A Newcomer with a Strong Desire to Learn

Being a relative newbie (a.k.a., greenhorn) to small-scale gold mining and prospecting is no easy path. Everyone around you seems to know much more than you do and at times you find yourself frustrated and feeling like a red-headed step child. Taking baby steps isn't easy when it comes to getting the gold but it's a process we've all been through or are going through right now. All this said, I'm always impressed when I encounter a gold mining newcomer who exhibits a strong desire to learn, knows the value of research, and hits the decks running. This post is about just such a person.

Since he's asked that I keep his identity anonymous, I can't share this newcomer's name or location with you, but I'll call him "Jake." Here's what he had to say:

(Note: All photos in this post belong to "Jake." By the way, yours truly worked claims in this same general area back in the 1980s, but never at the height of summer!)

"All Kinds of Exciting Locations"

"Being a newcomer to small-scale gold mining I am in that stage of learning where I’m just starting to apply things and think for myself.  When trying to learn, the huge volume of gold mining information available online and in books is both a blessing and a curse.  There is so much to sift through and it can be hard at times to separate value from trash.  Bedrock Dreams has been a very valuable resource for me, so when J.R. encouraged me to share the details of a recent prospecting trip I was happy to step up.  I hope you find something of value here, even if it’s in my missteps!"
"As a greenhorn with a day job I spend a lot of my time studying but very little time prospecting.  When an opportunity came up to prospect on a large claim in the Arizona desert I couldn’t pass it up, even though the forecast was for highs around 110 degrees."

"I had visited the claim a couple of month’s prior just to explore it.  It sits in a desert mountain range with a network of connected dry gulches and ancient confluences.  Some streambeds had exposed bedrock and exposed benches with bands of cobble.  The slopes that fed the gulches had quartz float streaks here and there.  There were signs of a previous commercial placer mining operation.  This area had all kinds of exciting locations to prospect."

"Digging Holes Without a Plan"

"Heading into this trip I read everything I could find online about the area I was visiting.  I made note of previous mining activity, types of gold found and where, and information from geological reports.  I used Google Earth and a topographical map to study elevations, drainages, and locations of old mines.  I talked and traded email with people who had been in the area before.  All of this research helped give me a set of expectations and helped 'inform my eyes.'  I think it helped me interpret what I was seeing while on site because I saw new things."

"The area where the claim sits has documented placer mining history back to the late 1800s, and you can see evidence of different mining periods on site.  The most disruptive mining occurred in the early 1980s when the lease operators used bulldozers and excavators to move and process massive amounts of alluvial material.  Local hearsay was that the operators were 'cowboys' who knew how to move dirt but didn't have any real mining experience.  Even with my novice eyes it sure looked that way. It reminded me of those guys on Gold Rush Alaska digging holes everywhere without a plan."

"USGS reports say that gold is distributed throughout the area’s different alluvial layers with richer deposits sitting on bedrock.  It looks like the operators worked the floors of the largest gulches and went straight for the bedrock because there are mountains of unclassified material dotting the sides of the gulches.  Maybe they considered it overburden. The piles are very large, eroded, and old enough that vegetation has re-established itself.  In some places you have to look carefully to recognize that a hillside is not natural and was moved there.  Who knows what they covered up?"

"Way Too Dangerous"

"With placer mining in desert mountains I’ve been told that it’s usual to see shafts with drifts at the bottom.  I did see some unshored shafts high on the terraces as well as shallow drifts driven into the hillsides–what I hear folks refer to as 'coyote holes.'  The word was that some people who worked the area regularly spent most of their time in these old shafts and coyote holes.  Even though they said they recovered gold every trip, climbing into those things seemed way too dangerous to me so I stayed on the surface."

"The forecast held true and with the heat I chose to use a detector most of the time.  My prospecting host wanted to collect, vacuum, and tag buckets of material from promising areas (e.g., exposed benches, bedrock pockets) and process the material when back home where it would be cool.  I dug targets in the tributary gulches and detected the areas he had vacuumed."

"Bottom line?  I didn't find any nuggets this trip.  In the smaller tributaries ignored by the previous operator all of my targets turned out to be magnetite.  There were weather-worn chunks of it everywhere ranging from quarter-size to fist-size.  In the washes and areas adjacent to old mining activity I found mostly iron trash."

"Known for Large Nuggets"

"In the small gulches I did locate several small drop-offs with compacted gravel.  It seemed clear that water did flow through there with a lot of force periodically.  The pockets in the drop-offs, behind large boulders, and those adjacent to bedrock were deep with the top 6 inches of gravel being small and relatively loosely packed.  In cooler weather I would have committed the time to dig out each location and process the material.  As it was I just detected the pockets from the surface."

"Again, local hearsay was that the last operators were not efficient with their gold recovery, and the classification and slurry piles located near the old wash plant would likely contain gold."

"Research told me the area is known for large coarse nuggets so I chose to detect one of the old classification piles that I estimated to be about 1/4"+ material.  I found a 5' by 5' area near one pile that didn’t get any hits on my detector.  I cleared that neutral area of overburden then pulled down and spread a 2"-thick layer of the classified material and worked it with the detector.  Clear and repeat.  I processed about 8 5-gallon buckets that way.  All of my targets were either rusted iron trash or small chunks of magnetite.  Anything I got a hit on but could not identify quickly, I bagged for panning later."

"What Did I Learn?"
  • "I hit a lot of trash while detecting the areas trafficked by the previous miners.  The small gulches they ignored were clear.  In the future, given equally promising areas to detect for gold I will prioritize virgin areas first.  Finding trash in a tributary gulch would be a 'pause and reflect' moment.
  • "Monsoonal water flow created textbook pockets in the dry streambeds but the pockets were very deep.  Plan a lot of time to dig out on a future trip."
  • "Over the course of a couple of days in this highly mineralized environment I learned more about my detector and the settings I should use.  Toward the end I was detecting and digging deeper targets.  Keep learning about what works where."
  • "I could have used more time.  There were too many things to try.  I could spend months out there and still be learning something new every day."
  • "I need to keep working on where to look for gold.  This, I suspect, is a never-ending task."
"This trip also allowed me to reapply lessons learned from a young desert rat about how to work in the desert in high temperatures:"
  • "Food.  Eat light in the morning–big meals take lots of water and energy to digest.  You’ll regret that burrito.  Bring fruit to eat while out in the heat."
  • "Water.  Pre-hydrate with at least two liters of water.  Plan to drink a liter of water every half hour.  Breathe through your nose to conserve body water."
  • "Work.  Be efficient with your movements and try to conserve energy.  Rest frequently and take advantage of shade.  Wrap a water-soaked towel around your neck to help keep your core temp down."
  • "Wildlife.  The harmful critters are very well camouflaged - be mindful of where you place your hands and feet.  Don't lay a pack on the ground or you might pick up a scorpion or two.  Wear snake leggings just in case.  (On this trip I walked up on a Mojave Red Rattlesnake and was about 8 feet away before I spotted him, and I was actively scanning the ground!)"
  • "Sun.  The usual things about wearing a hat, wearing proper clothing, and using sunscreen apply."
"Thanks for reading and I hope you found something of use!  I’m already thinking of what I might do differently next time.  Best of luck in your prospecting, and lend a guiding hand to a greenhorn every now and then–you were once one too."

You other newcomers take note here. "Jake" has set the bar high and his thorough approach is something you would do well to emulate if you're truly committed to becoming the best you can be at small-scale gold prospecting and mining. That's the long and short of it.

I want to thank "Jake" for his willingness to share his experiences and for the well-written description he sent. Ditto for the great photos contained herein.

 My best to "Jake" and to each and every one of you out there.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Having similar difficulties in the El Paso Mountains near Randsburg...too hot summers and exploring too much and just not picking and working a site...at least hope to find a piece or two of gold out there.

  2. Having similar difficulties in the El Paso Mountains near Randsburg...too hot summers and exploring too much and just not picking and working a site...at least hope to find a piece or two of gold out there.


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