Gold Fever: Panning for Gold

“Playfulness is a prospector’s greatest strength when trying to unlock the mysteries on the next bend of the river.” –C.J. Stevens

Can you really catch a fever from gold? Or get a bite from a gold bug? Well, give yourself one day spent on a gold producing river, with a pan in your hand, and I guarantee you will know what these sayings mean. Calling up images of the Wild West, the gold rush, and pioneers, gold hunting is alive and well today and is a great activity for the entire family. Take a gently rushing river, a sunny summer day, and a bunch of kids on a quest for gold, and you have the ingredients for a day that you won’t forget and one that may even make you rich!

Just as any kind of treasure hunt demands patience, gold panning is no exception. Many start a day of panning thinking they are going to find chunks of gold to rival Indiana Jones. But any future gold hunter best set their mind to working because it takes a lot of digging around to find a real nugget and not just ‘fool’s gold’ or mica. Panning takes practice and grit. So, channel your inner ‘49er (which is what people from the California gold rush were called) pay attention to the following tips on panning, and you will have a head start in your quest for riches.

As you start on this path, you are now called a prospector. A prospector is anyone who explores an area for mineral deposits. A “prospect” means that something might happen in the future and in the case of panning for gold, it means you might possibly find what is known as “the mother lode!”

Finding a Place in the River

The first step in your hunt is to find a gold producing river. Gold is a mineral that is found in sediment. Sediment is the crushed up remains from when rocks were dragged by glaciers, millions of years ago. Or when the bedrock, which is the solid rock that makes up the earth’s crust eroded. Bits of gold over time have been pulled out of this bedrock and can now be found in the sandy bottoms of rivers. How do you know if the river that runs near your house is filled with gold? Gold can be found in nature throughout all of the fifty states but not always in quantities that make it worth prospecting. The good news is that about half of the states have enough gold stores to dig in. The best source to determine if you have gold nearby is your state government’s website which should have a link to the state’s geological survey or Bureau of Mines. Ask around. Are there any mining or mineral shops nearby? Local rock clubs are a wealth of information. Do you know anyone who is into metal detecting? Talk to forest and park rangers. Does the river near you have lots of black sand on the bottom or rocks with a metallic sheen?

Once you find a river that has some history of gold discovery, you need to read the river for the spots where the gold likes to hang out. Often in rushing rivers, the bedrock is exposed along streambeds and shorelines. The cracks in the bedrock are where gold tends to pile up and get trapped. As you watch the river flow, look for areas where the water slows down such as the bottom of a rapid or a bend in the river. Gold is often found at the edges of whirlpools and sometimes gold streaks are found on a sandbar. Also, look for obstructions, places where a ledge or a big boulder juts out and the water has to move around them.


Panning for gold doesn’t require fancy or expensive equipment and if you go to a river known for its gold production, chances are there will be a store where you can rent the pans and shovels you need. Keep in mind that given you will be knee deep in water for a good chunk of time, a good pair of water shoes or waders might be helpful. Sneakers you don’t mind getting wet are ideal because they have better traction than water shoes.

The most essential piece of equipment for gold panning is the pan. Some people use a pie plate or a frying pan. But these days, most prospectors use a plastic pan with a series of ridges or “riffles” on one side. The average size pan has a 12-14 inch wide bottom. The plastic pan is lightweight, durable, and is usually a color that provides a sharp contrast to the gold, such as dark green or black.

A small shovel or trowel is important to dig away bigger rocks and get deeper into the hidden gold stores. But remember to be gentle as you dig. The bottoms of rivers are homes to many small creatures so try not to disturb too much of their environment in your quest for the nuggets.

A glass vial is necessary to collect all of your gold flakes and some people like to have a pair of tweezers to put these flakes into their vials so they don’t fly or drift away.

As always, bring your keen mind, strong hands, and a curious heart and as prospector Sam Raddy says, “grab your equipment and let the gold times roll!”

How to Pan for Gold

The most important fact to understand as you begin your prospecting adventures is that gold is very heavy—even heavier than lead. This is important because when you are filtering the water and sand out of your pan, the gold will be the last thing remaining on the very bottom of your pan. As renowned gold prospector, C.J. Stevens says, “Let the weight of the gold work for you, and never forget that gravity is your friend!”

Step 1:

Pick some promising material to work and fill your pan about halfway.  Always pan in still or slow moving water that is about one foot deep.

Step 2:

Break up the material as if you are kneading dough and pull apart any materials that cling together such as chunks of clay.

Step 3:

Once the “pay dirt” is loosened up, swirl the pan in a circular motion and then shake it side to side. Make sure your pan is held flat and under water. C.J. Stevens suggests shaking the pan back and forth like a person saying no—to settle the gold at the bottom.

Step 4:

Pick the bigger rocks out and throw them back into the water.

Step 5:

Place the side of your pan with the ridges away from you and tilt it toward the water about 10 degrees. Most of the pan should be under water. When you raise the pan, the spilling action of the water will pull the layer of lighter dirt over and out of the pan.

Step 6:

The material left in the pan ( about a couple of tablespoons) will be the heaviest—black sand, pink garnets and hopefully, gold! Pull the pan out of the water but make sure there is still about an inch of water left in the pan. Slightly tilt the pan and swirl to see if you can spot any shiny bits. Place the pan in the water one last time, gently shaking and swirling to get the remaining sand out. Be careful because if you are too rough with your shaking, you might lose precious gold flakes. Drain out the rest of the water and see if any tiny flakes of gold are hanging out on the bottom just waiting for you! If so, get out your tweezers and place them in your vial.

Repeat as necessary!


If on the first day of panning you walk away from the river with pockets full of gold nuggets, chances are that some of it might have fooled you. Pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold” and mica have a strong resemblance to gold and are plentiful in gold producing rivers but have major structural differences. First, both pyrite and mica are lighter than gold so they won’t stay on the bottom of your pan. And if you hit pyrite and mica with a hammer, they will shatter but gold will flatten. Once you have sifted the fool’s gold from the gold, you can take what’s left and yell “eureka” all the way to the bank!