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Panning for Gold in Your Backyard

Geology, astronomy, Earth and weather sciences have always fascinated this author.

Practice at home first; who knows? You might get lucky

Practice at home first; who knows? You might get lucky

Where Do You Go?

Panning for gold sounds like fun, so I thought I’d give it a try. Mind you, we don’t live in a mountainous area near any streams or rivers famous for massive gold strikes in the past.

In such areas, if you own the land, or can get permission from the property owner, the likelihood of finding some gold is fairly good, as the prospectors of old went for good-sized nuggets or decent-sized flakes. However, the detritus from massive commercial-scale mining operations (tailings), allowed a fair amount of small material to go down the waste chutes to return to the river.

It is probably also true that the individual miners of old knew this, and set up their own dredges and panning operations downstream of such large operations. It is unlikely they found everything, as the truly small bits were probably carried much farther downstream before settling to the bottom.

In the Bottom Lies the Reward

Gold panning works because gold is a heavy element. Heavier than both water and the sand in which it sits. Even though it is heavier than water, fast-moving water can carry very heavy items a long distance before the energy of the current drops off enough to deposit the load far from the source.

This is easily seen with large boulders and other big rocks that have been deposited a long way from where they first encountered the water. All you need to see to believe this is to watch news footage of major floods and watch water easily carry away cars, trucks, entire houses and even destroy bridges.

Once the gold has traveled beyond the water’s ability to carry its weight, it will sink to the bottom of the stream, and eventually even become buried in the sand and other material in the riverbed.

You Must Get Dirty

Gold panning is not a job or hobby for those who want to remain prissy clean and stay dry. You will get dirty, you will get wet. How dirty and how wet depends upon your own determination to pursue this elusive shiny prize.

You will be in mud and water. If you get permission to pan on someone's land with a creek, you'll be in the water perhaps up to your knees. You'll get cold, wet and dirty. Will it be worth it? On a fun and new experience scale, yes, it will. On a get-rich-quick scale? Not at all.

Can You Find Gold in Your Backyard?

In a word, yes. With a number of qualifiers:

  • If you live on top of a mountain, you might find gold, depending upon the type of rock. However, even with a lot of quartz, which is the prime rock for finding gold, you are not likely to pan for it. It’s going to be trapped in the rock, which is a hard-rock mining operation, not suitable for amateurs.
  • If you live on or near a mountain stream, especially in an area where gold has been found before, your chances increase greatly
  • If you live in an area that was once underwater, such as an alluvial plain, which is to say where a river empties into another body of water, creating a delta with lots of sand.
  • If your area was once an inland sea or a near-delta area that was once underwater, or downstream of any former gold-mining operations or strikes.

How Hard Is It?

Let’s just say, it is not easy. It requires a mountain of patience, and the stamina to sit hunched over for hours on end, staring into the swirling water as you rotate your gold pan.

It’s not an activity for the weak, or for those with bad backs. You will work hard for every tiny flake you find.

An old time prospector in a typical panning position

An old time prospector in a typical panning position

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Is There Gold in My Yard?

In my yard, personally, yes, there is. But it is not economically feasible to go after it on any scale but just for grins and giggles. We do live near a delta, and at one point in pre-history, our land was probably all underwater. It is sandy soil, and that’s what you need and want in order to find gold.

What you truly want to find in your pan is black sand. That’s the kind associated with finding gold. We did find some. We did find some gold. How much? Not much. How big? Not even big enough to suck up with the ‘snuffer’ bottle used for picking up small flakes. Only big enough to show sparkles in the black sand. It's what is called 'gold flour' or micron gold because it's that fine and tiny. Usually, at this size, it's also well mixed with fine black sand, and that can be a challenge to separate. At this rate, it would take me twenty years or more to find even a single ounce.

Will You Get Rich?

Highly unlikely. Those huge nuggets you see on the TV news are usually from hard-rock mines, and commercial, or at least large-scale dredging operations. If you want to know how those work, there are a number of TV shows about just that.

What you’ll also notice is that many of these groups of individuals have sold all their possessions to purchase very expensive equipment, and at the end of the season are sometimes lucky just to break even.

The price of gold today is not quite as high as it was in 2011 when it hit something like $1500 an ounce. Currently, it sits just below $1200 per ounce. During the gold rush era, it was under $20 an ounce, but that was a great deal of money back then; about $600 in today's (2016) money. Considering that back then, goods were much cheaper, room and board could be had for $10 a week, and as there was as yet no income tax, there was the potential to strike it truly rich. Hence, the 'gold fever' that swept the nation. Even so, it was not many of the individual miners who got rich. It was the suppliers of food, equipment, services, and clothing who made the financial killing.

Update: As of April, 2019, the price of gold has risen to about $1281 per ounce. It always fluctuates, however.

What Do You Need?

At its simplest, you need a gold panning pan and a small "snuffer" bottle for sucking up the tiny stuff you find. You also need access to water, and this can be a 5-gallon bucket or a large flat pan, like a kitty litter box (be sure it's a new one).

To make it easier on your back, you might want to set this on a waterproof table, or even, as we did, inside the wheelbarrow. That raises it off the ground and puts the operation at seated height for the adults and standing height for the kids. You could put the water in the wheelbarrow itself, but ours has a split in the bottom and won't hold water, so we just used it as a makeshift table. A small garden trowel for digging up some dirt, and you're all set.

How Will I Know It's Real Gold?

No doubt, everyone has heard of 'fool's gold.' It looks like gold, it shines like gold but is not gold. It's rather heavy, but not as heavy as gold, so small bits will wash out of the pan. Its real name is iron pyrite. It can be found embedded in rocks as well. You are also more likely to easily find chunks of pyrite lying about than gold nuggets. Refer to the photos, at right, and the difference between the two is quite unmistakable.

There really is only one foolproof test, and that is the scratch test. For this, you need a small, unglazed tile. It can be as small as pocket-sized. The important part is that it has no shiny surface. Take your prize, and run it across the surface. If it leaves a black mark, congratulations: you've found some fool's gold. Gold scratches off gold, so if you see a gold streak on your tile, then you can celebrate.

The Differences Between Gold and Fool's Gold

The pyrite has a more angular crystalline structure, and while gold colored, it is not as bright gold as the real thing

The pyrite has a more angular crystalline structure, and while gold colored, it is not as bright gold as the real thing

The gold nugget is a much brighter gold color, and its structure is different

The gold nugget is a much brighter gold color, and its structure is different

Why Practice in Your Backyard?

There are several reasons:

  1. If the kids get bored and cranky, you're close to other activities or naptime
  2. There is a ready source of other containers or tools to try out
  3. You don't have to stand out in a stream and get all wet
  4. You don't have to worry about asking permission or trespassing on someone else's private property
  5. If you do get lucky, and find a worthwhile bit; you get to keep it, and not worry about giving a cut to the person from whom you got permission to pan on their land ;-)
It's Fun and Exciting for the Kids!

It's Fun and Exciting for the Kids!

Why Would You Do This?

Quite simply, for fun and curiosity. Also, for an interactive learning experience for the kids. They’ll think it’s all kinds of fun. If you really want them to have a positive experience, though, you might want to show them the basics of panning at home, and then take them to a state park, such as Columbia State Historic Park in California, where they have troughs set up for trying your luck at panning. They seed the troughs, and you are guaranteed to find some gold in your pan. It will be small flakes, but the excitement value for the kids cannot be over-stated.

Where Can We Go and Try This for Real?

There are a number of places here in California where gold panning can still be done, as well as some locations in Oregon and Washington. The entire West Coast of the United States, in fact, shares similar geology, so it's not surprising that gold can be found here and there in several of the Western States.

You might want to try Jamestown, CA, where there is much other history to explore as well. Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is the main draw in the area, so train buffs will also love it. If you want a taste of where the famous gold rush of 1849 began, then look no further than the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, in Coloma, near Sacramento, CA.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you find gold in Bangor, CA?

Answer: It's in Butte County, so very likely. That whole area up there was part of the famous goldfields of the heyday during gold mining fever.

The placer mining that was done in the area wreaked havoc on the environment, blasting away entire hillsides with high-pressure streams of water, which subsequently ran into the creeks and rivers, filling them with mud and silt.

With such a destructive approach, it is highly likely that a lot of the gold got washed away with the waste.

Mind you; it would not be feasible to go after on a large scale operation; the amounts likely to be found would not justify the costs. But to pan in a stream, for fun, sure.

Just make sure you are on public land, or get permission from the property owner if the land is private. Also, research whether others have still-active claims in the area, and avoid them. By doing that, you may find areas where you'd be allowed to stake your claim.

© 2017 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 12, 2019:

Au contraire--I live in California, not far from the original gold strike that started the big gold rush of 1849.

It's true there are many areas where you can prospect, but one had better consult maps, and be doggoned sure that it is public land--there are many areas where personal property closely borders public lands.

cacarr on July 11, 2019:

" ... if you own the land, or can get permission from the property owner ..."

You must live east of the Mississippi. You don't have to own land or get permission. Out west we have thousands of square miles of public lands -- BLM or National Forest Service -- which are open to prospecting (subject to many varying state environmental regulations and so forth).

JohnASimpson on May 01, 2019:

Hi Liz,

Truth is my grandfather, Franklin Simpson was the geological surveyor/prospector who was contracted by Wells Fargo to survey the Rattlesnake gold mine, as well as 11 other mining properties in preparation for its reopening following world war two.

I mention that particular mine because it recently sold for a whopping $6.5 million.

My father spent his retirement prospecting in New Mexico

I would say gold mining is a tradition in my family. I myself am in the process of buying an abandon mine in Colorado. I should own it before the end of the year.

The one I'm looking at has been forgotten since 1942, but fortunately for me the previous owner had warning about the mines closing and stockpiled 40,000 tons of higrade ore outside the mine before closing down operations. Higrade ore being ore with a 3-11 ounce per ton gold value.

Ive walked the mine and yes the lower level is flooded at the 900 foot level. However 90 feet down the main adit there is an untapped vien running east/west that assays at 7.4 ounces per ton.

There is more than enough gold i can easily get to in order to fund the restoration of the lower levels.

Now i wont say this is typical...because it obviously isnt, but with a bit of research gems like this one can still be found.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 30, 2019:

Perhaps you should have read the entire article prior to jumping to conclusions...

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on April 29, 2019:

Hello John,

Thank you for your interesting insights into the current situation of gold mining, and the history thereof. It seems that most of your information came directly from a site known as "Rare Gold Nuggets (dot com), as I found much of what you stated therein.

The site also went on to state that many of the tunnels collapsed and/or flooded, and it would be cost-prohibitive to attempt reopening those mines.

However, the fact that there may indeed be deep veins left that are possibly viable on a commercial scale was not the focus of my article.

I was writing strictly on the 'fun for kids' aspect of trying it out on a small scale.

JohnASimpson on April 29, 2019:

I only read a small portion of this article but it seem to me that it assumes a misconception. That the old timers mined what there was and the best gold has already been taken.

The fact that in 1942 the congress passed a bill thst the president signed which closed all non war related mining down. Forcing the gold and sivler mines to close and making those miners available for the draft.

During world war two 600,000 American men lost their lives. Many were gold miners. After the war ended many of those mine owners never returned to their mines, which had been stripped for their scrap metal.

The expence of re-tooling wasnt feasible because the price of gold was under $18 per ounce.

If a miner died in many cases he had no heir. Or if he did the heir didnt know what they had or wasnt interested.

At todays price of $1200.00+ per oz. Those abandoned mines are once again viable and waiting for someone to re-open and work.

Also all the best primary (lode viens) deposit gold has not been found.

Rivers still flood in the spring and bring fresh gold down from undiscovered viens to replenish the old secondary (plaser) deposits.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 22, 2018:

Thank you so much, Vicki; I'm glad you enjoyed this experimentation I tried out at home.

Vicki Wood from Eldon, Missouri on January 21, 2018:

Interesting article, i enjoyed it.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 26, 2017:

Ours isn't all that black, either; it's mixed in with the regular sand, which I suppose is why I'm not going to find any nuggets; only micron gold. :-(

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on January 26, 2017:

Interesting, Liz. We have sandy soil here in Florida, but it's not black underneath, so I doubt I'd get anything more than a backache if I tried to pan for gold!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on January 13, 2017:

I've never been but want to give it a try one of these days.

Great read!

Mary Wickison from USA on January 13, 2017:

When I was in school I went on a field trip to Columbia State Park. I found it fascinating. So much so I took my kids there as well. We have seen people panning for gold up in Placerville and the surrounding areas. Some people, as you say, do it for fun and others are serious. I remember a time I was traveling through Oregon and there was a man dredging a river. He had set up camp on the opposite site of the river and when we stopped to look, as tourists do, he came out with a shotgun! He thought we were there to jump his claim! Mountain men still exist.

We bought some flaked gold from a gold panner and kept it for many years and sold it when the price went up. We didn't make a fortune but it was interesting and we didn't have to get arthritis from the cold water.

When I was living in Northern California back in the 1980s there was a heavy rainstorm and when they went to dig up part of the road, the workers found gold lodged in tree roots. It is true, gold is where you find it.

Now you've got me thinking about where I live in Brazil, I need to look into this area a bit more.

Interesting hub.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 13, 2017:

Cool idea, really. I think I can say, with some confidence, after digging up most of this yard, that there ain't no gold in our little neck of the woods. :)

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