Gold Panning in the Black Hills
If you want to go gold panning, remember that nature has done the hardest part of your work for you. She’s eroded her treasure from gold-bearing ores and concentrated particles of free gold throughout the streambeds in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
Gold is a very dense, heavy metal, just like lead. Keep that in mind during your prospecting. Find a fast moving stream, look for places where the current suddenly diminishes, allowing gold to settle out, then use your common sense. In streams that flow on bedrock, the gold will be trapped in holes, pockets, and other irregularities in the bedrock. Where the water runs through boulders or layered rocks, use the sand and grit from the crevices. In riffles, try the creekbed material at the uppermost riffle. At just about every location, placer gold is likely to be hidden in the bottom-most layer of gravel in the streambed.
When you’ve found the spot, start panning. It’s a simple process of elimination. Heap your pan full of placer gravel dug from likely places listed above. Flood the pan with water, submerge it, and let it sit on the bottom of the creek. With your hands, stir and swish the gravel around in the pan. Leaves, sticks, humus, pine needles and mud will float up out of the pan and drift away in the current. Next rinse off all rocks bigger than an inch in diameter and pitch them out of the pan. Make sure the mud and grit stuck to the rocks falls into your pan. Now hold the pan level and shake it vigorously from side to side. Any gold will sift its way to the bottom of the pan. Then face the current and tilt the pan about 30 degrees so the water flows in. Continue shaking the pan from side to side and gravel will begin to sift out over the top of the pan and be carried away. If larger stones refuse to wash out of the pan, pick them out with your fingers and discard them (after making sure you’re not pitching away a nugget). Continue panning until you’re down to a couple of tablespoons of material. This is your “pay dirt.” Typically, it will be mostly fine black sand, and often it will contain bright red garnets about the size of match heads. And with a little luck, gold! (The garnets, unless quite large, and without flaws, are worthless). Drain practically all the water from your pan, and give it a gentle swirl to spread your paydirt out thinly over the bottom of the pan.
If there’s any gold, you’ll see it. It looks like what you think gold looks like – shiny, metallic, and bright yellow-gold in color. It does not tarnish and it won’t be stuck to other materials. It will be 100% gold. “Nuggets” are bigger than one-half inch. “Pea gold is the size of a pea. “Fish” are flat elongated flakes. “Flakes” are thin, flat wafers that vary from pinhead size and up. “Gold dust” is just that – pure gold sparkles; about the size of household dust. All of them are called “colors,” As you examine your paydirt, think small. Nuggets and pea gold are extraordinarily rare these days in the Black Hills. Think one-quarter inch and smaller. Most placer gold in the Hills occurs as fish, flakes and gold dust. Use tweezers or the tip of your little finger to remove gold from your pan and cache it safely into your “poke” (a small glass vial works just dandy). Just about any jeweler can verify whether or not you’ve found the real McCoy, gold. But there are a couple of on-site tests you can try. First, gold is shiny – whether it’s wet or dry – which makes it easy to differentiate from yellow rocks. Second, gold is very soft. (Remember in the Western movies how everybody always bit a $20 gold piece to see if it was real?) With your fingernail, you can dent or bend a gold flake. It’s unlikely that your fingernail will break in two, and if the flake shatters or crumbles, it wasn’t gold in the first place.
From start to finish, it takes an amateur about 10 minutes to process a pan of placer gravel. But it’s a long 10 minutes, squatting or bending over in the creek with icy waters washing at your feet. During the 1876 Black Hills gold rush, 50 pans were considered a day’s work for a seasoned miner. But not every batch of gravel “pans out” for the prospector – either then or now.