Archer's Poudre River Resort

Panning For Placer Diamonds and Gold Family Fun and Adventure

If you're going to search of gold in the Poudre Canyon, first you need to know where to look. Next you need to know how to get at the stuff. And last but not least you need to remember, in the words of Mark Twain, "A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top."


      Is it because it is something the entire family can enjoy? Is it the quest? Is it to get outdoors? Is it the thrill of finding something that no person has seen before? Is it the hope of finding a valuable gold nugget or gem? Perhaps the answer is “A little of each.” but for most people the reason is “It’s just plain fun and something I have always wanted to do

                       GOLD PANNING IS FUN!

      Gold panning is a delightful outdoor recreation for young and old. Many happy families combine gold panning with a picnic by the beautiful Poudre River.


      All you need to pan for gold is a shovel, an old dishpan or a $5 gold pan, a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers and a small plastic vial in which to put your gold. Gold pans are found at hardware stores, metal detector stores, rock shops and hobby shops.

      Panning for placer gold or diamonds is the most common and least expensive method for recovering nuggets or gems. A gold pan, a circular steel dish ten to sixteen inches in diameter at the top, and from two to and one-half inches deep, has sides that slope 34 to 40 degrees to the horizontal.  You place a pan of your collected gravel in water and stir it by hand to break up any lumps or clay; then you pick out larger stones and give the pan a shake to settle any heavier particles.  From time to time you tilt the pan with your extended thumb to push off the surface layer and continue shaking.  If you do all of this right, at the end of the operation you should have black sand (magnetite) and gold or diamonds.   What a sight when you hit pay dirt! An experienced panner can pan about a cubic yardPanning for gold of gravel a day. BUT, the pan does make a difference.

      A prospector once told of a remarkably easy way to separate the magnetite from the gold:  Place a magnet inside a plastic film container and roll it around in the black sand.  Then give the container a good shake and all of the magnetite will fall away from the container.  Repeat the operation.

     When working gold placer deposits in a river or stream, prospectors use gas powered siphons to dredge the sand and gravel in the crack and pockets of the bedrock on the bottom of the waterway.  Prospectors then run the material through a sluice box to catch the gold.  Sounds simple, but someone has to dive down and operate the siphon hose.

      These gold concentrations are called placers.   In a dry wash, you must dig down in the gravel until you hit bedrock.  Then with a dust pan and a small broom, carefully brush the dirt from the cracks into your dust pan and dump into a big bucket (some people use a portable wet/dry vacuum).  After you have filled several buckets, you head for the nearest stream and "pan" for the gold."

                      The Gold Pan as a Production Tool:

      The main thing to remember about the use of a gold pan is that while it is effective as a gold catching device, it can only process a limited amount of streambed material. For this reason the gold pan is normally not used as a production tool in professional use, other than in the most remote locations where it would be very difficult to haul large pieces of equipment, and where there is only a limited amount of material present which is paying well enough to make the panning worthwhile.

      The gold pan is most commonly used to locate richer paying ground (sampling,) so that larger production equipment can be brought in to that spot in order to work the ground at greater profit.

                                         Gold Panning Procedure:

      Panning gold is basically simple, once you realize that you are doing the same thing that the river does when it causes gold to concentrate and deposit in various locations.

      The process basically consists of placing the material that you want to process into your pan, and, shaking it in a left to right motion underwater in order to cause the gold, which is heavy, to work its way down toward the bottom of your pan. At the same time, the lighter materials, which are worthless, are worked up to the surface where they can be swept off. The process of shaking and sweeping is done until only the heaviest of materials are left--namely the gold, silver, and platinum, if present.

      Once you are out in the field, you will notice that no two people pan gold exactly alike. After you have been at it awhile, you will develop your own little twists and shakes to accomplish the proper result.

      Here is a basic gold panning procedure to start off with, that works well and is easy to learn: 

      STEP 1: Once you have located some gravel that you want to sample, place it in your gold pan--filling it about 3/4 of the way to the top. After you've been at it awhile, you can fill your pan to the top without losing any gold. While placing material in your pan, pick out the larger-sized rocks, so that you can get more of the smaller material, and gold, into the pan.

      STEP 2:Choose a spot to do your panning. It's best to pick a location where the water is at least six inches deep and preferably moving steadily--just enough to sweep away the mud and silt filled water as it is washed from your pan. This way, you can see what you are doing better. You don't want the water moving so swiftly that it will upset your panning actions. A mild current will do, if available!

      It's always best to find a spot where there's a rock or log or stream bank or something that you can sit down on while panning. You can pan effectively while squatting, kneeling or bending over, but it does get tiresome. If you are planning to process more than just one or two pans, sitting down will make the job much more pleasant.

      STEP 3: Carry the pan over to your determined spot and submerge it underwater.

      STEP 4: Use your fingers to knead the contents of the pan in order to break it up fully and cause all of the material to become saturated with water. This is the time to work apart all the clay, dirt, roots, moss and such with your fingers to ensure that all the materials are fully broken up and in a liquid state of suspension in the pan.

      The pan is underwater while doing this. Mud and silt will be seen to float up and out. Do not concern yourself about losing any gold when this happens. Remember: gold is heavy and will tend to sink deeper in your pan while these lighter materials are floating out.

      STEP 5: After the entire contents of the pan have been thoroughly broken up, take the pan in your hands (with cheater riffles on the far side of the pan) and shake it, using a vigorous left and right motion just under the surface of the water. This action will help to break up the contents of the pan even more and will also start to work the heavier materials downwards in the pan while the lighter materials will start to surface.

      Be careful not to get so vigorous in your shaking that you slosh material out of the pan during this step. Depending on the consistency of the material that you are working, it may be necessary to alternate doing steps four and five over again a few times to get all of the pan's contents into a liquid state of suspension. It is this same liquid state of suspension that allows the heavier materials to sink in the pan while the lighter materials emerge to the surface.

      STEP 6: As the shaking action causes rocks to rise up to the surface, sweep them out of the pan using your fingers or the side of your hand. Just sweep off the top layer of rocks which have worked their way up to the pan's surface.

      Don't worry about losing gold while doing this, because the same action which has brought the rocks to the surface will have worked the gold deeper down toward the bottom of the pan. 

      Rotating your arm in a circular motion underwater will help to bring more rocks to the surface where they can be swept off in the same way.

      When picking the larger rocks out of the pan, make sure that they are clean of clay and other particles before you toss them out. Clay sometimes contains pieces of gold and also has a tendency to grab onto the gold in your pan.

      STEP 7: Continue to do steps five and six, shaking the pan and sweeping out the rocks and pebbles, until most of the medium-sized material is out of your pan.

      STEP 8: Tilt the forward edge of your pan downward slightly to bring the forward bottom edge of the pan to a lower position. With the pan tilted forward, shake it back and forth using the same left and right motion. Be careful not to tilt the pan forward so much that any material is spilled over the forward edge while shaking.

      This tilted shaking action causes the gold to start working its way down to the pan's forward bottom edge, and continues to work the lighter materials to the surface where they will be swept off.

      STEP 9: Carefully, by using a forward and backward movement, or a slight circular motion, just below the surface of the water, allow the water to sweep the top layer of worthless, lighter materials out of the pan. Only allow the water to sweep out a little at a time, while watching closely for the heavier materials to be uncovered as the lighter materials are swept out. It takes some judgment in this step to determine just how much material to sweep off before having to shake again so that no gold is lost. It will just take a little practice in panning gold before you will begin to see the difference between the lighter materials and the heavier materials in your pan, and get a feel for knowing exactly how much material can be safely swept out before re-shaking is necessary. When you are first starting, it is best to re-shake as often as you feel that it is needed to prevent losing any gold. When in doubt, shake! There are a few factors which can be pointed out to help you with this. Heavier materials are usually darker in color than the lighter materials. You will notice while shaking the pan that it is the lighter colored materials that are vibrating on the surface. You will also notice that as the lighter materials are swept out of the pan, the darker colored materials are uncovered.

      Materials tend to get darker (and heavier) as you work your way down toward the bottom of the pan, where the darkest and heaviest materials will be found, they being the purple and black sands, which are minerals of the iron family. The exception to this is gold, which is heaviest of all. Gold usually is of a bright and shiny metallic color and shows out well in contrast to the other heavier materials at the bottom of the gold pan.

      One other factor to keep in mind is that the lighter materials sweep out of your pan more easily than do the heavier materials. As the heavier materials are uncovered, they are increasingly more resistant to being swept out of the pan, and will give you an indication of when it is time to re-shake.

      As you work your way down through your pan, sometimes gold particles will show themselves as you get down to the heavier materials. When you see gold, you know it is time to re-shake your pan.

      There is another popular method of sweeping the lighter materials out of the top of your pan which you might prefer to use. It is done by dipping your pan under the water and lifting it up, while allowing the water to run off the forward edge of the pan, taking the top layer of material along with it.

      STEP 10: Once the top layer of lighter material is washed out of your pan, re-shake to bring more lighter materials to the top. By "lighter materials," I mean in comparison to the other materials. If you continue to shake the lighter materials to the top and sweep them off, eventually you will be left with the heaviest material of all, which is the gold. It doesn't take much shaking to bring a new layer of lighter stuff to the surface. Maybe 8 or 10 seconds worth of shaking will do it, maybe less. it all depends on the consistency of the material and how much gold is present. 

      Continue to pluck out the larger-sized rocks and pebbles as they show themselves during the process.

      STEP 11: Every few cycles of sweeping and re-shaking, tilt your pan back to the level position and re-shake. This keeps any gold from being allowed to work its way up the forward edge of your pan.

      STEP 12: Continue the above steps of sweeping and re-shaking until you are down to the heaviest materials in your pan. These usually consist of old pieces of lead and other metal, coins, BB's, old bullets, buckshot, nails, garnets, small purple and black iron rocks, and the heavy black sand concentrates--which consist of mainly or in part of the following: magnetite (magnetic black sands), hematite (non-magnetic black sands), titanium, zircon, rhodolite, monazite, tungsten materials, and sometimes pyrites (fool's gold), plus any other items which might be present in that location which have a high specific gravity--like gold, silver and platinum.

     Once down to the heaviest black sands in your pan, you can get a quick look at the concentrates to see how much gold is present by allowing about a half-cup of water into the pan, tilting the pan forward as before, and shaking from left to right to place the concentrates in the forward bottom section of your pan. Then level the pan off and swirl the water around in slow circles. This action will gradually uncover the concentrates, and you can get a look at any gold that is present. The amount of gold in your pan will give you an idea how rich the raw material is that you are sampling.

       Panning Down All The Way To Gold:

     It is possible to pan all the way down to the gold--with no black sands, lead, or other foreign materials left in the pan. This often done among prospectors when cleaning up a set of concentrates which have been taken from the recovery system of a larger piece of equipment--like a sluice box or dredge.

     Panning all the way down to gold is really not very difficult, once you get the hang of it. It's just a matter of a little practice and being a bit more careful. Most prospectors when doing so prefer to use the smooth surface of the gold pan as opposed to using the cheater riffles.

     When panning a set of concentrates all the way down to the gold-or nearly so, it's good to have a medium-sized funnel and a large-mouthed gold sample bottle on hand. This way, once you have finished panning, its just a matter of pouring the gold from your pan into the sample bottle via the funnel. Pill bottles and baby food jars often make good gold sample bottles for field use because they are usually made of thick glass and have wide mouth. Plastic ones are even safer.

     If you have trouble transferring the gold to your container try bringing it to the staff at Poudre River Resort and we will wet our finger with saliva, touch the gold and then brush it off into your container, which should be filled with water. The saliva will cause the gold and concentrates to stick to your finger until it touches the water in the container. OR, maybe you will want to do it yourself.

  Where to Begin your Panning Adventure in Poudre Canyon

     Elkhorn Creek would probably be the best place to start panning for gold. It is located 2.5 miles north of the Cache la Poudre River.

     On U.S. 287 southwest of Bellvue by 3 miles at Howes Gulch the area copper mines had a by product of gold.

     West of Fort Collins at Manhattan, on a steep road about 4 miles north off of Route 14 there are some placer gold deposits in the gulches.

     With the nations only commercially active Diamond Mine just a short distance from the Poudre river, this might be a great place to start your diamond panning adventure.  A prospector using only a gold pan panned a diamond from the Poudre River in 2002.