How to Pan for Gold
Panning for gold is still the simplest, easiest, and cheapest way to extract gold, even though it is the oldest form of mining. Panning for gold simply takes a pan and a stream bed with gravel or sediment that’s known to be located over a placer deposit.
Panning for gold is a form of placer mining in which gold is extracted from a placer deposit. A placer is an accumulation of valuable minerals, somewhat like a vein, but when panning for gold a placer that’s not solid is used. Panned gold is extracted from an alluvium placer deposit, which is a placer that has formed in river, creek, or stream sediments, collecting in protected places where the water doesn’t flow as fast, such as bends, eddies, breaks, waterfalls, and natural barriers along the shore.
Panning for gold is the oldest form of mining, and was the main source of extraction during the U.S. gold rushes. It is not effective for large-scale extraction operations today, but is still in practice. In old western mining towns with operational mines and pan sites, panning for gold is a novelty for tourists, families, and amateur geologists, as well as a profitable activity for mining entrepreneurs and professional geologists.
Gold placers are usually found in the mountains, and panning is an effective way to extract gold from streams and mountainside runoff. Gravel from the placer deposit is scooped into the pan with some water, and the gold sinks to the bottom as the pan is agitated, much like a washing machine. Denser materials like gold and gemstones will separate from the lighter materials in the gravel and remain in the pan, while the lighter, more porous gravel and sediment will float to the top and fall out of the pan with the water.
There are different kinds of gold pans you can use, including specially designed pans and heavy gauge steel or even copper pans. Sometimes screens, square pans, and other accessories are used. Some panners use a technique in which they lower the pan back into the stream as the gravel and sediment separate and float to the top, just long enough for the light current to sweep the unwanted sediment away while the gold rests in the bottom of the pan.
How to Locate a Placer Deposit
You can try your luck at panning for gold, gemstones, and other metals in areas that may contain placer deposits. Types of placer deposits include:
- Alluvium – placer deposits that form in river and stream sediments, found along the banks anywhere that sediment can be trapped.
- Eluvium – a type of placer deposit formed by settling and weathering, also located in stream beds.
- Bench placer – placer deposits that form on the bank or beach of a large body of water or river.
- Paleoplacers – placer deposits in which the deposit is a solid rock. Only gold and uranium are mined this way. Paleoplacer literally means “old placer.”
In the United States, gold was found out west. Head into the mountains or mountain valleys to find a cool mountain stream. Chances are you can find beds of sediment with tiny flakes of gold among the sand and gravel. Mountain towns with access to public lands will have local hot spots for gold panning that you may be able to locate through websites, blogs, or conversations at the local coffee shop.
Finding large deposits of gold through panning on public lands can be difficult, however, because most valuable placers have already been located and the lands they’re on have been purchased by mining companies. Some commercial operations around the west have gold and other gemstone panning available at regulated sites for a small fee, if you want to try your luck at striking it rich.
Placers are formed by heavier materials sinking during the sedimentary phases of rock formation, separating due to gravity. Placers are often characterized by black sand that contains a shiny mix of magnetite high in iron oxides. Look for these characteristics in the river canyon when trying to locate an unknown placer in a mountain streambed.
Even if you don’t find gold while panning, you may find crystals, gemstones, or other metals. In addition to gold, platinum, tin, diamonds, thorium, titanium, and uranium are all mined from placers.
Even if you don’t walk away with much, these small nature-made treasures make great souvenirs to remember your adventure by.