Riding Over Gold

Ocotillo Wells, CA

I was driving through the sandy track of the Cut Across Trail in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and the sparse landscape and rolling hills made me think of how desolate this area was. As I cautiously banked through the snake-like curves of the road in my 4x4 Jeep I began to wonder what it must have been like for the early travelers without motorized vehicles traversing this dry and unforgiving desert.

The Anza-Borrego region was a well-known route frequented by explorers, gold seekers, immigrants and many others in search of a new life on the California Coast. Some crossed through it, while others chose to settle in the area — and some, prospectors and explorers, came in search of gold.


One of the most famous prospectors of the time, trapper/gold seeker “Pegleg Smith” traveled through this region. It's rumored he discovered black gold somewhere in the east part of the park. Where he found his gold has never been discovered, or if it has, the location has never been published or verified. The discovery of black gold by Pegleg remains just a legend, though many have searched the desert hills looking for the area where he found it.

The essential coordinates of Pegleg’s lost gold are said to be inside the Borrego Springs area, within what is now the Anza-Borrego Desert region, somewhere west of the Salton Sea, east of Coyote Canyon, and south from Clark Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains to the Borrego Sink. The black-coated gold nuggets Pegleg claims he found were located on top of one of three buttes.

PegLeg's Map

The Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area lies within the area described by numerous legends as the location of Pegleg’s lost gold. OHV enthusiasts may not be aware of the legend of Pegleg’s lost gold or its rumored whereabouts. If you ride out in Ocotillo Wells or the surrounding recreational areas, you may want to take some time to search for three buttes covered with rocks coated in desert varnish. You might just find what prospectors have been searching for since the mid-1800s.

This year the price of gold reached a high of over $1300.00 an ounce, causing a stir in the minds and hearts of gold prospectors. Faith in old legends and stories of lost mines rekindled, and with the price of gold in mind, prospectors and gold hunters have been encouraged once again to hunt for gold in all kinds of areas.

Many of the searchers started from the old Warner Ranch House now restored

How do you know what to look for next time you ride at Ocotillo Wells? You can start by learning about a man named Thomas Smith (aka Pegleg). Thomas Smith lost his leg to an arrow during a trapping expedition in the fall of 1827. After his leg was amputated, his friends fashioned him a wooden leg, thus earning him the name Pegleg.

Pegleg's legend began during a trapping expedition down the Colorado River in the late 1820s or early 1830s. His party had acquired a large number of pelts during their trip and they selected Pegleg and another member of the trapping group to take the supply of pelts across the desert to Los Angeles, CA for sale.

During their journey through the desert, Pegleg gathered some pebbles that he found on top of a butte in the Colorado Desert. The butte was one of three, hence the significant landmark of three buttes in most versions of this story. He collected the black pebbles thinking they were copper and carried them to Los Angeles where he later discovered they were gold.

It wasn't until after the 1849 Gold Rush that Pegleg returned to California to organize a prospecting party to search for the butte where he had found the black gold nuggets. The group wandered around the desert unsuccessfully, and Pegleg ended up deserting the party and turned up later in Los Angeles.

There are men who have claimed to have found Pegleg's lost gold. One story describes the journey of a discharged soldier who followed Pegleg's trail from Yuma to Los Angeles. During his travels through the desert, he discovered the three buttes described in Pegleg's legend and found gold nuggets. When he arrived in Los Angeles he showed his friends the nuggets and organized an expedition to return to the desert to bring back more gold. The expedition never returned, and the members of the party were later found dead at the foot of the San Ysidro Mountains.

Some think this is the area where a man found the black gold.

An Indian legend about a Yaqui man who lived and worked near Warner's Ranch also supports the tale of black gold in the Borrego area. The Indian made frequent trips into the desert whenever he needed money, always returning with black gold nuggets. No one was ever able to follow him into the desert to discover his secret gold location. Later, after the Indian died in a fight, $4,000 worth of gold was found in his bunk.

The area that's now the Ocotillo Wells Vehicular Recreation Area is the most likely spot for the gold's location. In 1965 a man wrote Desert Magazine and claimed he had also found the gold while out looking for wildflowers in some of the washes in the desert. Based on access to the area at that time, he may have started in the Tule Wash, or Arroyo Salado Wash, and traveled a little farther out from there. Old swords were also found in the desert by that same man, which could indicate that he was near Juan Bautista de Anza’s original trail through this area and the San Felipe Wash.

Black gold rocks were reported to be found near the 17 Palms area.

Here are some tips on what to look for if you are interested in seeking Pegleg’s lost gold.

The gold nuggets were black and heavy for their size. The black coating could have been from desert varnish or the nuggets could also have contained silver, which had tarnished, causing the black coating. If you find a black stone that you think may be a gold nugget, scrape the surface with a knife and the gold will show—if it is gold. If you are in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park you may not remove the gold. Check with the BLM and the State of California for their rules regarding the removal of gold from their areas. If you find it, be sure to let us know, and send us some photos.

Lots of rocks to check

by Jim Bremner



Ocotillo Wells
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Was PegLeg's Gold Found?
The Lost Gold of Tumacacori
Fan Palm Oasis

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