Last Updated on June 28, 2023

Looking to strike it rich by finding gold in desert washes?

Prospecting for gold in small washes and tributaries can be a great place to start, especially in areas with old hard rock prospects in the hills.

By searching for exposed bedrock or thin gravel overburden, you can take samples directly on the bedrock, loosen any gravel with screwdrivers, ice picks, and chisels, and carefully collect all the gravel.

Using a stiff bristle brush or a cordless shop-vac can help you clean up the last of the gravel where most of the gold will be found.

Detecting gold with a gold detector can also be a great option in small washes with shallow gravels on bedrock. Careful sampling and detecting can help you find a gold patch that can be worked profitably with a drywasher.

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A dry wash in the desert, a prime location for finding gold through prospecting.
The dry wash is a prime location for finding gold in the desert.

Finding Gold in Small Washes

Small washes and tributaries can be a great place to start your search for gold. Look for exposed bedrock or thin gravel overburden, and take samples directly on the bedrock.

Loosen any gravel with screwdrivers, ice picks, and chisels, and carefully collect all the gravel. Clean up the last of the gravel with a stiff bristle brush or a cordless shop-vac, where most of the gold will be found.

Using a gold detector can also be a great option in small washes with shallow gravels on bedrock. Careful sampling and detecting can help you find a gold patch that can be worked profitably with a drywasher.

Exploring Elevated Gravel Bench Gold Deposits

Scan the slopes above the wash for areas where sections of gravel have been left behind as the wash has been eroded deeper.

These areas are also great places to use a gold detector. But be cautious when sampling benches, as you do not want to put yourself downhill from a possible collapse.

Revisiting Flood Gold and Flood Layers

Flood gold and flood layers can re-accumulate in areas that have been worked in the past. Since most of the old desert mining districts were worked by many men over many years, the last of the real mining efforts in the desert placer areas were carried out with drywashers during the depression era of the 1930s.

That means 80 or 90 years of flooding and erosion have taken place since. In some areas, especially the smaller washes, the gold patches and pockets have been at least partially replenished.

Scouting Pediments for Gold

Pediments are broad surfaces or sloping plains of low relief that are often found in arid desert regions along the base of mountain slopes. Pediments may contain a layer or several layers of gravel that have paying amounts of gold.

Pediments should be scanned with a gold detector as coarse gold may be found near the surface in some areas. Deep pediments are sometimes underlain by older dry washes called paleo-channels. These channels rest on bedrock and were sometimes worked by the old-timers using a method called drift mining.

Cracking the Code of Large Desert Washes

Large and main desert washes also contain gold, but they are often difficult to prospect due to the many feet of gravel on top of bedrock and the fact that water flows in flash flood conditions, meaning gold has no way to concentrate and will be widely scattered throughout the wash.

However, you may be lucky and find areas where the slope of a wash changes from steep and narrow to flat and wide, such as the mouth of a canyon. There have been occasional large nuggets found by gold detectors in main washes that drain some mining districts.

Tertiary Rivers: The Mother Lode of Gold

Finally, some of the richest gold-bearing gravels are from ancient tertiary rivers that flowed millions of years ago. When prospecting desert washes, keep your eyes open for patches of waterworn gravel and rock in areas of angular detritus.

These small sections of gravel may be remnants of ancient tertiary rivers and could contain some of the richest gold-bearing gravels.

A person using a metal detector to search for gold in a dry desert wash.
A Person Metal Detecting for Gold Nuggets in a Dry Wash

4 Methods for Prospecting Gold in the Desert

If you’re looking for gold in the desert, you’ll need more than just a pan and shovel. To increase your chances of success, it’s important to know the right strategies for the job.

Below, four effective methods to help you prospect for gold in the desert.

Metal Detecting: The Thrill of the Hunt

Metal detecting is one of the most popular and thrilling methods of searching for gold in the desert.

In states like Arizona and Nevada, metal detectors are still used very successfully to locate gold nuggets.

With no need for water, modern gold detectors have gotten quite good in recent years.

For gold prospecting in the desert, you need a metal detector that can detect small flakes and nuggets of gold and handle the harsh and rugged terrain.

The Minelab GPZ 7000 is the top option for finding gold flakes and nuggets, while the Minelab Gold Monster 1000 is a more affordable choice with high sensitivity and automatic ground balancing.

The XP ORX is a good option for those on a tight budget, as it is highly customizable and has a frequency range ideal for finding small gold nuggets.

Drywashing: The Desert Prospector’s Essential Tool

Drywashers are an essential piece of mining equipment that every desert gold prospector should own.

Rather than using water, they use vibration and air pressure to move material and allow gold to settle out of the gravels.

While capture rates for drywashers are not as good as other methods, they are often the only decent option in many dry locations.

Crevicing: The Slow and Steady Method

Crevicing is a slow but effective method for finding gold in the desert. It involves carefully cleaning out cracks in the bedrock using basic hand tools, and later panning out the concentrates that you collect.

While it may not process large amounts of material, crevicing can yield high-quality concentrates loaded with fine gold, especially in areas where crevicing is necessary to thoroughly “clean out” the location.

Hard Rock Mining: A Tough Nut to Crack

Most of the gold that has been mined in the desert comes from hard rock mines, where gold is extracted directly from the rocks.

While the startup cost of most hard rock mining operations is too expensive for most prospectors, there are still considerable hard rock gold deposits out there that can be mined on a smaller scale.

All you need is a simple rock crusher to break apart the ores for further processing.


Desert Gold Washes Prospecting Tips

Here are some tips for finding gold in desert washes:

  • Look for exposed bedrock or thin gravel overburden. This is where gold is most likely to be found.
  • Use a gold detector to scan the area. This is a great way to find small nuggets and flakes of gold that you might not be able to see with the naked eye.
  • Be patient and persistent. Prospecting for gold can be a slow and tedious process, but it can be very rewarding if you’re successful.
  • Start your search in areas that have been previously mined. This is because these areas are more likely to contain gold.
  • Look for areas where there has been a lot of water activity. This is because gold is often found in areas where water has eroded the soil and deposited the gold in the gravel.
  • Pay attention to the terrain. Look for areas where there are bedrock outcroppings, gravel bars, and streambeds. These are all places where gold is likely to be found.
  • Be aware of the laws and regulations in the area where you’re prospecting. Some areas have restrictions on gold panning and mining.
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