Millions of Americans have tried their luck at gold panning. In 1852, the peak production year of the Gold Rush, $81 million worth of gold was discovered in California alone, coming to about $3.2 billion in today’s dollars. And still, two centuries later, prospectors search for gold in public areas across the American West.
“Once you see your first flake of gold pop out of the pan, it hooks you,” says Andy Brooks, president of the Central Valley Prospectors gold panning club based in Fresno, California. After decades of prospecting, he still finds joy in the hunt.
Many prospectors, like Brooks, enjoy the hobby of gold panning for more than just the possibility of striking it rich. Searching for gold has a vibrant past, attracting history buffs and adventurers alike. “We are like family,” says Brooks. “It’s an interesting fraternity.”
The California Gold Rush started in 1848, when, by chance, a Sutter’s Mill employee was inspecting the sawmill and discovered an abundance of gold flecks in the water. This would start a cross-country migration that changed the United States forever.
“I constantly find out new things about areas either archaeologically or historically,” says Brooks. “That’s just as exciting to me as finding a piece of gold. It enriches your soul when you find out about history.”
The price of gold is always changing, but over the past few decades, its value has been increasing significantly. With a current rate of almost $65 per gram, it’s a great time to have a stake in the game. Here are five national hot spots where you can start your search.
In the rocky sediment of Nevada’s deserts
Nevada currently produces almost 75 percent of the annual U.S. gold yield. While this is primarily through professional mining, the state still allows people to recreationally pan—or more frequently, metal detect—for pieces of gold on publicly owned land. The highest-yielding land parcels are mostly claimed for private use, but at the Rye Patch State Recreation Area in Lovelock, about 90 miles northeast of Reno, you can still attempt to strike it lucky.
Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the Rye Patch Mill mined more than $1 million in gold and silver. The mill closed in 1877, and, like many other gold rush settlements, Rye Patch became a ghost town as families moved away to chase other dreams. Now, Rye Patch is a state park that covers more than 2,000 acres of land. While the old mill was primarily a silver mine, now prospectors come from far and wide to find gold. The gold found at Rye Patch can range from flakes to nuggets, with some nuggets containing a unique chevron pattern. Even though a large reservoir sits adjacent to the park, many gold prospectors search for gold on dry land.
Since Nevada is a dry and rocky state, it is best to use a metal detector in your search for gold. Prospectors also use dry-washing techniques to get gold without the use of water. Invented by Thomas Edison, dry-washing devices use a regulated air flow to blow off lighter sediments and leave the heavier gold behind for collection.
Along the American River in California
Gold panning along the 119-mile American River east of Sacramento is nothing new—it’s where the California Gold Rush started. For decades, 49ers panned and mined along the river, collectively finding over 750,000 pounds of gold.
Even though the gold rush has slowed since its peak in the 19th century, prospectors still find gold nuggets in the American River. One place along the river where the public can pan for free is at Auburn State Recreation Area on the border of Placer and El Dorado Counties. At this location, all gold-hunting equipment is banned, except for the good ol’ fashioned gold pan. With recent California snowpacks, the melting snow is causing excitement among California prospectors. When water starts flowing from the mountains, gold flakes can erode off the rocks, washing down into the waterways.