiquities Act, as well as other federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Unauthorized metal detecting at these sites can lead to the disturbance, damage, or destruction of important historical resources and is generally prohibited.

Railroads and Railroad Property

Law: Various applicable federal, state, and local laws are applicable

Railroads and railroad property in the United States are governed by various federal and state laws that aim to ensure the safety and security of these transportation systems. Railroads have played a crucial role in the history and development of the United States, linking the East and West Coasts and promoting economic growth and expansion.

The primary purpose of these laws is to ensure the safety and security of railroad property and operations. Unauthorized access to railroad property, including activities such as metal detecting, can pose significant risks to public safety and the integrity of the railroad infrastructure. Trespassing on railroad property can result in accidents, injuries, or even fatalities due to the presence of fast-moving trains and other hazards.

In addition to federal laws, individual states and local jurisdictions may have their own laws and regulations governing trespassing and activities on railroad property. These laws are designed to protect both the public and the railroads from potential harm and disruption.

Some final thoughts on places you should not metal detect on

While one law is cited for most of the areas above, each location will likely have local laws impacting one aspect of metal detecting or another. From preventing the use of devices to the prevention of disturbing the earth, “metal detecting” doesn’t have to be specifically mentioned to be prohibited.

One of the largest catches on most protected federal, State, and local properties is the restriction against digging or disturbing the soil. This essentially limits metal detecting to surface finds only. In those cases, it’s best to just find another area.