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How — and Where — to Pan for Gold

You'll get fresh air and exercise, but you probably won't get rich


spinner image tim conway in waders standing in front of the lost dutchman mining association
Tim Conway, president of Augustagoldclub.com, a chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, standing outside the Loud Mine Camp gold mining site in Cleveland, GA.
Courtesy, Baillie Conway

The problem with panning for gold: Once you find some, it’s hard to stop looking for more.

John Mischler, 57, had a friend invite him out to look for gold nearly 20 years ago. “He took me up in the mountains in California and showed me how to do it, and I came home with a little bit of gold, which piqued my interest,” Mischler says. By the third time, he was hooked. “I have a little bit of gold fever.”

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Most of the gold panners in the California Gold Rush didn’t get rich, and you probably won’t, either. You can have fun, though.

“The number one question that I get all the time is, ‘Am I going to make a fortune?’” says Tim Conway, 59, president of Georgia’s Augusta Gold Club, a chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America (GPAA). “And it’s not going to happen. This is a recreational hobby. You’re going to get rich in the friendships and the fellowship and getting out in the great outdoors and getting some exercise.”

spinner image tim and his son bailie conway working at a mining camp
To speed the process of using a gold pan to sift wet dirt, Tim Conway (left) with son Baillie Conway sometimes use a highbanker gold sluice.
Courtesy, Baillie Conway

But you never know. It’s not impossible to find worthwhile amounts of gold, especially when gold sells for close to $2,000 an ounce, as it does today. A one-tenth of an ounce U.S. gold coin — slightly larger than a dime — is worth about $200. And you don’t have to live in California to find gold. The first gold rush in the United States was in 1799 in North Carolina, where a 17-pound gold nugget was discovered. Lucky prospectors can still find sizable nuggets: In 2014, a prospector with a metal detector found a six-pound nugget in Butte County, California.

How to search for gold

It’s unlikely you’re going to find a big gold nugget lying in a stream, especially on the East Coast, where a gold belt runs from Maryland to Alabama. Instead, you’re likely to discover tiny flakes of gold in your pan. (The pros call a piece of gold large enough to pick up with two fingers a picker.) Nuggets – typically two grams or more — are more common out West, but still unusual.

spinner image plastic pan used for panning for gold containing some gold flakes and a small nugget in a jar
Typical small sizes of panned gold are called fines, flakes and small pickers. Larger nuggets are rare, but even small amounts of gold are worth money.
Courtesy, Baillie Conway

If all the gold in the word that has ever been mined was put in one place, it would form a cube about 24 yards on each side, according to the World Gold Council. Other gold facts:

  • Gold is heavy. That cube of gold would weigh 206,353 tons. The USS Gerald Ford, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, displaces about 110,231 tons when fully loaded.
  • Gold is malleable. An ounce of gold can be spun into a very thin 5-micron wire 50 miles long.
  • Gold is pretty. About half of all gold mined today is made into jewelry.
  • Gold is guarded. The Federal Reserve owns 530,000 gold bars, each one of which is 400 troy ounces (a troy ounce is 1.1 standard ounces). Only 147.3 million ounces, or about 335,773 gold bars, is in Fort Knox, Kentucky; the rest is in Federal Reserve vaults.
  • Gold is scarce. About 90 percent of the world’s gold has been mined since the California gold rush.

The easiest way to look for gold is to pan for it by hand. Nearly all noncommercial techniques for finding gold rely on the fact that gold is heavier than most other gravels — or metals, for that matter. You start by putting some dirt into a gold pan and adding water. Because of its weight, gold will settle into the bottom of your pan.

The trick to panning for gold is to slosh out the lighter sand without splashing the gold back into the creek. It takes practice. “There are 100 different ways to use a gold pan, and there’s not one universal way, so you’ve got to find a way that works for you,” says Mischler, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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People who look for gold in parts of the West with little water can use the dry wash technique, which was invented by Thomas Edison. Instead of panning with water, dry washing involves blowing air over the soil, removing everything that’s lighter than gold from the gold itself. 

When you’re panning for gold, you quickly realize that there’s a whole lot more dirt than gold, so the calculation isn't complicated: The more dirt you sift, the more gold you’re likely to get.

It can take several hours to sift through 20 pounds of dirt by hand. You can speed up the process with a sluice, which is an open-ended box with vertical metal riffles spaced evenly apart along the bottom. The riffles disrupt the flow of water, allowing the heavier gold to fall to the bottom of the sluice, while most of the lighter sand flows back to the stream. “You can do 20 pounds in about ten to 15 minutes — as fast as you can shovel the dirt,” Mischler says.

There are variations on the equipment. A highbanker sluice, for example, uses a pump to force water through the sluice. You get a more even water flow than you would in a stream, and you can use it in areas away from natural waterways. You can also hunt for gold with a metal detector.

The more serious you get about finding gold, the more work is involved. When you start talking about highbankers and other equipment, you’re also talking about a lot of shoveling, particularly since gold will typically settle in the bottom of a creek bed. Panning for gold is another matter. “It’s not a physically demanding sport if you’re just panning,” Conway says.  

Do you want to try panning for gold? Watch a step-by-step demonstration at North Carolina's Reed Gold Mine state historic site. 

There are other risks beyond a sore back to consider, however, mainly because you’ll typically be panning in wilderness areas where you have to look out for skunks, snakes and bears. “It’s difficult when you have your head down and you’re concentrating on little flakes of gold in your pan,” says Mischler.  “You just always need to be mindful.”

Keep in mind, too, that you'll be in or near water, and wet rocks can be slippery. If you’re in a wilderness area, a bad fall can mean a tough hike out. “I don’t go by myself,” Mischler says. “I always take a friend or two.”

Where to search for gold

Gold tends to concentrate downstream from large rocks, and it’s often associated with large quartz deposits.  But those are just rules of thumb. “Gold is where you find it,” Mischler says. And old gold mining sites are often good for finding gold these days. “The old timers didn’t have the new equipment that we have nowadays, so we catch far more gold now than what they were catching way back when,” Conway says.

Even the old California gold fields still have gold, Mischler says. After all, gold washes down from the mountains periodically, and it’s been decades since the gold rush that started in the mid-19th century ended — during which time some streams may have changed course, opening up new places with so-called pay dirt that may contain the precious metal. In fact, the recent heavy rains in California have lured a new wave of prospectors to the region.

It does matter a great deal what stream you choose for your panning expeditions. Panning for gold is illegal on U.S. government property, which rules out streams in national parks. Some state parks will allow panning for gold, but many forbid using motorized equipment such as highbankers. If you’re panning on private property, be sure to ask the owner first.

6 places to pan for gold

Several sites around the country offer the opportunity to try panning for gold — and some even provide pans and lessons on how to use them for a small fee or for free. Some areas may be fairly primitive. Consider:

Alabama Gold Camp, Lineville, Alabama. A day pass costs $5, and you can also rent highbanking equipment. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Broken Boot Gold Mine, Deadwood, South Dakota. You can get a gold panning lesson ($10) and tour the gold mine ($8) Open daily 8 am – 6 pm, May 27, 2023 through Labor Day.

Cache Creek Prospecting Site, near Granite, Colorado. This Bureau of Land Management site is a former gold mine that’s open for nonmotorized gold panning. Free. 

Libby Creek Recreational Gold Panning area, near Libby, Montana. This area was formerly a gold mining area, but about 10 to 15 percent of the gold was missed by the miners. Daytime panning and camping available. Free.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Coloma, California. Gold panning lessons are offered most days at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. $10 per car; $9 for those 62 and older.

Reed Gold Mine in Midland, North Carolina. Open Tuesday through Saturday between April and October 31. Tickets are $3 plus tax for ages 8 and older.

Not surprisingly, some gold prospectors tend to be secretive. But many aren’t, and gold prospecting clubs offer a way to learn how to pan for gold. Conway’s gold fever started with a trip to his local gold prospecting club. “And so, you know, boom, I’m out on the creek … and, man, I think I’ve hit the mother lode,” he says. In reality, he had a panful of mica, which is worthless, but looks like gold on a sunny day. Undaunted, Conway has continued panning and was eventually inspired to form the Georgia chapter of the GPAA.

But even on days when you don’t find gold, panning can be rewarding. “It’s feet in the stream, hawks and eagles flying overhead … I’ve seen some really cool nature things,” Mischler says. “For me, it’s just getting out and being in the water and coming home with gold in my pocket.”

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