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Prospecting for Gold in Arizona
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Prospecting For Gold in Arizona




“I’d love to come out there and hunt gold, but that desert makes me nervous.”


“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.


With 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 possible conflicts.  


The easiest 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) Roadrunner Prospector’s Havasu Gold Desert Gold  


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 snow.  


Making Preparations: 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.


My 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 Resources

US Geological Survey

Arizona Mining Association Home Page


Minelab, Nuggetfinder coils, gold nugget prospecting with metal detectors.Where to find placer gold.
Prospecting for Gold in Arizona


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