There are so many types of gold deposits, it’s hard to wrap your head around when you’re first starting.
But it’s easy to understand if you think of gold deposits like a family, with parents and offspring who all have different personalities.
In this guide I’ll break down the most common types of gold deposits in simple terms and explain which type is best for the small time miner or prospector.
Lode Gold is the Motherlode
When most people think of gold mining, they envision a grizzled old miner chipping away at a solid rock face with a pickaxe, searching for that elusive vein of gold. This type of gold deposit is known as a lode deposit or a hard rock deposit.
Lode (aka hard rock) deposits are typically found deep beneath the earth’s surface, embedded in solid rock formations. Despite the popular image of one man and a pickaxe, heavy equipment is usually required to required to recover lode deposits these days.
Mining these deposits requires extensive excavation and drilling, and it can be a dangerous and costly process. Lode gold tends to not be very concentrated, and extracting the gold from the rock can require complex chemical processes.
Lode Gold Vein
But when you do strike gold in a lode deposit, you’re likely to find a lot of it. Lode gold is the motherlode (or fatherlode) of gold deposits, the big kahuna, the granddaddy of them all.
Ever seen a picture of a large open pit gold mine? That’s lode gold.
Most of the gold mined commercially in the US comes from lode deposits that are so fine, you wouldn’t even be able to see the gold if you held it in your hands!
Nevada produces the most gold of any state in the US. In 2018 it produced 5.6 million troy ounces which represents 78% of the gold recovered in our country that year. Or 5% of the whole world’s production!
The vast majority of Nevada’s gold comes from something called a Carlin-type gold deposit, named after the town of Carlin, Nevada.
These deposits contain “invisible” gold that is microscopic or completely dissolved in rock that can only be detected and extracted through chemical processes.
Read more about it – it’s a fascinating subject. But if you want to mine gold recreationally or even start a small independent gold mine or dredge (like your favorite character on Gold Rush or Bering Sea Gold) you’ll want placer.
Placer Gold is the Child Gold
“Now even a mountain that has a few gold veins in it is just not a very good thing. The mountain has too much rock, and so the gold is just too dilute. What you want is these places where the forces of weathering and the forces of water and wind and other things have come together to concentrate the gold [in a placer deposit]. So what you want is the rock and worthless stuff in this mountain washed away, and the gold accumulated in a small area. Those are the areas we’re trying to find as prospectors.”— Chris Ralph, Professional Prospector
In contrast to lode deposits, placer deposits are much more accessible and require less specialized equipment and knowledge to mine.
Placer deposits are created when gold is eroded from its original lode deposit and concentrated by the forces of water, wind, or gravity. Placer deposits can be found in streambeds, river channels, and other areas where the movement of water has sorted and concentrated the heavier gold particles.
That’s why I say placer deposits are the “children” of lode deposits.
In more common terms, placer gold is the little gold nuggets and flakes that are waiting for you just beneath the surface. With a little bit of patience and perseverance, you can find placer gold with simple and inexpensive gold recovery devices.
It’s the type of gold we recover in the Bering Sea.
Any type of recovery device that uses gravity such as a gold pan, a sluice box, a highbanker, a dredge, or a wash plant is made to target placer gold.
While placer deposits may not yield the massive quantities of gold that lode deposits can, they are much easier to access and mine.
And just because the deposits are smaller, doesn’t mean they can’t be lucrative. Independent gold miners (like those you see on tv) pull millions of dollars of the shiny stuff from placer deposits a season.
They’re just not the billion-dollar deposits. That’s lode gold.
Alluvial Gold is the Popular Kid
Alluvial gold deposits are a type of placer deposit that are formed by the action of water in riverbeds and floodplains.
Alluvial gold has several siblings, including:
- Residual deposits
- Hillside (eluvial) deposits
- River bench deposits
- Ancient river deposits
- Beach deposits
- Wind formed (desert eolian) deposits
These are all types of placer deposits, and thus are all children of lode deposits. It’s a pretty big family!
Alluvial deposits tend to be the most well-known because they water-sorted and found in rivers and streams. Because placer gold is typically recovered using water and gravity, it’s the deposits that naturally occur in or near water that are most accessible for recreational miners to target.
Unless you’re dry washing or hunting nuggets with a metal detector, you can’t recover gold in a desert or high up on a dry mountain with tools like a sluice or gold pan. It’s just not practical to haul that much water.
Is there more placer or lode gold in the world?
It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much gold in the world comes from lode deposits versus placer deposits, as the distribution of gold deposits varies widely from region to region. Historically, lode deposits have accounted for the majority of the world’s gold production.
According to the US Geological Survey, from 1830 to 2019, approximately 60% of the world’s gold production came from lode deposits, while 40% came from placer deposits. However, this ratio has shifted in recent years, with placer mining accounting for a larger share of total gold production in some regions.
For example, in Alaska, the majority of gold production now comes from placer deposits, while in Nevada most gold is still mined from lode deposits.
That makes Alaska a paradise for small time gold prospectors and independent miners!
Similarly, in some parts of Australia, placer mining has become more common in recent years as the remaining lode deposits have become more difficult and expensive to mine.
So, while lode deposits have historically been the dominant source of gold production, the relative importance of placer deposits varies depending on the specific region and time period.
Placer is the Gold You’re Looking For
So, with all that said, why do I think placer gold is the way to go?
Well, for one thing, placer deposits are much easier to access and mine than lode deposits. You don’t need to be an expert geologist or have access to expensive drilling equipment to find placer gold.
With a couple cheap tools like a pan and a shovel, you’re ready to start searching for gold in streams and rivers!
Furthermore, placer deposits are often rich in gold, and the gold is often in a more concentrated form than in lode deposits. When you find a good placer deposit, you can expect to find a lot of gold in a relatively small area. And because placer mining is less capital-intensive than lode mining, it’s a great option for individual prospectors who want to level-up and get into the gold mining game.
For example, for a relatively small investment (by gold mining standards, which can run up to hundreds of millions of dollars) you can get in the Bering Sea Gold dredging game.
Placer gold is the gold that you can find with simple tools, a little bit of hard work and a lot of patience. So, if you want to find the shiny stuff, I say go for placer gold. It may not be the motherlode, but it’s definitely the gold you’re looking for.
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