Panning for Gold in Your Backyard
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 experiences 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 under water, 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 under water, 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.
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 under water. 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 the 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.
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.
The Differences Between Gold and Fool's Gold
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.
Why Practice In Your Backyard?
There are several reasons:
- If the kids get bored and cranky, you're close to other activities or naptime
- There is a ready source of other containers or tools to try out
- You don't have to stand out in a stream and get all wet
- You don't have to worry about asking permission or trespassing on someone else's private property
- 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!
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, (of which I've made mention and given a brief overview in my article about Calaveras Big Trees State Park, tied to the link), 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 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.
© 2017 Liz Elias