The Fun Of Prospecting
By Chris Ralph

I have been prospecting and mining for gold both as a hobby and as an occupation for nearly 30 years and in my opinion it’s a blast! From the deep green forests to the rolling sagebrush hills, few people see as much of America’s wide open spaces as I do. I kick around kooky little old towns in the middle of nowhere. I visit historic sites where the pioneers of the west toiled for years to extract precious metals from the ground. As fun as that is though, finding your own gold, either as a nugget or in solid hard rock is a special experience that’s hard to equal.  california hydraulic Mine iowa hill  
half ounce gold nuggets School kids in California learn how James Marshall accidentally discovered gold nuggets while constructing a water powered sawmill in the Sierra foothills. The excitement resulting from Marshall’s discovery was a fire that ignited gold and silver rushes all across the western US.   Well known is the story of O’Reiley and McLaughlin who accidentally discovered the Comstock Lode silver bonanza while working a small deposit of placer gold, tossing away a blue-black waste that later turned out to be rich silver ore. A century ago, Jim Butler, while traveling from his ranch in central Nevada, noticed some quartz vein material. Being a good prospector, he collected a sample, but he thought so little of his find that it sat on his porch for months before it was tested. That sample became the first of many rich discoveries at Tonopah. I could write a whole book telling the stories of these individual prospectors who, whether intentionally or by accident, found rich deposits of gold and other valuable ores. These finds have had no small impact on the development of our country - historically millions upon millions of ounces of gold have been recovered from deposits found by individual prospectors.
Dredging for gold
Though every one knows that tons of gold were recovered by individual miners in the pioneer days, we also know that times have changed since those rugged single blanket prospectors trod the mountains of the western US with their gold pans and trusty mules. Most people believe that such rich discoveries are a thing of the past – the long past. After all, the great finds I mentioned above were all made 100 or more years ago. Today giant corporations explore all over the world for gold. What can an individual possibly hope to accomplish prospecting in the present day? He is competing with multi-national firms that possess millions of dollars in resources and a staff full of Ph.D. geologists. Most people would believe that surely today, the individual is at such a disadvantage that there is no chance that he can expect to find anything. Fun of prospecting
south fork yuba river washington You might easily believe that, but it’s not necessarily true. Just consider the following bit of history. The most important gold discovery on this planet within the last 100 years was made in the hills of Nevada north of the small town of Carlin. It lead to the discovery of a whole new type of gold deposit, one not previously recognized by geologists or the old time prospectors – the “Carlin type” sedimentary hosted gold deposit. The old timers could not find it because the gold was too small to see - it couldn’t be recovered by panning. This unusual discovery has made Nevada one of the richest gold bearing regions on earth. The Carlin trend district has produced more than 60 million ounces of gold since its discovery in 1961, making it the most productive gold district in the United States. The first samples of low grade gold ore taken from the Carlin deposit were made by an individual prospector by the name of Frank Mahoney in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, Mr. Mahoney did not recognize the potential of his find, but he showed some geologists what he had found, and they did understand the significance of his discovery. The nearby Rain section of the Carlin trend, located about 8 miles South east of the town of Carlin, was initially recognized and staked by Price Montrose, a local independent prospector. In 1979, Mr. Montrose recognized a geologic similarity between that area and the main Carlin mining areas, which are north west of town. Subsequent discoveries on the Rain property have produced over one million ounces of gold.     
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In the early 1980’s FMC mining discovered a rich gold deposit at Paradise Peak near Gabbs in central Nevada. The ore body contained over a million ounces of gold and nearly 40 million ounces of silver. The FMC geologists were initially led to the area by the husband and wife prospecting team of Bill and Ardith Arnell. The Arnells had discovered low grade gold mineralization in a wide spread area of altered volcanic rocks. Further work in that area lead to the discovery of the rich Paradise Peak ore body.  So, even though most of the latest commercial discoveries are being made by professional geologists, a significant number of finds are still being made by independent prospectors, even among the large and rich hard rock discoveries of Nevada and most individual prospectors focus their energy on finding small gold flakes and nuggets.

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ounce cal gold The gold prospecting world is basically divided into two halves. They are placer gold and hard rock gold. Hard rock is gold, which remains in the original solid rock in which it formed. Northern Nevada is extremely rich in gold, mostly as these primary hard rock type deposits. The hard rock, open pit mines of Nevada have produced nearly 100 million ounces since their discovery in 1960. Although a few small operations still exist, hard rock mining is usually done on a large scale. The main problem for individuals interested in hard rock gold deposits is high capital costs for the equipment to crush and process hard rock ore in order to extract the gold from its solid rock enclosure. Because of this, many prospectors who look for hard rock gold seek to sell their finds to large companies that possess the resources to develop them.
Any gold that has weathered out of its original rock matrix, be it a quartz vein or another source is called placer gold. Once it is freed from the vein, any accumulation of that gold is called a placer deposit. There are several different kinds of placers depending on how far the gold traveled, its origin, etc. The four most common types of placer deposits are: 1) Residual – where the original vein has weathered, but the placer gold remains more or less "in place" and still within a few feet of the original source; 2) Eluvial – where the gold has traveled a short distance down from the source, but has not made it into streams and other drainages - these are often called hillside placers; 3) Alluvial – Where the gold has made it into area streams and rivers. These placers are sorted by running water and usually the gold lies mostly on or near the bedrock; 4) Beach placers occur where small gold particles make it all the way down river to the ocean. Wave action can concentrate the heavier fraction of the sand, producing black sand layers containing fine gold. detecting for gold  
humboldt silver mines Because of the comparative ease of recovering gold from placer deposits, most individual prospectors start out seeking placer gold nuggets and flakes. Some later progress to an interest in hard rock deposits, but most still start out looking for flakes and nuggets of free placer gold. Once you find your first gold, you won’t have much trouble seeing what kept the old pioneer prospectors going under such rugged conditions. It’s always great when you come up with your own gold, and the excitement is real. There is no doubt in my mind that gold fever is a condition that actually exists. In my experience, staring too closely at gold nuggets or thinking too much about the quest to find them often causes it. Luckily, it’s an enjoyable condition with few, if any, harmful side effects. Prospecting for gold is a hobby that’s easy to fall into.
In the deserts, on the hillsides and in the mountain streams, there is still gold to be found in many places. Every year there are still great finds being made, mostly in the western states (at least as far as locations within the USA). Even large nuggets over an ounce in size are still being recovered – they are not all that common, but they are still found. Flakes and small chunks of gold are far more common finds. Its not easy, and not every day will be a home run, especially for the beginner. Patience is required and some days just have to be chalked up to the quest to gain knowledge and experience. Even for most of the experienced participants it’s a pastime, and you need to consider the benefits of other things like good exercise, getting away in the great outdoors along with the value of the gold recovered. Very few individuals find enough gold to make a difference in their lifestyle. half ton nevada silver
quartz vein It doesn’t necessarily cost a mint to get into prospecting. It can be as simple as purchasing a gold pan for $10 and grabbing a bucket and the garden spade from the garage. On the other hand, there are many great gold saving products available to the modern prospector. Some allow the modern prospector to accomplish things no old timer could ever dream of.  From metal detectors, to portable suction dredges, to dry placer machines and other gold recovery devices of all types, many significant improvements have been made in small scale prospecting equipment. There certainly is no problem finding ways to spend as much money on good equipment as you would like – lots of great stuff is available. Most individuals start off small and purchase more advanced equipment as they get more involved in the hobby.
Although its said that “even a blind squirrel trips over an acorn once in a while”, there is some knowledge required to be regularly successful at prospecting. The individual well-armed with a through knowledge of prospecting techniques, gold geology and placer deposits will tend to find more gold over the long haul. Learning how and where to find gold is an educational experience that really never ends. There is always more to learn about gold deposits, and even the most experienced prospectors find there is always some new and useful information to be gained. No doubt that it does take some time and effort to “learn the ropes”, but there are many excellent “how to” books available on operating various types of gold recovery equipment, including the gold pan, suction dredges, dry washers, metal detectors, and others. There are also many “gold location” books that tell where gold has been found and recovered in the past, and what the deposits look like in those districts. A good basic geology textbook can be helpful in understanding the geologic conditions a prospector may find in the field. The Mining Journal Magazine ( publishes a number of good basic reference articles on a variety of prospecting related topics, and collected over the years, the back issues of the magazine offer a considerable amount of useful reference information. tonopah headframe Recommended
Metal Detectors:

sierra city camping Another way to learn more about prospecting is to join one of the many clubs dedicated to the individual prospector. In fact, a number of prospecting related clubs advertise right in the ICMJ. One of the problems that most commonly presents itself to new prospectors is finding a place to prospect. Most clubs own mining claims, which solve that problem for their club members. They range in size from very large and nation wide like the GPAA, to regionally oriented clubs that focus only on a certain part of the country like the Comstock Gold Prospectors Club. Clubs provide their members not only a place to prospect but also a great opportunity to meet other prospectors. Many clubs make a special effort to reach out to new prospectors and help them learn the basics of finding gold. Group outings by the club can provide the chance to see various types of prospecting equipment in action.  


One of the most innovative changes now available to the individual prospector is the information available over the internet. If you already have a computer, it’s a great way to learn more about gold mining. A number of web sites and forums dedicated to various aspects of prospecting for gold have sprung up in recent years. Most of these web sites fall into two broad categories – web pages and forums. The web pages are sites with specific information and reports on the experiences of others, sources for prospecting research, and pages for manufacturers and shops that have useful equipment information. There are even sites with aerial photos that may be useful in researching places to prospect. The second source is forums where questions can be asked or topics discussed – most are open to anyone who is interested.

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Nevada turquoise These forums offer a very unique chance for prospectors world wide to converse about their favorite topic. From Australia and New Zealand, to Alaska and the western states of the “lower 48”, prospectors from around the globe can now share their insight and knowledge on finding the elusive yellow metal. Many of the web and forum sites focus on prospecting in certain regions like the Arizona desert or the Rocky Mountain region – you may be able to find one that specializes in your area. Other sites specialize their focus in a certain type of prospecting, putting most of their attention on prospecting by metal detecting, and others giving more of their effort on water related methods like panning and dredging. A simple way to find the URL address locations for these sites is simply by using a search engine like Google.

Many of the sites have links to other prospecting sites, so explore around and take a look. This is a great way to spend time during the winter months when the weather doesn’t allow prospecting in the field. So whether its searching for the next million ounce ore deposit or just finding a small gold nugget you can call your own, rest assured, it is still possible. For those who enjoy hunting, hiking, fishing, off road exploring or any of the other many outdoor hobbies so many folks participate in, prospecting may be something you would be interested in. For just about any outdoor enthusiast, it’s worthwhile to know a little about gold deposits – because the next big find may be yours! rye patch  

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