Arid deserts provide a unique challenge for gold prospectors. Most obvious is the lack of water, which prevents the use of one of the most basic tools in your arsenal; the gold pan.
While you can use dry panning methods it isnít very efficient and is pretty tough to master.
Itís a good idea to pack in some extra water to use for sample panning if you want to do some prospecting in the desert. Gold will generally concentrate in dry washes. The same principles of gold deposition still apply, so you simply need to dig down and get to the better potentially gold-bearing gravels. Once you do this, add some water to the pan and sample as you normally would.
It doesnít take a lot of water to do this, and you by using careful panning methods you will be able to find out if there is gold in your location.
Drywashing in the Desert
Small-scale sampling with a gold pan is always a good idea, and you should spend some time to determine where the best areas are. Some areas will be completely devoid of gold, even within well-defined gold districts, so identifying those concentrations of placer is critical.
Once you think youíve found a good gold source, itís time to use some bigger equipment. In the desert, the drywasher is the tool of choice. Again, this is because of the lack of water.
A drywasher uses air and vibration, rather that the flow of water, to separate gold out from the lighter material.
Drywashers are not as efficient as sluice boxes, but they still work pretty well when they are all set up correctly. And since you donít have a steady flow of water available, itís not like youíve got that option anyways.
You can shovel gravel directly into the drywasher or you can classify your gravel first. You will get better recovery if you classify but it will slow down your process considerably. Whether or not it is worth your effort will depend on the type of gold you are recovering and might just need some trial and error to determine which option will produce the most gold at the end of the day.
Metal Detecting in the Desert
The other main prospecting method to use in the desert is to use a metal detector to search for gold nuggets. This is definitely the preferred method being used today in my experience. Drywashing is much more labor-intensive than metal detecting, although digging holes all day with a metal detector is no easy task either!
Metal detectors work great in the desert because water is a non-issue. You can walk right up the bottom of a dry wash and locate gold nuggets that are lodged in bedrock cracks.
There are different types of metal detectors that all work differently in different situations. In the desert washes of the Southwest, a sensitive detector like the Fisher Gold Bug 2 or Gold Bug Pro are excellent choices because they can find very small gold that has been missed by others.
A new detector that seems to be a favorite for hunting in washes is the Minelab SDC 2300. This is a pulse induction detector that works exceptionally well in the hot ground that is commonly found in the Southwest.
Of course, with a metal detector you can go just about anywhere, so you might find it advantageous to venture out of the washes and search for virgin nugget patches
Drywashers & Metal Detectors Working Together
When drywashing it is a very good idea to scan the tailing piles with a metal detector to make sure that you havenít missed a nugget. Drywashers will miss some gold even under the best of circumstances, and using a metal detector in combination will help ensure that fewer nuggets are lost.
Most serious gold prospectors in the desert use both of these tools. There arenít very many places to use traditional placer mining equipment like sluice boxes and highbankers, so the drywasher and metal detector essential replace them as the primary tools for desert miners.