Southern California Placer Areas: The "Potholes"

(Typical "Potholes" terrain.)

Placers First Worked by the Spanish
The "Potholes" placer mining district, part of Imperial County, lies in the Colorado Desert at the extreme southeastern border of California and Arizona near the Colorado River, approximately 10-14 miles NE of Yuma, AZ and about the same distance N, NW of Winterhaven, California. The "Potholes" placers are quite old and have been worked sporadically since the early 1700s by the Spanish first, and then by successive waves of Anglo miners over the intervening years. Gold production here was almost strictly from placers and has probably exceeded over $1,000,000 (estimated).

Although the district ostensibly includes placers on both the California and Arizona sides of the Colorado River, I am only familiar with a small 3-5 square mile area on the California side NW of Laguna Dam, with the Three "C" Mine at the rough center of this area. My old prospecting/treasure hunting club had a gold placer claim there just about a half mile beyond the "Three Cs," as we called the nearby private mine. (At one time, the owners of the "Three Cs" would allow you to camp and mine on their property for a daily fee, but I don't know if that is the case now.)

Coarse Flakes and Nuggets
How the "Potholes" district received it's name is subject to debate, but most say it relates to the initial placer gold discoveries in the area, when coarse flakes and nuggets were recovered from old riverbed depressions and potholes. I personally always figured the area received its name from the hundreds (if not thousands) of prospect holes and small drywasher pits that literally cover the gold-bearing landscape at the "Potholes." Either way, the gold-bearing gravels here have been turned over many times by small-scale miners over the years.

Harsh Desert Terrain
The "Potholes" District lies in extremely harsh desert terrain which, at first glance, appears to be something from the other side of the moon. There is very little vegetation, virtually no shade, and the rock and gravel under your feet is covered in desert "varnish" burnt black by the sun. But once you take a closer look at that rock or break it apart, you will see evidence of a breccia that is highly mineralized and alive with rainbow colors (something the old timers always looked for in gold host rock). Additionally, once you begin shoveling gravel you will be amazed by the reddish-pink hue of the gold-bearing dirt, another clue to mineralization.
Dry Washer Territory

I myself pulled some good gold from the "Potholes" using my wooden "puffer" drywasher and have seen a few nice nuggets, including a 1/4 ouncer, recovered there by others. But most of the gold comes in the form of fines and small flakes that are quite coarse and sometimes tinted with the orangish cast associated with gold containing a bit more copper alloy than normal.

The "Potholes" is definitely drywasher territory since absolutely no water is available anywhere nearby. Make sure you bring plenty of water with you and if you camp out there, DO NOT sleep on the ground without using a tent or cot. Scorpions and rattlesnakes are plentiful there, or at least they used to be, so use your common sense to avoid potential problems.

Good Gold Values From Old Tailings
Although much of the "Potholes" area is on public lands, you may want to do some checking around first to find out what areas are not claimed up and are open for recreational mining. And while you're at the "Potholes," try processing some of the older dry washer tailings scattered around. Over the years I've seen some pretty decent gold values recovered by folks running the coarser tailings piles through their own dry washers. Otherwise, try your luck in the small washes or low-lying areas that form drainage networks for the higher terrain and hillsides.

Oh, one final thing. Avoid the "Potholes" like the plague in late spring or during the summer months. It's wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy too hot to enjoy then and a potential threat to your health and well being. I know, I learned this lesson the hard way.

(c) J.R. 2008