Money making hobby: panning for gold

Photo: IMG_0499

Lately many Californians have been heading to the rivers and streams to prospect for gold. The increase in people taking up this activity has some newspapers writing about "the new gold rush".  Although very few people can make a living off of finding gold, it is a decent money making hobby since gold is worth around $900 an ounce currently.  Here is how you can get in on the action.

First of all, you need to find out where you can legally prospect for gold.  National  parks are off limits, but there are still lots of public land where you can look for minerals.  You should research mining records and public land records at your local Bureau of Land Management if you are serious about finding gold.  You can also stake a mineral claim on Federal lands in 19 states to prevent others from digging in your spot.    Usually other prospectors will not tell you where they hunt for gold so it is up to you to find your own sweet spot. An easy way to get started is to join a prospecting club that already has mineral claims on lots of land.

Next, you would need some tools.  A simple gold pan is enough for sifting gold from streams.  You also need a plastic container to hold the gold you find.  A magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers would also help  with extracting the tiniest pieces of gold. A shovel also helps in digging up sediment.   More serious gold hunters also use metal detectors and dredges to suck up gravel.  However, if you are just starting out you probably would not want to invest heavily in machinery, yet.

As a final step you would head out to the site to pan for gold as the weather allows.  This activity is actually pretty labor intensive and requires a lot of patience. You should not expect to find a lot on the first outing, but it is good exercise and you will most likely be somewhere with fresh air.  Your gold yield  may get better as you learn more about prospecting, but as long as you enjoy the adventure the monetary rewards will probably come second.  Many weekend prospectors have met good friends through the hobby, and those friendships are  more valuable than the little shiny specks they find.

Have you ever gone out to hunt for gold and other treasures?  What is the most rewarding part of your hobby?

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Andrea Karim's picture

 Like those people with metal detectors in the park, I am so worried that this would be a hobby that would border on obsession for me. But it sounds like so much fun!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Hey Andrea you're in Washington, right?  They just legalized panning in streams and rivers!

Andrea Karim's picture

 Well, now you've done it.

Guest's picture

i may go out to find gold instead of going hiking.

Fred Lee's picture

Where do you get a mule?

Guest's picture

At the mule store, duh (lol)

Guest's picture


Guest's picture

I was watching Full Circle with Michael Palin the other day. On day five of his ten month trip filmed in 1995, he met three gold panning prospectors on the golden sands of Nome, Alaska.

Philip Brewer's picture

My in-laws took us to a state park near Sacramento where panning was allowed.  We got instructions from a ranger, borrowed pans, and headed out to the river to do some panning.  I even found a few flecks of gold.

The ranger who provided the instructions said that she'd actually made her living this way for years before becoming a state park ranger.  She made only a few thousand dollars a year, but she lived frugally and got by.  (She seemed happy to be working a regular job, though.)

According to her, the way to make a success of it is to find places where the natural ground formations form what amounts to a gold pan.  Every storm washes gold out of the mountains, most of which will eventually end up in the stream bottoms.  But, on its way there, it will pause wherever there's some structure that catches it--holes and ripples in the rock, etc.  If you find a route that includes many such structures, and then walk that route after each storm, you'll find a lot more gold than if you just sift through the river sand.

Guest's picture

Two of our adult children live in Alaska. Gold panning is a hobby for them and for us when we visit. So far we haven't found much but we have some friends in the Fairbanks area who make a good living at it.

Guest's picture

Interesting hobby, but I certainly wouldn't look to get rich . . .

Guest's picture

I live in Faibanks, AK and have gone panning for gold a few times. It's not easy and is very hard work. You have shovel massive piles of dirt for just a few flakes of gold. First you sift the dirt into a bucket to get out the rocks. Then you run it through a sluice box, then a smaller sluice box, and finally you pan it. You are talking about an entire days worth of labor (for 2 or more people) before you really pan - maybe for 10 flakes. Guys who do it every weekend may end up with a small vial at the end of a season. Plus there is the cost of gas. There's a good spot about 80 miles north of town, but you need a truck to get back to the area. So with gas at 3$/gallon up here and we'll figure my truck gets 15 mpg; then 35$ in gas round trip (80 mi is on highway, some is dirt so less fuel efficiency plus the two tracks and tundra after you leave the highway will probably easily eat 1 gal of gas). So unless you can get at least 40$ in gold each trip you won't even cover the fuel. However, if you can find a nugget, those go for about twice the price of gold because they are rare (so 1800$/troy ounce if gold is 900$/troy ounce).

Guest's picture

Excellent reading thanks : )

I was taking a break from work and started dreaming and stumbled onto this article.. I dig for gold (pennies worth!) working from home doing internet tasks for low pay and I thought gee i wonder if i can pan gold? does that actually work? Does anyone survive off panning for gold? Id be real curious what monthly rents would be for somewhat decent lodging in areas that offer panning..

Guest's picture
Scott Hopkins

I would like to add to this because this is a rather brief introduction to the question of gold mining for profit, leaving out some essential ideas.

First of all, panning and prospecting is a lot of hard work. Even for hobby prospecting, most will grow tired of just panning, unless they're in a premium location like the Yukon or British Columbia. Most of us who do it for fun have more than just "some tools." Much of the productivity in the less gold rich places like the Midwest is achieved through dredging and sluicing; several at a time in fact. There's a lot of walking, lifting, sifting, and sitting in uncomfortable conditions. Tough guys and gals are required.

Second, luck will play such an important role in this making any money at all. Finding a gold vein and doing the proper search might not be luck involved, but the prospect of being able to even mine the researched land may fall to luck. Once there and everything is approved, the land could be dangerous in a number of ways from other miners to animals to weather. Every situation is different.

Finally, it can be incredibly expensive to make this hobby a money making venture. Consider the most successful miners and the least successful on the popular reality tv shows. There is a direct correlation to the amount of money spent to the amount of money earned. Yes, you can enjoy the hobby for a few hundred bucks up front and some decent maintenance costs each year. That assumes though you'll work hard, have some luck and have a claim to mine on.

I refer you to these two articles that detail this endeavor accurately: and

I would be happy to entertain any questions since when this article was composed in 2009, gold has seen a wonderful rise in price and is all the more alluring.