Prospecting For Gold in
love to come out there and hunt gold, but that desert makes me
“Why’s that?” I asked him casually,
unaware that moments later he would have me laughing so hard I would
nearly drop the phone.
“Well, for starters, you have jumping
cactus, quick sand, and millions of rattlesnakes. I hate snakes. A
friend of mine that went to Arizona once told me he saw half a dozen
in one day! Not to mention the heat; I hear it gets so hot out there
you can fry an egg on the pavement!” Our conversation went on like
this for another twenty minutes and by the end of it I had tears in
my eyes. Born and bred in New Jersey, Mark had recently come down
with a serious case of gold fever. With two weeks vacation
approaching he was looking for a good place to try his new metal
detector. Arizona was at the top of his list, but his concerns of
where to go, what to bring, and what to expect when he stepped off
the plane had left him apprehensive. I assured him that his chances
of being snake bitten in Arizona were no greater than anywhere else,
and the real danger was the two-legged critters he’d encounter
driving on the freeways!
The truth is, Arizona does have
deserts, but they are not the Sahara-like wasteland some envision.
You’ll spot a giant saguaro cactus long before you see a wind blown
sand dune. The far north is canyon country full of colorful mesas
where prehistoric dinosaurs once roamed. The central deserts are
full of surprises and after a heavy rain the wildflowers are so
brilliant you’d swear the hillsides were on fire. In the northeast
there are vast expanses of pine forests and mountains so tall the
snow doesn’t melt much before June. In the southwest are low
drylands where the ancient landscape has been baked by the sun for
thousands of years. The environment is hostile, but even here one
can find life blossoming from a shady crack or scurrying amongst the
rocks. When in Arizona it seems that no matter which direction you
head there is always something to see and do. Some people come to
enjoy the pleasant winter climate, to play golf, hike, or peer out
across the rim of the Grand Canyon. Others, like Mark, come for
another reason – gold!
Natural beauty aside, Arizona was also
blessed with rich mineral deposits. Bits of raw gold have been found
ranging in size from tiny pin-heads, up to massive nuggets weighing
nearly 50-ounces! And with approximately 113,000 square miles of
land within its borders, there is certainly no shortage of places
for the hopeful prospector to search. However, before setting out
into the wilds of the Arizona Outback, the prospector must first: 1)
know where the yellow metal can be found, 2) find out if that area
is open to mineral exploration, and 3) decide what type of mining
equipment he/she will need.
Where to Go: Arizona’s
placer-mining industry began in 1774, when Padre Manuel Lopez
reportedly directed Papago Indians in mining the gold-bearing
gravels along the flanks of the Quijotoa Mountains, Pima County.
Arizona was then part of Mexico, and little is known of the placer
mining that probably was carried on in various parts of southern
Arizona. Placers were worked in the Oro Blanco district, Santa Cruz
County, and the Arivaca district, Pima County. The part of Arizona
north of the Gila River was ceded to the United States in 1848, and
the part of Arizona south of the Gila River, where most of the early
placer mining occurred, was purchased in 1853. Placers were
discovered in the 1850’s in the Bagdad area, Yavapai County, and
Chemuevis Mountains, Mohave County; but it was not until 1858, when
placers were discovered by Colonel Jacob Snively at the north end of
the Gila Mountains, Yuma County, that the first placer-mining rush
in Arizona was sparked. The early years of the 1860’s saw the
discovery of the famous placers at La Paz, Yuma County, and Rich
Hill and Lynx Creek, Yavapai County; many smaller and less famous
fields were also discovered at that time. Nearly all of the mining
was done by individuals using small portable dry-washers, and where
sufficient water was present, rocker boxes, pans, and sluices.
an estimated 87 placer districts, the tough thing in Arizona is not
finding a place that has gold, but rather trying to choose which one
to visit. There are many different resources available to help a
person decide where in the state they want to prospect. Nowadays the
most popular tool is the Internet, where hundreds of different web
pages and public forums can be viewed right from home. Other sources
include, books, maps, magazine articles, videos, and of course, by
talking with other prospectors. The best advice I have regarding
spot selection is always start in a known gold-bearing area first.
Then, once a person has gotten comfortable with the terrain and
familiarized themselves with what gold country looks like, they will
be better prepared to set off in search of new patches.
Something else the prospector must also
consider is land status. Although Arizona has many wide open spaces,
not all of them are open to prospecting. A few of these include:
Indian Reservations, Military Bombing Ranges, Wilderness Areas, and
National Parks. Plus, with the price of
precious metals at all time highs, the number of private mining
claims has increased dramatically. A report by the Environmental
Working Group, an advocacy organization, says a dramatic spike in
the value in precious metals since 2003 has produced a 93% increase
in the number of mining claims in Arizona alone! With so many new
claims being filed, the prospector must now, more than ever, be
aware of the status of the ground he/she is working to avoid any
way to avoid the hassle is by simply joining a local club. There are
many prospecting clubs within the state, most of which have private
claims for their members to work. Cost of membership varies, as will
the number of properties each club owns. Some organizations, like
the Gold Prospectors Association of America, have claims all across
the US, while others like the Roadrunners focus specifically on
Arizona. A membership in one of these clubs will put a person in
contact with others that share their passion, but more importantly,
it will ensure they have a place to legally prospect. Some of the
best organizations I have found for AZ are: Gold Prospectors
Association of America (GPAA)-1-800-551-9707-www.goldprospectors.org.
Roadrunner Prospector’s Club-602-274-2521-www.roadrunnergold.com.
Havasu Gold Seekers-928-208-7098-www.havasugoldseekers.com.
Desert Gold Diggers-520-886-3275-www.desert-gold-diggers.org.
When to Go: So, just how hot
does it get in Arizona? Well, a good humored old farmer once told me
it got so hot he had to feed his chickens cracked ice to keep ‘em
from layin’ hard-boiled eggs! All kidding aside, Arizona has earned
its blazing reputation for good reason. In the peak of the summer
season, typically July, temperatures in the low deserts can reach as
much as 120 degrees! Between May-August the weather is not only
miserable, it is downright dangerous, especially for those tromping
the backcountry. Your best bet is to plan your prospecting trip
anytime between October-March when desert temperatures are at their
best. The air is generally dry and clear, with low relative humidity
and a high percentage of sunshine. The daytimes usually average
around 70 degrees, with evenings dropping into the low 40’s high
30’s. If you plan on working at elevations higher than 5,000 feet
bring a jacket and gloves because there’s a good chance you’ll find
Those traveling by plane will most likely fly into Sky Harbor
International Airport in Phoenix. Since many of the places you’re
likely to visit will be off the beaten path, you will want to rent
your own vehicle. Many areas are accessible by 2-Wheel Drive,
however if it were me, I would avoid a typical car and instead shoot
for something with a bit more ground clearance and preferably
4-Wheel Drive. Renting a car can be expensive, so another option is
to drive your own rig. Many of the folks I know that visit Arizona
on a regular basis prefer to do their prospecting from a motorhome,
fifth-wheel or tent trailer. The initial fuel costs of getting cross
country are high, but once in Arizona they don’t have to spend a
penny on rental cars or hotel rooms.
If your plans are to camp out on the
goldfields I would recommend the following equipment: tent, bed mat,
sleeping bag, lantern, ice chest, small cook stove, flashlight,
spare fuel & propane, and a sizeable amount of drinking water.
Airline weight restrictions are getting tougher all the time, so if
you don’t have enough room in your luggage consider purchasing your
camping gear once you arrive. There are many shops in the state
which specialize in outdoor and camping equipment. If roughing it in
the desert doesn’t sit well with you or the spouse, you might try
one of the following towns: Wickenburg, Tucson, Yuma, Prescott, or
Quartzsite. All have accommodations and restaurants that are within
a half hours drive (or less) from most of the major goldfields.
As far as prospecting equipment goes,
because of the state’s arid climate and general lack of water, items
such as dredges, high-bankers, and sluices will be of little use.
For anyone coming to Arizona, there are two pieces of equipment
which I strongly recommend: a metal detector and dry-washer. Both
have their strengths and weaknesses, but when coupled together they
are the most effective system for recovering gold in the desert.
Most all of my prospecting is initially
done with the metal detector. I use it to scan likely looking areas
first, then if I do find a concentration of nuggets; I bring in the
dry-washer later to recover the smaller particles. The most popular
types of detectors in use today are the VLF (Very Low Frequency) and
PI (Pulse Induction). VLF’s achieve excellent sensitivity and are
preferred for chasing small, shallowly buried gold. They do,
however, struggle in areas with severe ground mineralization; like
Arizona. PI’s are considerably more expensive than VLFs, but they
provide more depth penetration and are better equipped to handle the
ground mineralization and hot rocks which are typical on the
goldfields. My personal advice to someone coming out west is, don’t
skimp when it comes to purchasing a new metal detector, buy the
absolute best you can afford. The top brands at the time of this
writing are: Minelab, Whites, Fisher, Tesoro and Garrett.
second most utilized tool is the dry-washer. Dry-washers are able to
separate gold particles from soil without using water, which is why
they have been extremely popular with desert miners for over 150
years. They are portable, easy to operate, and usually only cost a
few hundred dollars. Dry-washers are fairly efficient at recovering
small to medium sized gold; however there is always the chance that
a large nugget may be accidentally screened off with the oversize
material. No one wants to leave gold behind, which is why I always
recommend a metal detector and dry-washer be used in conjunction.
Use the dry-washer to collect the finer gold, and the metal detector
to scan the coarse tailings and surrounding area to ensure that no
big lumps have slipped past. Some of the top manufactures of
dry-washers at the time of this writing are: Keene Engineering, Gold
Buddy, Thompson Drywashers, Gold Duster, and Pack Washer.
Each winter hundreds of prospectors
from across the country visit Arizona to try their luck at finding
gold. Those that use quality equipment and are willing to work hard
do well; a few have done exceptional. Obviously there are no
guarantees when it comes to gold, but I can tell you that I have
found enough in the past thirteen years to know that the surface has
only been scratched. Even if you don’t strike it rich in Arizona,
I’d venture to say that the memories you create during your
adventures through the desert will be far more valuable than
anything you find at the bottom of your pan. I wish all of you the
very best of luck!
Johnson, M.G., 1987, Placer Gold
Deposits of Arizona, US. Geological Survey Bull. 1355.
Wilson, E.D., 1933, Arizona Gold
Placers and Placering, Arizona Bureau of Mines Bull. 135.
Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral
US Geological Survey
Arizona Mining Association Home Page