Skip to main content

Where to Find and What to Look for When Gold Prospecting and Panning

I've been gold prospecting for 11 years, mainly in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County, Arizona, where I found over 8 grams of placer.

Basic four types of placer deposits

Basic four types of placer deposits

Reading the Stream

This article will convey information that I, an amateur prospector, have learned about the location of placer gold. Believe it or not, it took me quite some time to figure out how to increase my odds of finding placer gold.

Due to the fact that discovering gold is an exciting prospect, people frequently delve into the activity simply digging, most often near a bank, at a claim where gold has been found before. Usually it is after several trips that the neophyte realizes that there must be more to finding gold (even at a location that has produced gold) than simply digging. Well, the good news is that there is more to it.

Panning material dug at inside bend

Panning material dug at inside bend

Gold Is Heavy

The first piece of information you need to understand is that the placement of gold in stream beds is based upon the speed and volume of water that can run in rivers, stream beds, or creeks. Gold is 19 times heavier than an equivalent volume of water. It is about 6 times heavier than the solid material flowing down from higher elevations in rapid water as a result of melting snow pack and rain. Realizing how heavy gold is will lead you to the next fact about gold depositing. When rapid moving heavy waters pick up gold flake or nuggets and takes them down a watercourse, anything that slows the current down gives the gold a chance to settle out and sink to the bottom.

When you get to the site of your claim, many times near a stream bed or ancient waterway, look upstream. Analyze the twists and bends as water would come toward you. One of the first things you look for is some kind of obstruction to the flow of water. An example that all prospectors with a minimum of experience know of is big boulders. If you see a big boulder in the stream, especially if it is near a bend, it has slowed water. If you have looked at rocks in a flowing steam, no doubt you have seen eddies or swirling areas on the DOWNSIDE of rocks sticking up out of the water. That is because the water has slowed. As gold flake rounds the boulder it is heavy enough that the current no longer keeps it afloat, and it sinks to the bottom where it collects. Rocks under the water can act as barriers and stop gold flake also, but for a newbie, collecting material on the downside of an underwater obstruction is probably a bit beyond the true beginner's capability. So one place to start digging is the downside of a protruding big rock. The same is true of a tree with a sizable trunk which may be growing in a dry riverbed. Here we run into an ethical issue. If you are digging by the trunk you run the risk of damaging the tree. I follow this rule (and I have found flake behind trees). I dig but do not cut big roots. After I have removed material to wash, I fill in the hole. The government expects you to fill in your holes on federal claims, but not forgetting to fill a hole near a tree is extra important. In the Southwest where I explore, shade is an expensive commodity. As the leader of our club has often said, "A little shade from a healthy tree is more valuable than gold."

Next, you must realize the common course of gold down a waterway. Think of a steam wandering down from a mountainous area to lower elevations. As the water makes its way, bends are created. When gold flake hits an INSIDE BEND, it slows down. Frequently you will also find other heavy materials that have fallen out and formed a bar. The upside of a bar on an inside bend is a very good place to sample. If the waterway is dry, focus on where the water has caused a bend. The OUTSIDE OF A BEND would be the area not protruding in to the stream (see drawing above right). If you see a lot of material like rocks and gravel on that shore, that might also be a good place to dig. In a previous article about panning at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, I found one flake and a tiny nugget (a small piece of quartz with a flake of gold attached to it). However, more often than not, the inside bend of a stream bed is the primo first place to look for gold.

Bolders or other debris blocking the path of the stream can be a place to locate gold. Look on the downstream side where eddies appear and slow the flow of gold flake.

Bolders or other debris blocking the path of the stream can be a place to locate gold. Look on the downstream side where eddies appear and slow the flow of gold flake.

Gold Clubbers on a Budget

There are plenty of great articles on "how to find gold." The emphasis here will be, as I said, the amateur prospector, but also a prospector freshly interested in finding gold, and on a budget. Let's face it, mining equipment is rather expensive. I have found that one can have a lot of fun searching for gold with little more than a pan, 14 gallons of water, a tub to hold water, several buckets, a whisk brush, and a snuffer bottle. Are you going to find as much as someone who owns a $600 dry washer? Probably not, but there are a few people who own such equipment who do not even know what I have learned.

And to make the introduction a bit longer (sorry) this information is for people who have decided to join a prospecting club. When you join, you are able to go to areas that the club has claimed. These areas historically have produced placer gold. For a newbie to simply go out into the wilderness to try to find gold is overwhelming. You need to know something about geology, you need to make sure you aren't on someone else's claim, you need to know how to use a GPS system or be VERY good with a compass, and you need the experience of an outdoorsman. Joining a club eliminates these considerations since you can go to the claims with a group, return another day with confidence that you are in the right place, and begin to learn the steps I am going to tell you about.

Where would you look for gold? Notice the trail of the wash.

Where would you look for gold? Notice the trail of the wash.

Gold Flake Size

The next point I want to mention has to do with the size of gold flake in a waterway. Since gold is heavy, once settling out it will work its way down through sand and gravel until it hits bedrock, or another substance referred to as false bedrock. In Arizona, I have found that digging in an arroyo you frequently will hit something pretty hard. But if you hit it with gusto with a pick or shovel, the material will crumble. That is composite rock (rocks that have essentially been cemented over geologic time with calcium and other minerals to form a very hard continuous crust) forming a false bedrock. When you get to something like this, start digging out sideways and moving material away. The material coating the false bedrock is what you want. That is where the gold stops its journey through the stream bed. Using a whisk brush and a dustpan, save that material for panning. While whisking, notice any cracks or crevices which collect gold. Whisk them out or use a miners pick to crack the sides and sweep out material for panning.

Now a consideration for using your time efficiently. Most of us have a limited amount of time to prospect because most of us have other responsibilities (even though the thought of living the life of a prospector may seem inviting). If you dig sparingly before you bring material back to your camp site for panning in the tub, you are using time to wash your material in the pursuit of gold. If you have already sampled these prime locations and found some flake, your time is better spent gathering "dirt". I usually bring dirt home (or concentrate I have not completely panned, ie black sand). I can do my final washing at my home at my leisure while having more material to pan. I only mention this if you really are interested in bringing home as much gold flake as you can. In the beginning, I couldn't wait to pan it and see the gold. Then I would snuff it. What I brought home was a snuffer bottle of material that I panned (which isn't much). Nevertheless, I found finding the bright yellow metal right away was more rewarding than bringing dirt home. Now that I have satisfied that feeling of elation on seeing "color", I bring dirt home, which theoretically should contain more gold!

River bank obstructed by tall grass.

River bank obstructed by tall grass.

Grass Is Stealthy

Now for another location to find gold flake (and maybe a nugget- it happens). I have noticed that if you are at an inside bend and you see a good amount of grass growing above, digging around that grass can be profitable. The grass acts as a sift and the heavy gold falls to the roots. Usually the flake you find there is very small (fine, sometimes referred to as oat gold), but there can be quite a bit of it. Of course, no rule for prospecting is perfect, but all of this gives you good places to sample and then dig for gold at a club claim.

Scroll to Continue

I have mentioned sampling a few times. When you sample you take material and pan it to definitely determine if gold exists. Mark that spot and come back to it or choose to dig there first.

Most experienced prospectors will take an area and sample in several odds-on places, choosing to do their digging where they find the most flake. Others dig enthusiastically as soon as they find a sample with gold. When you start to prospect, I figure it is whatever you want to do. I use a 12" black gold pan every time I go out to dig. It is a handy size and I can easily see gold flake against the black sand and pan. It is especially easy to see flood gold.

I think that this gives the first time amateur prospector information that will prove important on a first outing with a gold prospecting club. You can obtain this level of info just by talking to the other club members, but that can be hard since you have not already made friends. After a couple outings you will have made friends and shared information. Usually there is a club leader who is also a valuable source of information. From then on, you will be amazed at what you learn!

May all your club claims be rich with gold!

A rocker box I made with scraps

A rocker box I made with scraps

For the pros Large drywasher.

For the pros Large drywasher.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where are the best places for gold prospecting?

Answer: There is an old saying that if you want to find gold, go where it has been found before. If you are trying to determine a type of location, l would go to the foot of a mountainous area and look for signs of white quartz.

Question: Where is the best spot to find gold in the U.S.?

Answer: Interesting question. In all honesty, I have found more placer gold at inside bends of Arizona arroyos at places where gold was previously reported found. In Arizona, Yavapai County is where I have found the most. There, the Bradshaw mountains are a good place.

Question: Are mountain springs (small narrow water literally coming up from the ground that turn into branches) around 2-4' wide good areas to prospect? I ask this since I have one on my property but the rock in and around it doesn't match up to anything recommended by pros of where to look

Answer: If there is water running through the spring area from above in the rainy season, and there is rock up there as I have described, it could be a good place. If your spring is in an area not fed from above and comes up and then runs downstream I guess it is possible, but it is hard to see how any volume of gold would be pushed up given the weight of gold and the narrowness of the outlets. However, as the saying goes - gold is where you find it.

Question: Once I find gold, where do I take it?

Answer: Nuggets are generally worth more than placer flakes. If you have a lot, you might want to see an assayer. A jeweler can smelt the placer into a nugget or ingot for you.

Question: Is northwest Ohio a good place to explore for gold?

Answer: Here is what I found on the Internet. I am not familiar with Ohio in particular. Seneca County is not nearly as rich as some other counties in Ohio. However, it's home to at least one noted producer of gold. Seneca County's Honey Creek has been producing small but consistent gold since it was first panned in the 19th century. It also runs through Miami County where you will find the Honey Creek Preserve, a popular hiking location."

For a good map of reported gold finds, see

Of course, Canada isn't that far to the north, and there is a lot of gold up there.

Question: Is there any chance of finding gold in the upper peninsula of Michigan? I find silver and copper nuggets all the time.

Answer: There is apparently fine gold in both upper and lower Michigan. Large deposits may not be there as in other states with a history of gold production, like Alaska and California. In 1881, the Ropes Gold Mine north of Ishpeming in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was started after an outcropping was discovered. The area was mined until 1991. As an aside, gold is often found with copper and silver. My home state of Arizona has uncovered most of its gold while mining for copper. In many cases the precious metal production at copper mines pays for the operation. You may also find it interesting that the town I live in, Superior, Arizona, is named after the the Lake Superior and Arizona Mining Company (a Michigan company, 1875).

I would definitely test the areas where you find the nuggets. For a really great background on Michigan gold, please see

Question: I live by a mountain that has had a fast, strong moving river moving past it. Half way there is a waterfall. Would there be much gold down at the bottom?

Answer: What determines the amount of gold is the contents of the mountain above. If water is running over an outcrop of gold, no matter how small, bits of it will fall with the water. Those bits will then fall to the bottom (there is usually a well - dug out of the spot where the waterfalls due to the force of the water). If you know gold has been found there before, fine. Since the United States has been scoured by prospectors for 200 or more years, chances of finding a new deposit are slim. Google the area with the word "gold" and see what you can find. However, new discoveries are made in the United States on occasion. Besides that, you will probably find some interesting stuff folks have dropped there. I never pass up the chance to pan/dive to see what's there. Make sure you are with a companion if you do this - buddy system for safety.

© 2011 John R Wilsdon


Jonathan from Zambia. on April 13, 2020:

Thanks very much for the great ideas in gold prospecting. Iam very interested to know areas were to find gold this information will be very useful to me. Thanks.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on March 27, 2020:

Thanks for the feedback.

Addison on March 27, 2020:

I tried this site too many pop-ups constantly in the way of reading I’ll go to a different site

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on December 24, 2019:

You are very welcome. As in any endeavor, a little knowledge can get a person started the right way. Good luck.

Ashraf on December 24, 2019:

Am very appreciate to your real knowledge is very help full to layman

Thanks very very much.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 28, 2019:

Here's hoping you meet with success in your search for a bit of gold. I found an article outlining the state of claims in Uganda. About half way down the page is a map, although you may already be aware of this. The article brings up some negative commentary on which I cannot comment one way or another. I live in the United States and am not familiar with mining laws, politics, and government in your country. But the map seems to be pretty current as it was printed in the summer of 2018. Good luck.

Luyimbaazi Samuel on September 28, 2019:

I think am in the right place and position.

I am starting this business of searching for gold in my area more beyond to see that i get out of poverty which has struck me for many years.

Let me hope that as Uganda is placed and located in rich climatic zone things shall get good to me.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 03, 2019:

I wish you luck. Read everything you can about saving time while you hunt for the gold, sample, and then dig and pan bulk. Thanks for the comment.

ahmad on September 03, 2019:

sir i want to send me some experince

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on July 16, 2019:

Glad you are enjoying rockhounding. It is one of my favorite pastimes too. My front yard is full of them! Have fun and be careful. Thanks for letting me know.

luis valenzuela on July 16, 2019:

i read your article or this article about 2 months , right around when i started my interest in rock searching. ive pretty much have looked for gold or just rockhounding in the areas you mentioned and i have found some interesting rocks . Not excatly sure what they are but but im learning.Ive collect a good amount of rocks and have strated to identify them! its interesting and exciting.. my next step is to join a club. tks john

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on May 26, 2019:

All of the gold I have found has been in washes fed by mountain runoff nearby. Water runs over gold-bearing rock and deposits smallish bits in very particular places in these stream beds. Then it is called placer. In many cases, these areas were formerly mined, but are not commercially profitable.

Look for areas where black sand is deposited; these are areas where heavier material has settled. Gold is heavy. Pop rocks up and look under them for trapped bits. You may have to dig down a couple feet before giving up. Then move on to another possibility. Gold is rare enough that just going out and digging anywhere will just get you frustrated. The places I go are places others already know about and where gold has been found before. Check out government info, geological info, state university archives, and websites that discuss gold. Many of the GPAA associated websites maintained by clubs are very useful. The amateurs there freely share their information. I cannot address your interest in valuable stones as I have never searched for them or found any while gold prospecting. There are places in California where you can pay to go to old semi precious stone mines and have a day outing.

I use google maps to survey areas I have found gold to look for nearby places with sand bars, gravel bars, and their location to the path of water.

This can be easier than spending a day hiking and surveying but not being able to really dig.

It is an amazing hobby, but don't do it expecting to get rich. I know a lot of people who enjoy getting a little gold - but they enjoy the outdoors and fresh air more. Finding some gold caps the day! For a lot more information, please see

Best of luck, and thanks for asking.

Hi sir on May 26, 2019:

I am new mostly in which places there are more chances to find gold or valuable stones

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on February 13, 2019:

I would keep them as nuggets. You can take them to most mining or prospecting stores and ask for an evaluation. If your metal detector read the rock as gold, don't break it up. Your news sounds exciting. Congratulations on the find. Furthermore, keep the info about location to yourself. :)

James Miller on February 12, 2019:

I found three rocks with my metal detector looks like some gold,silver and quartz do I crush them and pan them or keep them as nuggets?

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on January 16, 2019:

Where are you located? It is always a good idea to check things out with the authorities. In my country (USA), I frequently double check things with the Bureau of Land Management. Thanks for the question, and enjoy yourself. Good luck.

Syam on January 16, 2019:

Hello John..

I will just start gold prospecting but only for fun and spending the weekend. I will start in the highland river in my area, do I need to ask permission from the authorities?

Thank you

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 21, 2018:

Brian B

I agree with your observations. The clay sediment is very dry here in Arizona, for obvious reasons. It can be mistaken for just some sand wash. But soon after scratching, it is clearly identified. For some reason folks seem averse to inspecting the clay. I am not sure why. It has provided me with a lot of excitement at times. Thanks for stopping by. Good luck!

Brian B on September 20, 2018:

Hello John. I recognize you from G+ where I am the owner of a prospecting community.

I live and prospect in North Carolina. Particularly around the uwharrie national forest and surrounding Randolph and Davidson counties. I think the most important part of prospecting is the area and the make up of material. Clay. Clay. Clay. In NC most of the best placer gold is on top or in the clay sediments. Rhyolite decaying clay has been very lucrative for me. Before ever getting a pan wet, study the geology of your area. For example, out west is great for crevicing. Here, it's not as worth it because of the clay sediments.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 19, 2018:


I have found gold in both places. It can collect on an inside bend rather well. Cracks in bedrock and depressions filled with clay on the downside are good sources also. I would shoot for the bends first. Thanks for the comment, and good luck.

nasir on September 17, 2018:

which is the best . if i found there near by water area down side in the water area or turn side water area.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 16, 2018:


Thank you for your kind comment. Venezuela is rich in minerals. Best of luck to you.

harpia2 on September 16, 2018:

i am from venezuela..i like this helps in some way..all thougt i am a miner..thank a lot.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on August 25, 2018:

Best of luck to you.

New Mexico can get pretty hot so take a lot of water, and let someone know where you are going.

Jimmy Rice on August 24, 2018:

I would very much like to go find gold and crystals with you. I know a place called Origrandy NM.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on January 21, 2018: