A Timeline of Placer Gold Discoveries in the California Deserts (Part 1)

 (This book was a staple when I first started working the deserts nearly 40 years ago.)

When most people think of placer gold in California they envision the Sierra Nevada Mountains, thick pine forests, and hard-running rivers like the Yuba, American, and Tuolomne. But the once-Golden State has plenty of placer gold ground in its desert or arid regions. Here's a timeline of those dry placer discoveries.

The "Potholes" District

The extremely arid desert reaches along the Colorado River (on both sides of the river) near modern day Winterhaven, California and Yuma, Arizona have long been known to contain gold in both placer and lode form. As early as 1789 Spanish prospectors and settlers worked placer dry diggings in this area. These were fairly rich placer deposits that yielded many nuggets and no small amount of both coarse and fine gold. I spent a good part of my early dry washing days working placer ground on both sides of the Colorado River in this region and I turned up some pretty good gold there in the old days. Many small-scale desert rat miners still work this area as well. The ground here is rough and unforgiving and the desert heat is untenable in the summer months. One of the more popular areas to work is known as "the Potholes" District which lies not far north and west of the old Laguna Diversion Dam. The District got its name from the the pothole-like depressions on bedrock that contained lots of placer gold. In fact, when the dam was being built in the early 1900s there was a mini-stampede when numerous large nuggets were uncovered during the dam's excavation and construction process.

 (The landscape in and around the "Potholes" District. Photo courtesy of two of my favorite newbies!)

The "Potholes" area used to be wide open and still may be, but the ground has been turned over pretty seriously in the nearly four decades since I camped and mined there. If you can edge into the area where the old "Three C" mine used to be you'll probably do better. Alternately, head to the Arizona side of the Colorado River. Decent dry placers exist both north and east of Yuma. Or, try the Cargo Muchacho or Chocolate Mountains areas. A word to the unwary: DO NOT make the mistake of trying to work these areas in the warmer/hotter months. Bring plenty of water with you as well. Even though there are stores and water available nearby, getting caught short without water in this area (especially the more remote spots) is not only foolhardy, but downright dangerous to your health.

Placerita Canyon

In 1842 Francisco Lopez and two of his amigos discovered placer gold on the extreme western edge of the Mojave Desert, only 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the City of Lost Angels (of which there are many). This area was given the highly appropriate name of Placerita Canyon and was worked extensively for about four years until it was proclaimed "played out" and then abandoned. If you live in or near L.A. and you're all het up about turning up some color in Placerita Canyon, think again. The spot where placer gold was discovered there (the "Oak of the Golden Dream") is now a nature center for those environmentalist weenies who'd rather hike gentle paths around the flora and fauna and cluck at one another how beautiful everything is. You know the sort. Men (??) and women who never hefted a pick or shovel their entire lives and tend to be white wine drinkers and quiche eaters. A day in the woods "roughing it" and then back to their Hollywood bungalows. The bulk of the old gold mining sites in Placerita Canyon are also a California State Park now, so if the nature walkers don't get you the local forest Nazis will. That said, however, I believe there may be some accessible parts of the Canyon's peripheral placer area where a diehard small scale guy or gal could turn up a bit of color.

(Part of Placerita Canyon in the Nature Center area. This photo shows evidence of recent flooding...and you know what that means!)

Salt Springs

A would-be gold prospector named Joshua Hunt was stumbling around the southern end of Death Valley in 1850 near a place called Salt Springs when he started turning up pea-sized nuggets and copious amounts of large flakes. The dry placer ground Hunt discovered triggered a briefly lived rush in the Salt Springs area but troy ounce production records of those early mining efforts are virtually non-existent. Various individual miners and so-called mining companies tried to make a go of it at Salt Springs for the next few years, but the gold ground wasn't extensive enough to support long-term efforts there. The nice thing about Salt Springs is that it lies just outside the southeastern perimeter of Death Valley National Park so you can thumb your nose at any rangers who want to run your raggedy ass off, legally speaking that is. Aside from whatever placer gold is still laying around Salt Springs, I'd be checking out some of the smaller gold-bearing quartz veins or blowouts in the nearby Salt Springs or Saddle Peak Hills. Who knows what might turn up?

 (The Salt Springs Hills.)

The Telescope Mining District

It was a would-be Argonaut headed for the California goldfields named Dennis Searles who is said to have discovered the richness of the Panamint (get it? Pan-a-mint?) Mountains in 1860. Actually, Searles' brother John should get partial credit for the discovery of precious metals in the Panamints, along with a few other hardy souls who remain unnamed. What the Searles brothers first found was placer gold in the low-laying areas and washes. But the real gold was higher up in the Panamints locked into vein material. The word soon got out and by 1861 the Telescope Mining District (named after Telescope Peak) was formed and lode discoveries were being developed.The Telescope District now falls under the purview of the National Park Service so if you were thinking of doing a bit of high grading in the Panamints...think again.

(The Panamint Mountains sporting a mantle of snow.)

The Piutes

The Piute Mountains are situated in east-central Kern County about 15 miles south and east of Bodfish. In 1861 Placer gold was discovered high up in the Piutes and this discovery was soon followed by the finding of rich gold veins in the area. The region then became what's known as the Mount Sinai Mining District and with the boom town of Kelsoe becoming the center of the District...or at least this is way I understand it. After the boom and bust cycle was over in the Piutes, Kelsoe became known as Claraville, a moniker it still holds to this day.

(Friendly sorts in Claraville, aren't they?)

Take care out there!

(c)  Jim Rocha 2017

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