Gold in the Desert
Gold in the Desert
When John Marshall discovered gold while building John Sutter’s sawmill near Sacramento in 1848, he triggered the California Gold Rush. In the following years, prospectors invaded the mountain ranges that crossed the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts. They left abandoned mines, tailings, rusting shovels and pans, gloomy cemeteries, ghost towns and legends as their legacy.
Although thirty-two states have recorded significant commercial gold production, the highest yield areas have been located within the western states. The recreational gold prospector can find gold in the deserts and mountains of the western states, taking note of the history of prospecting in the region.
One of the most famous prospectors of the past, “Pegleg Smith,” traveled throughout the Anza Borrego desert region in southern California. Pegleg found some black pebbles on top of a butte in the Colorado desert. Thinking they were copper, he carried them to Los Angeles, where he discovered they were actually gold. Many believe that the area where Pegleg found the gold now constitutes the Ocotillo Wells California Vehicular Recreation Area. We made a video on gold and the Ocotillo Wells SVRA that may interest you.
How Did Gold Get Here?
Gold, a part of the primal stew of elements that gave birth to our planet, settled well below the surface. With the passage of time, some gold came into contact with ground water that had been heated by molten rock. If pressures were high and the geochemistry was right, the gold, as well as other minerals like quartz, galena and pyrites, dissolved into the water.
Superheated, the water, laden with its burden of gold and other materials, surged upward, driven by pressure toward the surface. It intruded into the fractures and folds of fault zones, contacts between differing rock types, openings of porous rock formations, and other cavities near the surface. As the heat and pressure diminished, the water yielded back to the earth its load of gold and the companion materials, which precipitated out of solution to form veins, or lodes.
Many gold-quartz veins are found in natural fault zones, in the form of long and narrow planes. Other times, gold and accompanying precipitates may fill smaller parallel fissures, creating a network of veins called “stockwork zones.”
Where water flowed rapidly into large openings, and where temperatures and pressures dropped rapidly, the gold precipitated out of the solution quickly, often in the form of fine grains. When the water flowed into small openings, where temperatures and pressures fell less rapidly, the gold precipitated more slowly, as larger nuggets.
Over long periods of time, the gold, freed by erosion or disintegration of its host rock, moved into washes to be transported downstream as flakes or grains or nuggets by the flow of water. Gold particles in stream deposits are often concentrated on or near bedrock, because they moved downward during high-water periods when the entire bed load of sand, gravel, and boulders was agitated and moving downstream. Due to their weight, the fine gold particles collected in depressions or in pockets in sand and gravel bars where the stream current slackened. Concentrations of gold in gravel areas are called placers.
Although they probably did not understand the geologic processes that delivered gold to the earth’s surface, many early prospectors, often possessed by their dreams of a rich strike, knew enough to search the deformed and fractured rock of faults, contacts between strata, cavities of geologic formations, bed-rock exposures, and sand and gravel bars of streams across the desert basins and mountain ranges of the Southwest.
If you are interested in prospecting for gold, you can follow in the footsteps of those early prospectors. You will likely find that the most immediately rewarding places will be possible placer deposits in the sand or gravel bars in washes downstream from known lodes. You will need no more than the simplest of the prospector’s toolsa shovel and a pan.
by Jay W. Sharp
Next page - How Do You Pan for Gold?
Rockhounding, Treasure Hunting, Gold Prospecting
Gold Fever in the Desert
Riding over Gold on Your ATV in Ocotillo Wells
Looking for gold in Arizona's washes
Crystalline Gold: Finding The Motherlode
SEARCH THIS SITE
Clay Worst lecture Lost Dutchman Mine
Clay Worst's lecture on the History of the Lost Dutchman Mine,in 2011 was a huge success... Due mostly to his telling of the legend, in a way that only someone who has lived it for 63 years could do! Other than an occasional ringing of a cell phone, (which was quickly silenced) and random gasps from the crowd. There was total silence, as the legend of the Lost Dutchman Mine came to life in a very interesting and informative presentation.
Barry Storm's Jade Mine DesertUSA researches Barry Storm, the author of Trail of the Lost Dutchman, first published in 1939. In 1957 he came out to California and was wandering around in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park. He chipped off the corner of a rock and discovered it was jade. Thinking he'd found the source of the ancient Mayan's jade, Storm mined and lived in that area for the rest of his life. Join us on our road trip to see Barry Storm's Jade Mine.
Ballarat and the Rainbow Chasers
At the end of every rainbow is a pot of gold. Parked at the base of the Panamint Mountains are the remains of Ballarat, California. Founded in 1876 as a supply center for gold mines and prospectors, Ballarat lasted 21 years. After the post office closed in 1970, Ballarat became home for two famous rainbow chasers: Shorty Harris and Seldom Seen Slim. Learn more about these colorful prospectors, and the ghost town of Ballarat in this video.
Click here to see current desert temperatures!
DesertUSA is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.