The Complete Guide to Prospecting for Placer Gold in the Desert

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Written By Monica

Are you tired of prospecting in the same old rivers and creeks? Do you want to shake things up and find gold in the most badass way possible? Well, hold on to your pickaxes, because we’re about to take you on a desert adventure!

Picture this: You’re standing in the middle of a vast, rugged landscape with nothing but your trusty metal detector and a thirst for adventure. There are no babbling brooks or rushing rivers to guide you. Instead, you’re relying on your wits and geological know-how to find the motherlode. This is what it means to be a desert prospector.

Placer gold deposits in the desert are a whole different ball game than the ones you find in the water. There’s something raw and untamed about the desert that speaks to the wild side of every prospector. The thrill of the hunt is amplified when you’re scanning the dusty terrain for glimmers of gold.

But don’t get me wrong, desert prospecting isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes grit, determination, and a willingness to take risks. But the rewards are more than worth it. The sense of freedom and adventure you feel when you strike gold in the desert is unlike anything else.

We’re going to show you how to tap into that wild side and become a desert gold hunting master. We’ll teach you everything you need to know about finding and mining placer gold in the desert. So, strap on your boots, grab your canteen, and let’s go find some gold!

Understanding the Geology of Desert Placer Gold Deposits

Geology might not be the sexiest topic, but it’s crucial to understanding where to find placer gold in the desert. Don’t worry, we’ll keep it interesting for you.

Desert placer gold deposits are formed in a similar way to those found in rivers and creeks. Millions of years ago, volcanic activity and erosion caused gold-bearing rocks to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Over time, these pieces of gold were carried downstream by rivers and deposited in areas where the water slowed down or pooled, creating the perfect conditions for placer gold deposits to form.

gold prospecting in the desert

But what about in the desert, where there’s no water? Well, it turns out that even in the driest places on earth, water is still a powerful force. Flash floods, monsoons, and even underground water sources can move gold downstream and deposit it in the same way as in rivers.

When prospecting in the desert, look for signs of past water activity. 

Dried-up Riverbeds

When prospecting for gold in the desert, it’s important to know how to spot dried-up riverbeds, as they can be a hotspot for gold deposits. Dried-up riverbeds often have a characteristic shape that resembles a channel or trough, with eroded sides and debris such as rocks or sand that has collected along the sides. If you come across an area that has these characteristics, it may be a dried-up riverbed.

Another way to identify a dried-up riverbed is to look for water-worn rocks. The rocks in a dried-up riverbed are often rounded and smooth, as they have been shaped and polished by the water flow. Look for rocks that are similar in size and shape, as this can indicate a consistent water flow. These rocks may also be scattered along the length of the riverbed.

ancient river

Plants that thrive near water, such as willows or cottonwoods, may still be present along a dried-up riverbed, even if the water has long since dried up. So, another way to identify a dried-up riverbed is to look for telltale vegetation. If you see vegetation that usually requires water to grow, it may be a sign that the area was once a water source.

If the riverbed has experienced recent floods, there may be debris, such as logs, branches, or trash, that has been carried downstream and deposited in the riverbed. This can also be a sign of a dried-up riverbed. So, if you see flood debris, it’s worth investigating the area further to see if there are any gold deposits present.

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Alluvial Fans

When it comes to desert gold prospecting, alluvial fans are a prime location to search for placer gold deposits. Alluvial fans are cone-shaped formations that are created when water and debris are carried down a slope, and they can be found at the base of a mountain or canyon. Here are some tips for finding alluvial fans in the desert:

Firstly, look for a slope. Alluvial fans are created when water and debris are carried down a slope, so areas where there is a significant change in elevation, such as the base of a canyon or mountain, are good places to start. Once you’ve found a potential location, check for fan-shaped deposits. Alluvial fans are often shaped like a fan or a cone, with the widest point at the bottom and the narrowest point at the top. Look for areas where sediment and debris have accumulated in a fan shape.

Another thing to look out for is gravel deposits. Alluvial fans are often composed of gravel and other sediment that has been washed down from the mountains. Look for areas where there are large deposits of gravel or where the soil is particularly rocky. In addition to this, check for signs of recent water activity, such as dry washes or channels. If there has been recent water flow, it’s possible that gold deposits have been left behind.

Alluvial deposits

Keep in mind that alluvial fans can be large and difficult to explore thoroughly, so bring your prospecting tools and take your time searching the area. It’s also a good idea to sample the soil and gravel from various locations within the alluvial fan to get an idea of where the most concentrated gold deposits may be.

Benches or Terraces

Benches or terraces can be excellent places to search for gold. These areas are former floodplains that have been abandoned as the watercourse has changed over time, leaving behind deposits of gold and other minerals. When looking for benches or terraces to search, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

First, look for changes in elevation. Benches or terraces are often located above the current watercourse, so search for areas where there is a significant change in elevation, such as a steep bank or a raised area of land. 

benches and terraces

Second, look for signs of water erosion. These areas are typically formed by water erosion, so search for signs of erosion, such as channels or gullies, that may have been created by water flowing through the area in the past.

Third, look for concentrations of gravel. Benches or terraces are often composed of gravel and other sediment that has been deposited by water, so search for areas where there are concentrations of gravel or where the soil is particularly rocky. 

It’s important to remember that searching for gold in benches or terraces can be challenging, as they may be located in remote or hard-to-reach areas. Therefore, it’s a good idea to sample the soil and gravel from various locations within the bench or terrace to get an idea of where the most concentrated gold deposits may be. 

layers from river erosion

Think of it like a multi-layered cake, with each layer representing a different period in the river’s history.

When prospecting, keep an eye out for these telltale signs of past water activity. By following the flow of water, even if it’s no longer there, you can increase your chances of striking gold.

Locating Desert Placer Gold Deposits

Finding desert placer gold deposits is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but with the right techniques and a bit of luck, you can strike gold. Here are some methods to help you locate these elusive deposits:

Look for Signs of Water

signs where water has been in the desert

Just as a thirsty traveler in the desert looks for clues like a dry creek bed or green foliage, prospectors can also look for similar signs. Dried-up riverbeds, alluvial fans, and terraces above current watercourses are good places to start searching. These areas were once underwater, and the gold particles would have settled there over time as the water receded.

Follow the Black Sand

Black sand is a heavy magnetic sand that often accompanies placer gold deposits. The magnetic attraction of the black sand particles can lead you to where gold may have settled. You can use a magnet to separate the black sand from other materials and follow the trail to its source.

Use a Metal Detector

A metal detector is like a treasure-seeking dog that can sniff out the hidden treasure. By scanning the desert floor, you can detect the presence of gold particles and locate the source. It’s important to note that not all metal detectors are created equal, and you’ll need a specialized detector designed for gold prospecting in order to have the best chance of success.

finding gold with a metal detector

Check Old Mine Tailings

Mining operations in the past have already uncovered and extracted gold from the area, and the tailings (waste materials left over from mining) may still contain gold particles. You can search these areas for overlooked gold that was left behind.

Look for Natural Traps

Desert placer gold deposits are often found in natural traps, such as behind boulders, in depressions, and under overhangs. These areas can shelter gold from the wind and rain, and provide an ideal environment for gold to accumulate.

natural gold traps

By combining these methods and carefully searching the desert landscape, you can increase your chances of finding desert placer gold deposits. It’s like being a detective, searching for clues and piecing together the evidence to uncover the hidden treasure.

Equipment for Desert Placer Gold Prospecting

Now that you know how to find gold in the desert, it’s time to gear up! Unlike prospecting in rivers and creeks, desert prospecting requires a different set of equipment to get the job done. Here are some essential tools you’ll need to start your search for desert placer gold:


A drywasher is a device that uses air to separate gold from other materials. It’s a crucial piece of equipment for desert prospecting. It works by blowing air through a porous cloth or felt matting, which traps the heavier gold particles while allowing lighter materials to be blown away. Unlike a traditional sluice box, which relies on running water to separate gold, a drywasher can be used in areas without running water. Think of it like a giant kitchen sifter, but instead of flour, you’re sifting for the good stuff – gold!

Metal Detector

A metal detector is an excellent tool to have on hand when prospecting in the desert. It can help you find gold nuggets, coins, and other treasures that may be buried under the sand. It’s like having a sixth sense for precious metals.

Gold Pan

Even though there isn’t any running water in the desert, you can still use your trusty gold pan to find gold. You’ll need to collect dirt and gravel from the dry washes or alluvial fans and add some water to create a slurry. Then, you can swirl the mixture around in your gold pan, just like you would if you were panning in a river or creek.

Pick and Shovel

A pick and shovel are essential tools for any prospector. You’ll need them to break up rocks and dig test holes to find the best spots for gold, because desert ground can be packed really hard and impossible to break up with your hands.

magnetic pick axe

Just look how hard this guy has to work to dig up a 19 ounce nugget in the Australian desert! If he didn’t have a pick he would’ve never got to it!

Crevice Tool

A crevice tool is a narrow, pointed tool that’s designed to help you extract gold from tight spaces, such as cracks in rocks or along bedrock. It’s a must-have for any serious desert placer gold prospector.

Sniping Tool

A sniping tool is a specialized crevice tool that’s designed for extracting gold from small cracks and crevices. It’s typically longer and thinner than a regular crevice tool, and is ideal for getting into tight spaces where other tools might not fit. Sniping is a highly effective way to find gold in areas where other prospectors may have overlooked.


A classifier is a sieve used to sort material by size. It’s an essential tool for separating larger material from smaller material before panning. By using a classifier, you can ensure that you’re only panning material that has a good chance of containing gold.

Navigation Tools

In desert environments, it’s easy to get lost, so navigation tools such as a compass and GPS are essential. Make sure you know how to use these tools before heading out into the desert. Many areas where you can find gold are remote, so don’t rely on your cell phone having service. Having a map of the area you plan to prospect can also be helpful.

Having the right equipment makes all the difference when it comes to finding gold in the desert. And not only gold prospecting equipment but also plenty of water and sunscreen for yourself. 

Finding Placer Gold in the Desert: Tips and Tricks

benches terraces ancient river beds

Now that you know about the geology of desert placer gold deposits and the essential equipment you’ll need for prospecting, it’s time to put that knowledge into action. Here are some tips and tricks to help you find gold in the desert:

Look for Dry Washes and Alluvial Fans

Dry washes and alluvial fans are some of the best places to find placer gold in the desert. These areas are formed by flash floods, which wash gold and other minerals downstream and deposit them in low-lying areas. Look for areas where water would naturally flow during a storm, such as the bottom of a canyon or the mouth of a wash. Once you’ve identified a potential area, use your pick and shovel to dig test holes and pan the material to see if there’s any gold.

Use a Drywasher to Process Material

In areas where there’s no running water, a drywasher is an essential piece of equipment for processing material. As we mentioned earlier, a drywasher uses air to separate gold from other materials. To use a drywasher, collect material from a dry wash or alluvial fan and run it through the drywasher. The heavier gold particles will be trapped by the cloth or felt matting, while the lighter materials will be blown away.

Drywashers aren’t as efficient as sluiceboxes run with water, but they’re better than nothing.

Bring your paydirt to a place with running water or use a recirculating pump

If you don’t have to trek too far from your car or truck you can always dig up some paydirt and bring it somewhere else to process. This is a great technique when you’re just trying to sample smaller quantities of dirt and find that paystreak. You can take it to your truck or home or a local creek and run it through a sluice box – with a recirculating pump if necessary.

Snipe for Gold in Tight Spaces

When prospecting in the desert, it’s important to look for gold in areas that other prospectors might have overlooked. One way to do this is by sniping for gold in tight spaces, such as cracks in rocks or along bedrock. Use a specialized sniping tool to extract gold from these spaces, and be sure to pay attention to the surrounding geology for clues on where to look.

Use a Metal Detector to Find Nuggets

In addition to panning and sniping for gold, a metal detector can be a valuable tool for finding nuggets and other treasures that may be buried under the sand. Look for areas where there’s been a concentration of gold in the past, such as old mining sites or areas where bedrock is exposed. Use your metal detector to scan the area and pinpoint potential targets.

Stay Safe and Be Prepared

Finally, it’s important to remember that prospecting in the desert can be challenging and potentially dangerous, especially with all the recent flooding and historic snow totals in the mountains. Always bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat to protect yourself from the sun. Make sure you have navigation tools such as a compass and GPS to help you find your way, and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. With the right equipment, knowledge, and a little bit of luck, you could strike it rich in the desert!

Putting It All Together to Find Desert Placer Gold

Now that you have a better understanding of the geology of the desert and the essential equipment needed for desert placer gold prospecting, it’s time to put this knowledge into action.

alluvial deposit in desert gold

Remember, finding gold in the desert requires patience, persistence, and a willingness to learn. It’s not just about luck or having the right equipment. You need to develop a keen eye for spotting indicators of gold, such as mineralization, quartz veins, and iron-stained rocks.

Take the time to explore different areas of the desert, and don’t be afraid to try new techniques or equipment. Keep in mind that the best spots for gold are often hidden away in remote and hard-to-reach areas, so be prepared for a bit of a trek.

If you’re serious about finding desert placer gold, consider joining your local chapter of the GPAA, a prospecting club or community. These groups can provide valuable information, support, and camaraderie in your quest for gold.

But most importantly, have fun! Desert placer gold prospecting can be a rewarding and exciting hobby, even if you don’t strike it rich. It’s a chance to explore the great outdoors, learn about geology, and connect with fellow prospectors.

So, grab your gear, head out to the desert, and start your search for gold. Who knows, you might just uncover a motherlode! Happy Prospecting!

Real Gold by Emily Riedel from Bering Sea Gold

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