The Ultimate Gold Prospecting Guide – How to Find Gold Like a Pro

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Written By Alex

The gold rush didn’t end in the 1800s. Prospectors today are still finding ounces of the shiny stuff. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to start filling your treasure chest.

Gold – The Great Treasure Hunt

“The gold is still out there. There are big finds being made. Nice patches with multiple ounces, and sometimes really big nuggets. But exploring and prospecting are how big finds are made. Remember the old prospector with this mule? That’s an image in lots of old movies and stories and alike, but there’s a truth to it – it’s something that modern prospectors need to remember. That’s that the old prospector was always wandering around. Testing different places, trying different ideas, and trying to make that big strike.”

Professional Prospector Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Gold Part 2 – Research (Youtube)

There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The hunt for gold has always attracted the world’s wild men and women. Gold rush history books are filled with stories of dreamers, hucksters, pioneers, fighters, and gamblers. Some geniuses and plenty of fools.

And nothing has changed today.

When I first started dredging for gold professionally in the Bering Sea I couldn’t believe people still made any money pulling gold from the dirt. When I thought of gold prospecting I thought of shabby, destitute men in the 1800s who squatted in rivers panning for a few flakes.

guide for finding gold

I assumed modern gold mining was exclusively the purview of giant companies in Nevada with heavy equipment digging huge pits in the earth. I didn’t think there was any gold left for the average man or woman to recover more than a few specks.

large gold mine

But I promise you, the gold rush is still on in the 2020s.

Just because you don’t hear people talk about finding gold all the time, doesn’t mean it’s not actually pretty common. 

Our cultural discussion around gold is that it’s a lottery. Even the popular business expression “sell picks and shovels during a gold rush” implies it’s foolish to search for the gold, and it’s smart to do something more “sensible.”

But gold has minted a lot more millionaires than the shovel business has, and the pick business probably died with the last California gold rush towns.

As professional prospector Chris Ralph says,

“Prospecting is like a trade. Owning a pipe wrench doesn’t make you a commercial plumber. It’s a plumber’s knowledge and experience and know-how that makes him a master of his trade – and it’s the same for prospectors.”

Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Gold Part 2 – Research (Youtube)

Hunting for gold is a skill that can be developed and honed over time. You can put yourself in a position to make a big score, and with enough focused study and practice I would say it’s impossible not to hit the mother lode if you’re strategic and persistent.

There is a world of small-scale prospectors and miners, like us, who are stacking ounces of gold by combining modern technology with timeless tools and techniques. 

Those who find good gold are quiet about it, because secrecy is a tool of the trade.

secret gold areas

But in the modern era, while no one is going to give you the coordinates for their honey hole, plenty of professional prospectors and miners are willing to teach newcomers the ropes in this game.

In this guide I hope to not only give you a comprehensive overview of how to prospect for gold in the modern age, but to pull in wisdom, encouragement, and teachings from some of the prospecting experts.

And when you’re old and gray do you really want to tell your grandchildren about how many shovels you sold? Or do you want to tell them the story of how grandpa or grandma found GOLD?

Why should I prospect for gold?

Gold prospecting is all about the hunt.

In fact, the technical definition of prospecting is the act of finding new deposits of gold. After you find those deposits, it’s not prospecting anymore. It’s gold recovery, or mining, and it’s an important piece of the puzzle if you want something to fill that jar.

For me, dredging for gold in Alaska is a way to make a living where I can work hard doing something really cool in the summer and take the winters off to spend time with my friends and family. It’s a form of commercial gold mining, but my job still involves prospecting for gold almost every day I’m in the water.

huge gold find

The first time I saw gold underwater was on my first real dive on The Eroica. I’ll never forget sucking away at a few inches of gravel overburden and finding gold absolutely everywhere sitting on this dark brown clay my crewmate and I called “mammoth poo” (because it’s ancient and brown, obviously). It looked like someone had spilled a bottle of gold dust on accident. We recovered over 25 ounces of gold in just two days.

The feeling of discovering that deposit is indescribable. We had hunted for good gold for weeks. It was simultaneously a release of frustration, a sense of wonder at the beauty, the innate satisfaction of finding something precious, and the feeling that, unlike a salaried job, the potential to make gold is limitless – only stopped by our ability to find it and recover it.

More recently, after the biggest storm in decades in Western Alaska, I won’t forget how the storm surge broke up the road, and my crewmates and I were able to harvest close to an ounce of gold shoveling rich sand off the beach into a highbanker in just a few hours.

Gold Highbanking

In gold prospecting, chaotic natural events are as much to be celebrated as they are to be feared and respected.

Asking why people prospect for gold is like asking people why they hunt, or fish, or forage for food or search for any kind of treasure. I don’t know if I could describe it, it’s just in us to enjoy harvesting treasures from the earth.

Gold is the ultimate natural treasure in some ways. There may be precious metals or gems that are, pound-for-pound, more valuable than gold, but rappers aren’t wearing chains made of palladium, and Mark Wahlberg wasn’t trying to heist big bars of platinum in The Italian Job. It’s all about the gold.

For some, getting out in nature and panning for gold in a beautiful river can be incredibly relaxing and enjoyable. You get to enjoy finding and harvesting treasures from the earth.

And if you like to hunt or fish or camp in historical gold-producing area, bringing a gold pan is an easy and light way to supplement your trip with another fun activity.

Besides the thrill of the hunt, and getting outdoors, there’s a comfort in knowing that I have a tool to help me scratch a living from the earth. 

finding gold in nature

For someone like me who went to college to study business and worked in corporate America, learning to hunt gold in Alaska grounded me in the physical things of the world. 

You learn to read the story the land is telling, dance with the natural conditions, and reveal the earth’s secrets.

You learn to master the tools and machines and forces that move earth and rock and water.

The more I learn about the behavior and location of gold, and the geology and features of our earth, the more I fall in love with the timeless treasure hunt.

And in this fairly small hobby it won’t take endless study and practice for you to be one of the most competent prospectors around.

This is the best time to be a gold prospector, EVER

“There really are pounds of gold waiting for those who know how to find it.”

Professional Prospector Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Deposits Part 1 – Reading a River (Youtube)

“Great finds are still being made. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Professional Prospector Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Gold Part 2 – Research (Youtube)

Has all the gold been found?

Short answer, no.

Is it harder to find than the “old days”?

In some ways, yes.

Oil isn’t seeping out of the ground in Pennsylvania anymore, and people aren’t rocking 10 ounces of gold a day off the beach in Nome, Alaska. It’s not 1899.

But think about this – official inflation numbers say everything is roughly 35x more expensive than it was in 1899.

But at the turn of the 20th century gold was $20 an ounce, which means it’s almost 100x more valuable than it was back then.

And the technology available for finding terrain (Google maps, online gold mining records, geological surveys) and recovering gold (cheap motors, dredges, sluice boxes, and tools made in Asia) are SO much better than before. Is the technology 10x better? At least, I think.

And the competition is far less fierce. When Nome was discovered to have gold 40,000 people showed up to fight for it the next summer. 

Early gold mining camp

Today, people just don’t care as much about gold. Modern people hunt for all kinds of different treasures, and are involved in cultural and technological pursuits that weren’t available back then. So the pool of prospectors is much smaller.

So maybe the era of discovering giant untouched goldfields on the frontier is over. But did you really want to set off a historical gold rush anyways? The “three lucky Swedes” who founded the Nome Mining District almost got killed by an angry mob.

But if you’re an individual who wants to travel the country or globe and find ounces of the stuff – now has never been a better time.

How much gold should I expect to find?

“I tell people it’s not like it’s something that’s so difficult the average guy can’t do it, but it’s not so easy that you can learn everything you need to know in 10 minutes. It’s way more complex than that.”

Chris Ralph, Professional Prospector, On the Gold Podcast (October 2019, 1:38)

Now I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but as professional gold miners we recover gold in “economical” quantities for a living. 

We have a large dredge that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and extremely rich gold-bearing ground to work – not to mentioned the significant ongoing expense, risk, crew, and effort it requires to keep it all running.

A dredge is a motorized gold recovery technique, and we play in the big leagues, operating the biggest gold dredges in the entire United States up here on the Bering Sea.

Bering Sea Gold Emily

If you want to recover 25 ounces of gold in two days like we did you’ll have to get big equipment, and big equipment means you’ll have to get in the gold mining game – which means committing your professional life to it. 

Maybe your journey as a gold prospector will take you there!

Even the story of mining an ounce off the beach in Nome after a storm is unrealistic for new prospectors.

The beaches of Nome, Alaska are famous for their unique gold-rich sands. The historic 11-foot storm surge destroyed the road and the tundra and washed gold down the beach, causing that short window of opportunity. 

Storms that big only come around once a decade.

I’ve gone out there with a highbanker and a shovel and a truck and another guy before and basically gotten skunked. It’s very difficult to recover more than a few grams in a day as a newbie.

I just used these examples to prove the gold is NOT all gone! And that it is possible to have “1 ounce days” even in a town that had its famous gold rush over a century ago, and has seen thousands of people come and attempt to extract gold over the years.

But if you’re new to prospecting you should be thinking in grams, not ounces. And if you’re just starting with a shovel and a pan – which is the cheapest (and best) way to start – think in terms of less than a gram for a good day’s work.

less than a gram of gold

You will need to spend money on equipment to start recovering more exciting quantities of gold. But you shouldn’t spend ahead of your skill level on equipment or mining claims until you know what you’re doing!

We see people come to Nome all the time and spend thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment before they know what they’re doing – and lose it all. Most gold mining towns are a carnival of financial tragedy.

BUT if you can start slow and learn to enjoy the treasure hunt for what it is you’ll open yourself up to having some really legendary days. And if you stay in the game, and you keep learning, I promise you great prospecting days WILL come.

natural gold

Can I make a lot of money prospecting for gold?

“There’s a lot of delusions of grandeur out there. A lot of people think they can go out there, spend a day and pull $1,000 of gold out of the ground [with a pan and a metal detector]. I’ve done that once or twice, and those were really lucky days. I’ve had [lots] of days I find nothing at all.”

Professional Prospector Dan Hurd, Mel Magazine Article

Recovering gold is a product of two simple inputs: finding gold-bearing material, and processing that material as quickly and efficiently as possible.

If you’re just prospecting for gold with a pan, then you are just focusing on the first input: finding gold.

You won’t make a lot of gold panning. If you make a gram in a day of panning that would be tremendous.

But that’s ok! Gold pans aren’t designed to recover vast quantities of gold. They’re designed to help you find it.

If you get good at panning gold and defining a paystreak, then the gold will add up fast when you upgrade your gold recovery systems. That’s when your gold prospecting can make you some money.

single gold dredge

Alternatively, if you don’t learn how to define a paystreak with your pan, then you may never have a big day. So it’s essential to develop this skill.

“No matter what the equipment you use: sluices, dry washers, metal detectors, or whatever, they cannot recover gold if it is not present. You have to find the gold, the equipment helps you recover it. So the more you know, the better your chances. That’s why some guys do so much better than average. You Want to be the guy who finds a few ounces, not a few specks.”

Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Deposits, Part 1 Reading a River (Youtube)

But in case you’re wondering how much you can recover with just a gold pan, here are a few examples from the pros:

Youtuber and professional prospector PioneerPauly and his friends, including fellow pro Dan Hurd, took 100 pans of gold from the gold-bearing Thompson River in British Columbia, Canada.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but they recovered less than 1.5 grams of gold. That’s about $80 of gold at today’s spot prices.

Dan Hurd made a video about how how long he would have to pan to make an ounce of gold.

He spends an hour panning rich ground on the Fraser River in Canada and gets 0.569 grams. That’s about $30.55 an hour. Not bad! In those conditions it would take him almost 55 hours to pan an ounce of gold.

The problem is Dan says those conditions aren’t repeatable for 55 straight hours.

He found the richest spot he could on a gold-bearing claim and panned as fast as he could. In other words, it is about as good as you’re going to get panning.

That said, prospecting gold with a pan is a trade that can be valuable in surprising ways.

using a classifier to pan gold

Professional prospectors like Chris Ralph and Dan Hurd make a living buying and selling, evaluating, and even staking claims and leasing out the mineral rights for passive income. They are trusted resources for recreational and professional miners to evaluate and provide them with good ground – for a fee.

Those guys, and several others, also make money filming their prospecting and mining adventures as entertainment and educational tools for others.

More commonly people take their passion and skill in prospecting into the field and join a gold mining operation like ours.

So there are ways to make some cash prospecting for gold – and it’s not all about what’s in the pan.

But as you move into more advanced forms of gold recovery, which we’ll talk about later, it’s more likely you’ll be able to recover a lot more gold. 

The fun thing about gold is there is no limit on how much you can recover – and with practice and some investment you can set yourself up for some epic days.

What you’re looking for: placer gold

“What are you doing, are you chasing lode or are you chasing placer? You have to know the difference and you have to know the one you’re after. We’re gonna go after placer because that’s the poor man’s gold, everybody likes placer.”

Jeff Williams, Want to Find Land to Gold Prospect On (Youtube)

There are two types of general gold deposits: placer gold and lode gold.

In the simplest terms, lode gold is gold that is still in hard rock and needs to be set free with a pick or heavy machinery, and extracted with crushing and/or chemical processes.

Placer gold is the mass of gold dust, flakes, and nuggets that have naturally come out of the hard rock deposit over time through erosion. Basically, placer gold used to be lode gold, but has already escaped the rock for your convenience!

how gold gets into water

Placer gold can be as fine as dust, or as large as nuggets, but importantly can always be recovered with the simple gravity recovery tools that we’re all familiar with like gold pans and sluice boxes . It’s what I’m going to focus on in this guide.

If you’re curious what it takes for a regular person to extract gold from hard rock without big machinery, Chris at Vo-Gus Prospecting has a great video about it.

See, gold has the unique quality of resisting weathering. So while the rock around it turns into clay and dust and silt over time, the gold gets washed away where it – and this is important – accumulates in placer deposits in certain places.

It’s your job as a prospector to find those places where gold has naturally accumulated.

Now this may sound like boring geology – it did to me when I first started in the gold dredging business – but it’s really important to understand the distinction. If you go hunting for gold in historical hard rock or “lode gold” mining districts you’re probably going to have a bad time.

Don’t listen to me – listen to professional gold prospector Chris Ralph in his video about the geology of placer deposits:

“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.”

So the accumulation and the concentration of gold in placer deposits is going to allow you to find gold in exciting quantities without some kind of machinery, which is just too hard to bring out into the back country with you most of the time.

These natural concentrations of gold can form in different ways and in different places. Here’s a list of types of placer deposits from Chris Ralph’s video about the Geology of placer deposits:

  • Residual deposits
  • Hillside (eluvial) deposits
  • Water sorted (alluvial) deposits
  • River bench deposits
  • Ancient river deposits
  • Beach deposits
  • Wind formed (desert eolian) deposits

I’m not going to go through all of these types of deposits – if you’re curious I highly recommend watching Chris’s aforementioned video.

How pure is placer gold?

Quick note on placer gold – it’s not 100% pure gold!

Gold, as it’s found in the earth, is actually an alloy of gold, silver, and copper with gold being the majority metal.

Each place has its own unique “gold formula” and so it looks a little bit different in terms of color.

purity of gold

We dug into it more here as we analyzed the purity of gold from the Bering Sea and explained more about how purity works.

How do I decide where to go to prospect?

Jeff Williams: “The number one rule to finding gold is what, slim?”

Slim, the talking skeleton: “Go where the gold is.”

Jeff Williams: “That’s right go where the gold is. Go where it’s already been found. You’re going to do your research. You’re going to go online, and you’re going to find where gold has been found in your area.”

Jeff Williams & Slim the Skeleton, Want to Find Land to Gold Prospect On (Youtube)

There is really only one place you should look for gold: in or around places where gold has already been found.

Think about how many men and women have scoured the earth throughout history in search of gold deposits. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? 

They’ve already painted a very rich picture about where gold can be found. Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Professional miners and prospectors aren’t wasting their time looking for gold in states like Illinois or Iowa where sizable quantities of the shiny stuff have never been found. So why should you?

The pros are focused on finding new deposits in old gold-bearing areas, or even on working an old mine with the help of new technology, new thinking, or just a high-enough gold price that makes low-grade ground more valuable.

look for gold in old tailings

While you need to learn to enjoy the hunt as a new prospector, you need to hunt smart.

If you just go to a random creek with no idea if gold has been found in the area and start panning, your odds of success will be miniscule. Not only that, but if you’re like me you’ll get extremely discouraged and feel like you’re wasting your time after the novelty of panning wears off – because you are.

Do you fish for salmon at the mouth of a river in January? Of course not! You fish when they’re running in the summer.

On the other hand, if you have researched the area and you can tell the rich story of both the dirt and the folks who have worked in it – and you’ve planned your search accordingly – now you’re in the great treasure hunt. You’re not just playing the lottery.

So you need to start by doing your research and figuring out where gold has been found. The more specific you can get the better.

For example, going to Alaska to look for gold is a better bet than going to Iowa.

gold fields of Alaska

But Alaska is a BIG place. If you narrow down your search and decide to prospect near the historic gold rush town of Nome rather than Homer, where there was no gold rush, you’re going to put yourself in a far better position to find gold.

Now let’s say you do your homework and you narrow your search down to Anvil Creek in Nome, rather than the Nome River.

Now you’re in business! Anvil Creek is one of the richest gold-bearing creeks in the world. The main Nome River, just a mile away, does not have nearly the density of gold mining activity compared to Anvil.

Every time you narrow your search down – even to the creek level – you are dramatically increasing your chances of success.

I really included this section to convince you to look for gold where it’s been found already.

You should be able to find a good creek or river to prospect in any historic gold mining district with just a few Google searches.

Now the work really starts.

Is it legal to prospect where I want to go?

Maybe you found a potentially gold-rich creek like Anvil Creek to prospect. Great! 

Now you have to make sure you’re not going to get the cops called, or worse, for trespassing or illegally extracting minerals from land that isn’t yours.

places you can't mine for gold

I happen to know that Anvil Creek has been claimed out since 1898 – and I know the owner of those claims, Augie Krutszch, reserves prospecting rights exclusively for the clients of his AKAU Gold Camp. He doesn’t allow independent prospectors to just go look for gold when they feel like it. So if I were planning a prospecting trip I’d have to scratch Anvil off the target list unless I could make a deal with him to look for gold there.

If it’s private land, all you need is permission from the owner to prospect. Most county GIS systems are online these days and you can see property lines overlaid on an aerial map and see the owner’s name and mailing address if you want to get in contact with them.

Prospecting on public land requires some research. Mining claims are staked for locatable minerals on public domain lands. That means that while no one owns the public land, an individual or company may have exclusive mineral rights to that land. 

gold prospecting on private land

If land you want to prospect is claimed already you’ll need permission from the claim owner to prospect. I encourage you to ask! Some will be open to the idea!

It’s common for operators to pay a royalty to claim owners – which is a percentage of any gold found. 15-20% of gold found is common in my experience. Besides the value of the gold, it could really help the claim owner assess the value of the claim. Oftentimes people own claims for strange reasons and never really go out and see if there’s gold there. They might appreciate the opportunity to have someone help them look.

For unclaimed public land, some agencies allow gold panning on open public lands, some agencies allow recreational mining including a motorized highbanker or dredge, and some agencies don’t allow gold prospecting in any shape or form. You just have to do your research.

mining on public lands

You can check out the BLM’s Mineral & Land Records System to see information about mining claims and leases in your area.

I highly recommend you watch professional prospector Jeff Williams teach you how to get a rundown on how exactly to do that, because it can be confusing.

Should I buy a gold claim to prospect?

Professional Prospector Chris Ralph said this on the On the Gold Podcast (October 2019: 2:28):

“I always tell people: don’t think about getting a claim until you have enough prospecting skills to evaluate the claim for yourself. If you’re going to buy a claim from somebody, but you’re really just going to have to trust what the guy that’s selling it tells you, then you really aren’t ready yet.”

I agree with Chris. If you’re new to gold prospecting, don’t buy a claim. You’re likely to get ripped off.

But don’t be discouraged by Chris’s warning. Use it as an opportunity!

People selling a claim should let you go out there and pan a bit and see what the ground is like if you’re a potential buyer – which you might be down the road. Ask a seller to prospect the claim.

using the current to sluice

Once you have some experience under your belt getting a claim or mining lease is a great way to upgrade your gold prospecting skillset as it makes you really learn an area.

In my opinion determining if it’s legal to prospect for gold is the most boring part of the process, but it’s essential. You don’t want to get run off by an angry landowner or hit the mother lode only to find out you can’t legally keep the gold!

If you’re brand new to prospecting and want to make this part really easy, consider visiting a park or area that’s open to the public specifically for gold panning or finding other valuable minerals. They’re mostly located in historic gold mining districts and will have a history of local gold finds.

They’re easy to access, mostly free, and you don’t have to worry about accidentally mining on someone else’s claim or breaking some rule!

Here’s a good list of public mining areas and tourist gold panning experiences.

Now let’s say you’ve done your research, you’ve found a gold-bearing creek, and you can legally go prospect there. Maybe people have been panning and mining gold there for decades. Is the gold all gone already? Or is all that mining activity actually an opportunity for the individual prospector?

This is the fun part – where we put boots on the ground and actually figure out how to find the gold.

Basic skills – How do I read a river for gold?

Inside corner. You’d never dig on the outside there you’ll never find any [gold]. The good gravel bar is on the inside corner. And definitely looking for big rocks to look behind to look for spots or deposits that are even richer.

Dan Hurd, Reading a river, where does gold deposit (Youtube)

I’ll be honest, I think this concept of “reading a river” is over-discussed. There are a million articles and videos about it and it’s actually really simple can be distilled down to a few key practical concepts. I’ll skip the fancy science and geology.

In fact, you could read that Dan Hurd quote above and then skip the rest of this section and get 80% of the value out of it.

gplaces to find gold in a stream

But here’s what you need to know: gold moves when rivers and creeks flood, from snowmelt or storms. The river waters rise and erode the banks, forming gravel bars.

If a river is depositing all kinds of different rocks and gravels in one place, forming a bar, it’s telling you that’s a natural settling area for heavy things and there’s likely to be gold there.

Paystreaks – gold’s “racing line”

That gold isn’t all over the gravel bar. It settles in a paystreak, which is a literal line of gold that follows the river. The paystreak can get really narrow and dense in some areas and spread out wider in others. There are also spots that catch gold naturally on that streak and spots that don’t as much.

Your goal is to visualize that paystreak, find it and follow it.

Gold takes the shortest distance down the creek. Think about a racing line created by race car drivers.

They take 90 degree turns on the inside corner for the widest turn radius and the shortest possible distance around the track.

gold paystreak racing line

Gold does the exact same thing. It hugs the inside corner of a river bend. The paystreak could be on either side of the river in the straightaways, but around turns it’s always concentrated on the inside corner.

In fact, looking at a race track after a race probably paints a good approximation of a paystreak in a creek. Notice it’s tight around the inside corner and there’s a wider distribution of tire tracks down straightaways. So you’re usually looking for gold on the inside bend of a creek.

Inside bend = good.

Outside bend = bad.

Straightaway = ???

Natural gold catches

So you found a nice gravel bar on an inside bend. Good work. Where should you grab some material to pan?

Well, behind a large boulder is a good place to start.

Large boulders interrupt the flow of water and create low pressure zones, often concentrating gold behind them. Sluice boxes are designed to do the same thing.

If you want to learn the science behind it Dan Hurd has a great video explaining gold deposits around large rocks.

Nature is a prospector’s best friend – and worst enemy

Remember my story about pulling over an ounce of gold off the beaches of Nome after the biggest storm of the decade?

Often the biggest opportunities to find gold come as a result of huge quantities of water and earth moving suddenly and unexpectedly including:

  • storms
  • seasonal river flooding from snowmelt or rainfall
  • landslides/rockslides

Augie tells us after a major rain storm or exceptionally fast snowmelt that Anvil Creek will flood and erode the banks and create great new opportunities for prospecting.

That erosion washes away the light material and re-concentrates the placer gold in, or next to, the creek, which acts like a natural sluice box. That gold, untouched by miners in the past, can be found with a gold pan and recovered with a highbanker or dredge.

erosion exposes gold

If a river has been mined heavily, a storm will often re-concentrate the gold and provide a great opportunity for the next prospector who comes through.

However, if “huge quantities of water and earth moving suddenly” means opportunity, it also means danger.

A mountain run-off river that’s passable most of the year can become absolutely impassable once a year when the snowmelt pushes the icy river to its highest and most powerful.

Remember the book/movie Into the Wild? That’s how Christopher McCandless got trapped in the Alaskan wilderness for 114 days and ultimately lost his life. He crossed the icy Teklanika River in the spring and couldn’t cross back to safety as the river rose throughout the summer from snowmelt.

Floodwaters from storms will raise rivers and erode huge swaths of riverbanks, often re-concentrating fresh gold for the enterprising prospector to find.

dangerous flood waters

But floodwaters will also destabilize river banks and paths that were once safe to cross, and fell trees in unexpected places. 

I don’t want to scare anyone unnecessarily, but if you’re someone who sits in front of a computer for a living you have to reorient yourself to understand the ebbs and flows of the natural world as you hunt for treasure.

Keep your eyes open for opportunities provided by extreme natural events, but like a lion know that the opportunity to make the fattest kill often leaves you the most dangerous and exposed.

So be careful when you plan your prospecting trips. A river that’s safe before a storm may need extra caution after – or may not be safe to prospect during certain times of the year.

Alternatively, when water levels are low during a drought or even during the winter, there may be opportunities to prospect virgin ground. Unless motorized suction dredges are legal in your area, or gold sniping is popular, it’s unlikely anyone is checking the ground in rivers and creeks that is normally two or three feet under the normal water levels.

Advanced skills – How do I use research to find gold in old mines?

First, the good news about old gold mines. The gold is NOT all gone. I don’t care how many people have mined a creek, there is always “new gold” to be found.

looking for gold with maps

Here’s the bad news: It’s not as easy as just panning any material and finding gold everywhere – especially if it’s been mined hard in the past.

But guess what? It never was that easy.

Even in a rich gold-bearing creek, the amount of ground that has gold is small, and the amount of ground that has very good gold is very small. And most of the ground has little or no gold at all.

That’s just a universal fact of this hunt. There’s a reason gold is so valuable. It’s rare.

We dredge for gold offshore on lease 14 in the Bering Sea. It’s only a few hundred acres and it’s historically one of the most productive leases offshore in Nome. We pull hundreds of ounces of gold a season off the ocean floor there.

But still we need to prospect hard because most of our gold in a whole season will come from an area that’s less than 150 feet x 150 feet. And we’ll check dozens of spots for gold. It’s hard to find gold and we have a decade of cumulative experience, GPS coordinates, and several competent people working together to find it!

Are you understanding just how targeted you’ll want to be? Good prospectors don’t make big strikes consistently on accident – they know an area like the back of their hand, and they learn to develop a nose for the stuff.

And they’re always trying new places in those areas.

A lot of guys, even sometimes experienced prospectors, get stuck going to the same old places over and over. The problem is, even if you had great luck there at the beginning, the gold doesn’t grow back. It doesn’t suddenly reoccur. Once you’ve taken it out, it’s out. The secret of this is getting around and finding new places. How do you find new places? Learn to do research.

Chris Ralph, Geology of Placer Gold Part 2 – Research (Youtube)

“New places” means thinking outside the box.

A “new place” could mean putting your gold pan in a new place on an old gold mine or creek.

What Chris is trying to tell us is that you can’t just go back to the same exact river bend and hope that the gold is somehow there again, unless there was some kind of extreme natural event.

“New gold” doesn’t necessarily mean new deposits of gold on some remote mountain. That’s for the big gold companies to discover. “New gold” means finding the gold that other prospectors may have missed, or that may have been revealed since the last serious gold mining or prospecting activity was performed.

old gold mine

This is where the treasure hunt gets the most interesting and difficult – and what will separate you from 99% of prospectors and give you the chance to make real gold.

Chris Ralph emphasizes research because he knows you can only think outside the box when you can paint a detailed picture about how the gold moved, from the lode deposit deep in the ground to the miner’s cleanup shack. Because a lot of the opportunity lies in exploiting inefficiencies in the human process.

You already understand you need to target specific gold-bearing creeks, rivers, mountains, and valleys to find gold.

Before you go, you should also know the following:

  • the geology of the creek
  • where the gold is coming from and how it’s moving
  • where placer deposits might have settled
  • where miners have worked before
  • how those miners moved dirt
  • how those miners extracted gold from the paydirt
  • the laws regulating prospecting for gold; and,
  • how to get there.

Start on your computer learning everything you can. Read geological reports. Read old prospecting and mining records. Look at Google Maps and find roads and evidence of present-day or recent mining activity.

Historical records and maps often don’t match current reality. The more off-grid you get, and gold prospecting will often take you as far out as you want to go, the less likely there will be good, up-to-date records about human activity in the area.

Talk to local prospectors and old-timers. A friendly, experienced prospector is your best resource, but old man Johnny down the road might be able to tell you about when he was an excavator operator at the gold mine back in the day. He can usually paint a really detailed picture about mine operations 40 years later even if he can’t remember his granddaughter’s birthday, because that’s just what we’re like as men.

The power is not in looking at one source, but in synthesizing the information and telling a story. Only then can you make create a target list in your mind of where you want to find gold

How I would research mining activities in Anvil Creek in Nome, Alaska and prospect for gold there

Let’s put all this in practice with my Anvil Creek example.

To really understand an area you need to listen to two main sources: your gold prospecting forefathers and the land.

Let’s start with the forefathers. They’ll paint a rough picture of where gold is found.

The first thing I would do if I just moved to Nome and wanted to prospect for gold is to find the local mining districts.

Gold districts in Nome Alaska

A mining district is a legal area you can draw on a map, like a county, except its boundaries mark the area where minerals are found and worked under a common set of rules and regulations.

Mining districts are usually formed based on discovery of a certain mineral deposit, like gold, so its boundaries will give you a good general target to plan your prospecting adventure.

My local mining district, the Nome Mining District, for example, was formed in 1898 by the “Three Lucky Swedes” and three other (presumably also lucky) men when they discovered gold and staked claims in the area.

Then I would read historical accounts about mining in that district to identify hot spots.

Turns out Anvil Creek was the richest creek in the Nome gold rush and was the source for 5 of the 10 largest gold nuggets in Alaska.

Biggest Gold Nuggets

Wow! Our prospecting forefathers are telling us this creek is really rich!

Then I need to determine if I can legally prospect there. Anvil Creek is already claimed up, but let’s pretend like I got permission from the claim owner to prospect for gold.

Then I need to listen to the land at a high level. Search for a geological map. Find out where the gold is coming from, and how it’s moving. Then I can start to generate my own ideas of where gold might be found.

My research says Anvil Creek has multiple sources of gold, but most seems to come from high bench placer deposits between Nekula Gulch and Specimen Gulch at the headwaters of the creek. There are rich shallow placers found all the way down to the bottom of the creek.

But that’s just a small piece of the puzzle. Anvil Creek has been mined off and on since 1899 and gold miners have used virtually every type of tool and machinery to move dirt

Early gold mining sluice box

My research into the history of gold mining on Anvil Creek tells me the rich shallow placers low in the creek were exploited in the first 10 years of mining on the creek. Later, after they dug the Miocene Ditch and got significant water access higher up the mountain, they dug out the deeper high bench deposits.

They even found a 90 foot hole up near Nekula Gulch that contained 50 ounces of placer gold per yard! It’s believed it was some kind of sink or collapsed cavern that concentrated a lot of high bench gold.

Anvil Creek was one of the richest gold deposits in the world at one point. But it’s had over 100 years of mining activity. Could it possibly have any gold left?


Gold mines use the pareto principle, extracting 80% of the gold with 20% of the work. The “20%” they left behind is your opportunity!

Let’s go back to Anvil Creek and explore the golden opportunities presented by man and nature.

Augie Krutzsch, who mined the claims on upper Anvil Creek commercially in the 90s before opening a gold mining adventure camp on the property that he runs today, was kind enough to give us the lowdown on exactly how he helps clients find gold on Anvil Creek.

Low gold prices stopped mining activity before all paydirt was recovered

First, Augie told me and Emily in 2020 why he stopped mining Anvil Creek commercially in the first place.

In some of our higher and upper claims around Specimen Gulch, which is a tributary to Anvil Creek, there are some paystreaks we discovered when we were mining back in the day. We ran quite a bit of gold at $260 an ounce in 2002/2003 but we had to shut it down because it was uneconomical.

Augie Krutszch, The Alaska Show Podcast #22, August 2020

That gives us our first opportunity. A deposit might have been too low-grade to be worthwhile at certain gold prices – or plummeting gold prices could have washed out mining activity before all the gold was recovered.

abandoned mining town

Today those Specimen Gulch claims are being actively worked by Augie and his visitors, but there are gold mining claims all over the country that have sat dormant for decades with a similar story.

So that’s one reason there could still be gold in an old mining site.

Previous mining operations missed gold – on accident or on purpose

Now this is where paying attention in history class can get you paid.

Good prospectors know the history of the mining site they’re prospecting and exploit the inherent inefficiencies of small-scale gold mining to find gold that was exposed by heavy machinery, or missed by the miners.

Historic miners might have covered good paydirt. Think about this: when you dig a hole you have to put the dirt you removed somewhere – a miner may be covering some rich ground to get a hole started. There is opportunity there for the individual prospector. We have to drop our tailings where we drop them when we’re dredging in the Bering Sea. We don’t know if it’s covering rich ground or not a lot of the time!

old gold mining area

Chris Ralph says he looks for neat stacks of rocks on old mining sites, indicating the operator didn’t have much room to put the boulders and backdirt he moved. He often has success looking for gold around or under those stacks of rocks.

An important thing to understand about gold miners is they don’t care about extracting every single piece of gold on a claim. They cared about extracting gold easily. Good miners operate on the pareto principle: what is the 80% of the gold that I can get with 20% of the effort?

The other 20% of the gold is the individual prospector’s opportunity.

Maybe the gold miners spilled a lot of paydirt? This is especially true for old gold rush era mines.

Augie says that on lower Anvil Creek the miners in the early 1900s had to wait for the spring thaw for snowmelt water to power their sluice boxes. All summer, fall, and winter they piled up massive mounds of paydirt and each spring they shoveled that dirt into wooden sluice boxes 24 hours a day in a mad frenzy to recover the gold. 

Well guess what? Those old time miners spilled dirt all over the place. The sluice boxes broke. They leaked. It was more important that they worked as fast as possible to get the most gold possible from the paydirt they collected rather than worry about catching every single speck of dust.

abandoned gold mine

Augie knows where those sluice boxes were located – and today it’s some of most eye-poppingly rich ground you’ve ever seen.

He has to keep those spots a closely guarded secret! But he told us that his strategy is to look for two long, straight berms running in parallel about 2 feet apart downhill. Then you’ll see a ring in the rock where the water cascaded out of the sluice box.

The end of the sluice box is also a great place to find nuggets, he says, especially quartz gold specimens. Those specimens often weren’t heavy enough to sit in the sluice box properly and washed out into the tailings pile, where they can be found with a metal detector.

It may not have been worth it for miners of old to search for the stray 1 oz gold quartz specimen that escaped the box, but for an individual prospector at $1,700 an ounce a century later it’s a great find.

It’s important to understand the mining techniques used at a certain site so you can understand the opportunities. Anvil Creek has seen almost every type of placer gold operation so the opportunities are diverse.

Big bucket line dredges were in operation at Anvil Creek for several decades. He says if you know how they move, sweeping back and forth across the creek, you know that they miss a small triangle-shaped patch of ground every time they sweep an edge and work back in the other direction in order to mine the most ground possible. Those triangles can be super rich for individual prospectors at his camp.

Those old bucket line dredges can also expose and breakup bedrock and provide a rich area for finding nuggets.

gold bucket dredge

The dredge tailings, Augie says, are a great place to look for nuggets as well, since they usually screened out any rocks – or gold nuggets – that were over an inch, or even 3/4 of an inch, from hitting the sluice box.

Drift mining, a type of mining that involves digging underground shafts to mine ore deposits, was also used extensively to mine the upper areas of Anvil Creek.

Augie takes clients out into the tundra to look for bushes or willows or deformed ground that indicate the opening of one of these mine shafts. A lot of times, he says, you can confirm it if you find glass bottles, wood, and other historical junk (or treasure, depending who you ask).

These old mine shaft entrances are great places to metal detect.

Be the remora fish

That’s the great thing about knowing the history and activity of past mining activity. Some of the biggest opportunities for individual prospectors are in historic mines, so don’t think that because people have been mining a creek for a while that there’s no gold there.

Being a good prospector is often understanding how gold mining works. A commercial mining operation has different needs and practices than an individual prospector. And a 100-person operation has different practices than a 10-person operation. 

Like the remora fish that sticks to the underbelly of a shark and feeds off its scraps, an individual gold prospector can eat off the scraps of larger mining operations.

Quick note – NEVER go underground into old mine shafts. No gold is worth your life.

underground gold mines

We were fortunate enough to get the rundown on how to find gold in an area from an experienced local, which is so important that I dedicated a whole section to the topic of linking up with experienced gold miners.

Thank you so much to Augie at AKAU Gold Camp – and if you want to have a catered experience finding gold at one of Alaska’s richest creeks you should look into taking a trip there. We don’t have any kind of promotional or financial arrangement with Augie, he’s just a friend and provides a great experience for his people!

Chris Ralph – a name you’ve seen many times now – is the best I’ve found at sharing tactics for researching for a prospecting trip.

Here’s a great video of Chris’s about prospecting old gold mines by reading the old-time miners’ activity and finding gold. Most of his ideas we didn’t even discuss above!

Check out this video for great in-depth research reports. 

If you want to get the full Chris Ralph education consider buying his book, Fists Full of Gold.

Can someone show me the ropes during my first official prospecting trip?

“I get a lot of people asking me what they can do to become a prospector or be better at being a prospector. Often the first thing I suggest is to join a club.”

Chris RalphLearn to find gold by joining a prospecting club – Gain access to gold bearing mining claims (Youtube)

I know all this is overwhelming at first. 

I prefer to learn new things from somebody with knowledge and experience. Youtube is a great resource, but when push comes to shove it’s helpful to have someone experienced looking at the same creek you’re looking at and teaching you how it’s done.

So how can you do that? Join a prospecting club!

Here are the big two national associations:

  1. Gold Prospector’s Association of America (GPAA) was founded to “promote the great heritage of the North American Gold Prospector by providing member exclusive access to gold bearing property across the country as well as the tools needed to get started in gold prospecting.“
  2. American Mining Rights Association (AMRA) “is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit which advocates for use of public lands by the people and for the right to prospect and mine on those public lands.” For a reasonable donation they give their members access to ALL of their proven gold claims nationwide, which they constantly seek to expand. They allow their members to keep any gold they find, and conduct regularly scheduled prospecting trips for their members!

These clubs will help you connect with experienced prospectors who can show you the ropes and give you local knowledge you can’t find online.

Not only that, but these clubs have often acquired local gold claims exclusively for their members, and can teach you the local rules and regulations around gold prospecting.

Connecting with other prospectors really is the best way to come up the learning curve fast.

There are also tons of local, independent prospecting clubs. Be sure to Google the ones in your area!

What equipment do I need to prospect for gold? (it’s less than $100)

This game, like most, is more about your skill level than your equipment. You can, and should, get started gold prospecting for less than $100. Don’t get suckered into buying tons of expensive gear or ANYTHING with a motor before you have a few prospecting trips under your belt.

Your main tool is your gold pan. That’s all you need to find a placer gold deposit.

gold pan for prospecting

The cool thing about gold prospecting is that it’s a trade that hasn’t fundamentally changed in the last 150 years. No tool more effective than the gold pan has been invented for quickly separating gold from dirt.

The only other tools you need are just things that help you get the right dirt into the pan and the gold out of it.

There are a million gold panning kits on Amazon, but in my opinion a lot of them are going to try to sell you little junky novelty items that aren’t really necessary.

Here’s my recommendation: The Garrett Deluxe Gold Panning Kit

The Garrett Deluxe Gold Pan kit has everything you need: a classifier, big pan, small pan, vials, and snuffer bottle, and only three things you DON’T need: tweezers, a magnifying glass, and one extra gold pan.

It will shock you how much easier a classifier and snuffer bottle will make gold panning and extraction. Go for the kit – don’t just buy a gold pan.

Garrett Deluxe Panning Kit

So many other kits have too many things you don’t need like a cheap plastic scoop, a very cheap backpack, a very cheap mini sluice, or a large magnet.

There’s a cheaper kit here by Garrett that doesn’t have the big pan, but I didn’t want to recommend that one because I really prefer the 15″ super sluice pan to the 14″ gold trap when I’m cleaning gold. It’s bigger and I don’t like the lip between the bottom of the pan and the walls. But honestly either would work fine.

The other thing you really should bring into the field with you is a good shovel. Digging river gravels with your hands or trying to use your pan as a scoop just stinks.

Here’s a fold-up one for $26 on Amazon that’s light and compact.

The shovel and the gold panning kit would run you just $86.

Finding gold with zero mining equipment and $12.84

If you’re REALLY on a budget, friend of the site PioneerPauly did a great video about finding gold with a few kitchen supplies he bought for less than $13 at a thrift store, proving you may not need to spend much at all!

How do I pan for gold?

Sometimes I will read articles that try to describe gold panning and just laugh. “Next step, swirl your hand in a circular motion, tipping back as you do...”

It’s 2022! Watch a video about it!

Trying to describe how to pan gold in an article like this is like trying to describe in words how to shoot a basketball. You just need to visually see the mechanics of it.

gold prospecting guide

Here’s one I like by Dan Hurd. It’s good because he’s in the field and giving tips to pan to find gold, which is a little quicker and dirtier than panning to clean gold that you already recovered from a highbanker or something like that. A lot of panning videos are shot in people’s backyards and are a little too focused on the perfect wrist flick.

Starting at 4:25 because the first few minutes is just an advertisement and discussion about panning equipment (he recommends the same stuff I do).

The right mental approach to test panning

When you get in the field to prospect you need to test pan, test pan, test pan.

Done with that? Ok awesome. Now test some more.

About to leave? Maybe take one more test pan for good measure.

Remember, paystreaks are very small and defined. You need to test where you think the gold might be. Then test 5 or 10 feet away from it. You could get skunked in one spot and a few paces away find super hot gold.

That happens to us all the time in the Bering Sea. A spot will be terrible and then suddenly you’re trenching along and the gold is hot. It happens quickly, and if we picked up and moved too fast we would’ve missed it.

Prospecting for gold

And also test a few places you think gold might NOT be.

We have a saying in this business that “gold is where you find it.” That means gold isn’t always where it’s “supposed” to be. All of the knowledge you acquired about reading rivers and old mining activity increases your odds of getting on the gold, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. The gold can concentrate in surprising places.

Try to think logically about where the gold should concentrate, but then once you have a few theories then get out of your head and just focus on taking test pans and listening to what the creek or river is telling you.

The time for theory and speculation is over, it’s time to gather information about the reality on the ground.

By the way, take notes on your phone or take pictures and videos. You think you won’t forget that AWESOME pan that you took with all the shiny gold, but trust me you will by the end of the day. You’ll forget which rock it was behind. And you’ll definitely forget the next 5 best pans and where those all were, because they weren’t the most exciting.

where are gold claims

Here’s a video by Chris at Vo-Gus Prospecting that I love. He dry washes gold at old drift mines in Australia that are shedding gold. He’s in a unique situation where there isn’t a good water source like a creek or a river that he’s following, so the only time he can test pan is during the rainy season when there are enough puddles to take test pans.

It’s really great to be a fly on the wall of an experienced gold prospector as he thinks about finding gold in an area, and he has so many good nuggets of wisdom for the newbie. But it’s also a good discipline to spend a lot of time just focusing on defining paystreaks. Because gold recovery is all about finding the BEST gold and staying on it.

The best way to practice panning

Practicing panning is a good idea before you go on your first prospecting trip.

Here’s a scenario: you do all this research, buy the right equipment, go out in the field, but you’ve never panned gold before. You’re taking pans from the inside bend of a gold-bearing river and you’re not seeing even a speck of gold. Is it because there is no gold there, or are you panning it all wrong?

You have no way to tell! But if you practice even a little bit at home before you leave you’ll get a feel for the technique and see exactly how difficult is to wash gold completely out of your pan. Then you can be confident in whether you’re finding gold in a spot or not.

The best way to practice your technique at home is to buy a bag of real gold paydirt and pan it out.

Real Gold Paydirt

We sell bags of dirt with guaranteed amounts of gold. I recommend Diver Dirt which has real gold mixed with sand and minerals from the Bering Sea that we mined on our dredge. It’s the exact same stuff you would be panning on the beach in Nome looking for gold. And we guarantee you’ll have more than 1 gram of gold in there, so you’ll know if you’re losing any!

If you pan a bag of Diver Dirt and you get less than 1 gram of gold, you’re losing a lot. If you get 1 gram of gold, you’re losing a bit. And if you get more than 1 gram of gold your technique is pretty good. Easy right?

That $95 investment will pay off quickly if it’s the difference between finding gold or not. Plus you get to start filling your treasure chest right now!

What next?

The next thing to do is get out in nature and go find some gold!

But you can’t do that right now and want to learn more, check out these other resources:

Real Gold by Emily Riedel from Bering Sea Gold

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