Rivers are some of the most abundant places to find gold and other precious metals. However, it can be very difficult for a beginner to find gold without knowing where, when, and how to search for it in a body of water. Having the proper knowledge and supplies will make a huge difference for all gold prospectors.
To find gold in rivers, choose between dredging, sniping, panning, and other methods. Look for areas where the river bends and crevices form on the bedrock. Gravel and quartz in rivers are also indicative of gold. Mountain rivers near volcanic systems are also much more likely to have gold.
Throughout this guide, I’ll break down the step-by-step process of finding gold in rivers. I’ll also explain which tools you need and when the best time to go is and provide you with all the answers to a handful of frequently asked questions. Let’s get started!
1. Choose the Right Tools
There are many ways to find gold in rivers, so it’s essential to find the perfect method for you. For example, you can pan, dredge, snipe, sluice, or use metal detectors. Each option has its pros and cons that are worth looking into. They also have unique tools and other supplies you’ll need to get the job done.
Here’s a detailed explanation of each of the main ways you can find gold in rivers.
Panning for Gold
Panning for gold involves shoveling or scooping loads of dirt, gravel, and other sediments into a pan-shaped bowl. Shaking the pan back and forth will remove water and other loose materials, leaving all the heavier metals behind. You can sift through these metals to find gold dust and nuggets.
If you’re interested in panning for gold, consider this basic tool checklist:
- Gold pan
- Shovel, trowel, or spoon
You can use the brush to remove dirt from gold and other metals. Additionally, you can use the bucket to store your gold or tools for easier transportation.
Panning for gold can be a lucrative way to spend time outside in nature. For more information, you can check out my post about how you can earn a profit through gold panning. Make sure you check if you need a gold claim beforehand, though: Is Panning for Gold Profitable? 8 Things to Know
Suction dredging is more expensive than panning for gold but is also much quicker and more effective. These machines float above the water, pulling sediment through a tube via motor power. The tube gets rid of dirt and other lightweight materials, leaving gold and other heavy metals behind.
The main reason that suction dredging is so much more efficient and effective than panning for gold is that you can cover a large area much faster. You can also go further into the river without staying near the shore. Many people who go suction dredging also wear scuba gear or snorkeling masks for optimal visibility.
Sluicing for Gold
Sluicing for gold is very similar to panning for gold. In fact, many people use a gold sluice, then transfer the sediment to a gold pan.
Here’s how you can sluice for gold:
- Lay a gold sluice in a shallow part of a river with water pushing away from the sluice while moving through it.
- Angle the sluice by placing the top of it on a rock that’s a few inches tall.
- With water moving through the sluice, scoop a large amount of sediment from a bucket or shovel into the top of the sluice.
- Once the sediment settles under the sluice’s mat, remove the sluice from the water and dump the sediment into a clean bucket.
- Pour the bucket into a gold pan and look for gold dust and gold nuggets.
Sniping in Crevices
Gold sniping is another popular form of finding gold in rivers. It involves using a small suction bulb to push and pull water and sediment below the surface. This process allows you to reveal gold in small cracks, spaces below rocks that you can’t move, and more.
Here’s a tool list you can use to start sniping for gold:
- Sniping bulb
- Scuba gear or a snorkeling mask
- Prying bar (specifically designed for underwater usage)
Prying bars and rock picks can help you access more areas by lifting and removing obstacles. Remember to do so carefully if you want to prevent sudden movements from pushing small bits of gold away without knowing it.
Metal Detector claims you can use waterproof metal detectors underwater to find gold in rivers, lakes, and more. You’ll also need scuba diving gear if you don’t want to come up for air several times per minute. Snorkeling masks can help if you’re metal detecting for gold in a shallow river.
All you have to do is slowly wave the metal detector back and forth. Some metal detectors show the depth of the metal, while others beep when you’re near a hotspot. Keep in mind that gold isn’t very conductive, so you’ll need a high-frequency metal detector.
2. Find Out Which Rivers Have Gold
Going to a river without any gold (or one that’s been stripped of all of its precious metals) isn’t worth your time. There are many ways to find out which rivers have gold, including learning more about their geographical location, historical significance, and more. Fortunately, there are plenty of lists of gold-filled rivers that you can access.
To know if a river is worth searching for gold, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the river manmade or natural? Natural rivers are much more likely to have gold because they come from natural sources that often start in the mountains. Furthermore, manmade lakes sometimes have solid bottoms or are filled with dirt, both of which aren’t the best conditions for finding gold.
- How close is the river to faults and mountains? Shifting tectonic plates are some of the best places to find gold in rivers and other bodies of water. Since mountains form via moving plates in the earth’s crust, there’s a good chance gold is nearby. Gold is very abundant below the earth’s top layer but is revealed when tectonic plates shift.
- How old is the river? Ancient rivers have spent centuries eroding rocks, minerals, and metals to reveal gold. Furthermore, they’re more likely to push through mountains and volcanic systems that harbor gold. You’re much more likely to find gold in an old river than one that’s formed in the last few decades.
- Have people reported finding gold there recently? It might not be a surefire way to find gold, but it’s nice to know that gold forms in the area. Knowing where to look for gold in a river that’s known to have the precious metal will put you one step closer to finding dust, nuggets, and so on.
Since mountains are prime locations for gold deposits, you should begin your search there. For more information, you can also check out my article about how to spot signs for gold in old mountains: How to Find Gold in the Mountains: 8 Best Ways
If you don’t know where to start, it’s always worth looking through some of the reputable gold-packed rivers below.
Which Rivers Are Known To Have Gold?
While you might want to look for a local river in search of gold, you can also check out some of these well-known rivers that Bering Sea Pay Dirt reports still have gold:
- Yukon River, Canada
- Fortymile River, Alaska
- Chestatee River, Georgia
- Swift River, Maine
- Ammonoosuc River, New Hampshire
- Missouri River, Missouri
- Etowah River, Georgia
- Yaak River, Montana
- South Platte River, Colorado
- Molalla River, Oregon
- Fraser River, British Columbia
- Arkansas River, Colorado
- Yuba River, California
- Sooke River, Canada
- Lynx Creek Arizona
- American River, California
- Kern River, California
- Snake River, Idaho
- Rogue River, Oregon
- North Saskatchewan River, Canada
As you can see, all these rivers have one thing in common: they’re all near (or on) mountains. However, you can’t find gold in every square inch of these rivers and creeks. Read on to learn which parts of a river are more likely to have gold.
3. Know Which Parts of a River Have Gold
While a lot of rivers have gold, it usually collects in specific spots. You could visit part of a river and find no gold, but there could be loads of it only 20 feet (6.1 m) away. The most important thing to remember is that gold is heavy, which means it often settles below the dirt and loose sediment in many rivers.
These are the most common parts of a river to find gold:
- River bends often have gold because it stops the metal from flowing with the water. This process is even more common when the river changes widths. For example, a wide river that curves and narrows at the same time will push gold toward the edges. You can find it around gravel and other minerals that trap heavier metals.
- Gold can get stuck behind big objects, such as submerged logs, large rocks, and more. You can use the previously mentioned prying bar or rock pick if you need to move rocks out of your way. Find the gaps and spaces where water isn’t pushing the sediment all over the place since it’s more likely that the gold has settled.
- Gold often sinks to the bottom when there’s a sudden drop in a river. Put on your snorkeling gear and follow the water line until it drops. Gold settles near these elevation changes because it’s heavy but also because there’s not much water pressure at the bottom of the drop.
- Moss, seaweed, and algae can hold small bits of gold. Seaweed can be extremely deceivingly tall, so you’ll likely have to go to the bottom of it. Moss, algae, and other natural growths will hold gold dust but not gold nuggets. You can use a suction dredge in these areas or opt for a bucket to pour it into your sluice.
- It’s much easier to find gold in rivers with gravel and other minerals than in rivers with dirt on the bottom. Dirt moves around and clouds the area, greatly reducing the chances of seeing anything. Cold rivers are typically clearer because there’s fewer algae growth, so you can use this to your advantage.
Now that you know which parts of a river have more gold than others, you won’t waste nearly as much time. For the best results, look for places where gold would naturally get caught. Gold rarely forms on river beds, which means it falls into the water. You’re more likely to find dust and small nuggets than gold veins in rivers.
With that in mind, it’s understandable that a lot of gold prospectors who head to nearby rivers don’t go to populated areas. Constant swimming, paddling, boating, and other activities can disturb the sediment, making it much more difficult for gold to settle.
4. Look for Gold in False Bedrock
False bedrock got its name from being extremely dense, but it’s not real bedrock. In fact, it’s usually made out of compacted clay. Nevertheless, gold settles on false bedrock because it’s not porous enough for metal to flow through it. You can often find false bedrock in older rivers that have had several centuries of water pushing and compacting the sediment.
Here’s how you can find gold in a river’s false bedrock layer:
- Remove gravel and other rocks out of the way until you reach the false bedrock.
- Look for narrow cracks, elevation changes, and other areas where gold gets caught.
- Dig slightly below the surface with a shovel or snipe for gold with a sniping bulb.
You can also find false bedrock near volcanic systems that have ejected a lot of quartz and other minerals. These minerals settle above the clay layer, filtering gold in the process. Additionally, they’re much easier to remove than dirt since you won’t shift the sediment and make it much more difficult to see anything underwater.
Note: False bedrock is a name for the compact clay layer above the real bedrock layer. It’s rarely referred to as ‘false bedrock’ by anyone who’s not a miner. If you’re asking for instructions or directions from a local, be sure to inquire about where clay is exposed in the river, not the false bedrock layer.
5. Search for Gold in Bedrock Crevices
Gold is often found in crevices and cracks along the bottom layer of a river. The solid rock layer below the dirt, gravel, and clay is called the bedrock. It typically has small cracks due to shifting tectonic plates, even if it’s not directly on top of a fault line. This process reveals gold beneath the surface but also traps gold flowing down the river.
Follow these steps to search for gold in bedrock crevices:
- Choose between sniping bulbs, underwater metal detectors, and suction dredges. These are the three best ways to get gold out of bedrock crevices. You can combine sniping bulbs with other methods since they’re excellent at getting rid of unwanted dirt and other debris.
- Remove all of the soft sediment near the edges of the crevice. Gold Fever Prospecting reports that soft, smooth edges are much less likely to hold gold, so you’ll have to dig to the rugged rocky portion. These rules also apply to looking for gold in underwater potholes, especially the ones found in false bedrock.
- Use picks or shovels to remove large amounts of debris from the crevice. Gold settles in these crevices, but so do all sorts of rocks. You’ll have to remove them before accessing the gold found in the bedrock. It’s much easier to use tools than to rely on your hands, especially since some rocks lodge themselves in the cracks.
- Blow sand away with sniping bulbs if necessary. This is much more common near sandy shores, so you might not always have to use sniping bulbs in bedrock crevices. That being said, I always recommend bringing one along just in case. Sniping bulbs can make locating and handling small pieces of gold much easier.
- Use mining tweezers to remove small bits of gold from the bedrock. Mining tweezers are usually longer and much more durable than traditional tweezers. Additionally, they’re often treated with rust-proof coatings to prevent them from corroding after being submerged for long periods.
6. Locate Minerals Associated With Gold
Many minerals form near gold deposits because they require the same conditions. Finding these minerals could mean there are nearby gold deposits, dust, nuggets, etc. Gold can be found near plenty of minerals and metals at the bottom of a river, but they’re more likely to be found near quartz, iron, copper, calcite, and more.
Here’s a list of minerals and metals that you can find within the proximity of gold:
- Quartz: Quartz is one of the most common minerals found near gold. They both form near volcanoes, and they often bind to each other. It’s important to note that you might have to extract gold from quartz if you find them connected in a bedrock crevice.
- Iron staining: Gold is another one that’s often found around or bound to gold. In fact, many gold nuggets have small traces of iron in them. Look for rocks with iron stains near the edges of the river (or, better yet, underwater). They can break apart, sending gold into the water.
- Silver: Silver and gold go hand in hand. You can find them near volcanic systems, in rivers, and more. They’re often found in the same mines, too. If you find gold near the bottom of a river, you’re likely to find traces of silver (or vice versa).
- Copper: The National Park Service explains that copper and gold are associated with one another because they’re found in the same locations. Much like silver, spotting copper dust, veins, or chunks often means gold could be nearby.
- Calcite: Gold and calcite are found near rivers because calcite is created near water sources, so there might be gold in a river or cave within the area if you find calcite. In fact, some calcite crystals have solid gold in them.
7. Check Rivers Near Volcanic Systems
Gold is often associated with volcanic systems because they push heavy metals to the surface. A lot of gold is still beneath the surface. When tectonic plates shift and open magma vents, the released pressure is more than enough to force gold, silver, quartz, and other materials to nearby rivers and streams.
Keep these factors in mind when gold prospecting in rivers near volcanic systems:
- Avoid active rivers near active volcanoes or steam vents. Not only are they dangerous, but they’re not any more likely to have gold than other places around them. In fact, you might not even be able to spot gold under magma because it’s not transparent. The whole idea would be too risky for not enough payout.
- Magma doesn’t always house gold; it simply forces it to nearby areas. You don’t need to head directly to magma flowing into a river if you want to find gold. Instead, you can search areas around these flows long after they’ve dried and cooled down. Keep an eye out for the previously mentioned minerals that could indicate that gold is nearby.
- Volcanic systems don’t always refer to volcanoes themselves. A volcanic system is an area with fault lines and volcanoes. Anywhere within the vicinity of these fractures in the earth’s crust could yield gold. There’s no need to go directly to a volcano connected to a river. Find the volcanic system, then locate nearby rivers.
- Rivers catch debris from volcanoes, allowing heavier materials to settle near the bottom. This process happens when volcanoes erupt and send ashes, minerals, and metals to nearby rivers and creeks. Once the debris settles, you can find gold in crevices, cracks, and surrounding dense obstacles in the river.
8. Look for Signs of People Mining in the Past
One of the easiest ways for a beginner to know if a river is worth looking for gold is if other people have had success in the past. For example, old-school miners left a lot of riverside plots because they weren’t profitable enough. Gold wasn’t as expensive as it is these days, so you can find these places to search for leftover gold.
Review these signs of old mining locations in and around rivers.
Acidic solutions were (and still are in some locations) commonly used to corrode surface minerals and rocks. If you find patches of iron, calcite, quartz, and similar materials next to a bunch of bleached and light-stained rocks, there’s a chance that someone was searching for gold in the area.
Search for Mining Claims
You can contact the local park service to know if there are current or expired mining claims. The only reason someone would file for a mining claim is that they want to search for gold in the area. Basically, they did all the research, so you don’t have to.
Broken Minerals and Rocks
Miners often break large rocks in half in search of minerals and metals. Finding a large collection of broken rocks could mean miners believed it was a good place for gold in the past. It could also be due to natural corrosion, which can also yield gold deposits.
9. Use Modern Technology
Modern technology can make it exponentially easier to locate gold or places that are more likely to have gold along a river. Not only can you use GPS to map the location, but you can also plan your route, find the water’s depth, and many other crucial details before setting foot in or around the river. These bits of information can be quite helpful for finding gold in any body of water.
Here are some modern gadgets you can use when searching for gold in rivers:
- Drones are excellent for gold prospecting because they let you look for other minerals and geological features where gold can be found. You can fly them over areas with bends, boulders, logs, etc. Another option is to fly drones with cameras if you want to find quartz or black sand while looking for gold.
- Metal detectors are great, but you can take them a step further by getting a deployable metal detector. These advanced gadgets can often go underwater, letting you scan the area without getting your feet wet. They work a lot like flying drones. Small propellers help them move around while detecting various adjustable frequencies.
- A high banker acts like a gold sluice, but it creates water pressure without needing a river for natural water movements. This tool is especially useful when you’re looking for gold in rivers and streams that don’t move too fast. They allow you to work much quicker, greatly increasing the area you cover.
- Use a smartphone app to find gold, such as Metal Detector by Smart Tools. These apps test the area’s magnetic field, letting you know when it changes. While they’re not as accurate as real metal detectors, they’re very handy for those in search of gold. Gold isn’t magnetic, so the frequency will drop drastically.
- You can use smartphones, smartwatches, and other GPS devices to mark your location if you find gold and want to come back later for more. Setting waypoint markers makes it much easier to remember hotspots and locations you might want to avoid. You can also set waypoints on most drones.
10. Search for Gold During the Right Conditions
You can find gold during almost any weather condition, season, time of day, and more. However, chasing optimal conditions will make it much easier for you to find gold in a river. After all, it can make the water clearer, shallower, and slower.
Fortunately, I’ve compiled a list of all of the perfect conditions for finding gold in rivers below:
- Gold is easier to find after the snow melts because it loosens minerals and rocks in the mountains and dumps them in nearby rivers. Many miners wait until spring for the best results. As snow and small floods reshape the landscape, new minerals and metals are revealed, so a spot that doesn’t have gold this year could have it next year.
- Gold Rush Nugget Bucket shows that drought-ridden areas or places with reduced water levels can reveal gold. Gold is often trapped in rivers, which means it can get embedded in the river bed. When droughts reduce the water levels, the embedded gold is revealed.
- It’s easier to find gold when it’s bright outside, so consider going in the morning or during the middle of the day. Nighttime and late evenings can be difficult because the sunlight’s reflection combined with low visibility make gold very hard to spot.
- Head to the river after a rainstorm to find if any gold was revealed. Much like landslides and floods, rainstorms do an excellent job of exposing gold deposits, dust, and other precious metals. On the other hand, gold prospecting during an active rainstorm can be extremely difficult.
Active rainstorms can shift and spread sediment and gold flakes. You’re better off waiting for the storm to clear, then reaping the benefits after everything settles.
11. Check for Gold Near the River’s Waterfalls
Waterfalls are often overlooked in the search for gold. While they can be a bit harder in terms of visibility, many waterfalls force gold to the base of the river. Finding gold in a river’s waterfall requires knowledge of how gold moves in water and where it’ll settle. This information will help you safely navigate the waterfall without wasting your time.
Remember these factors when inspecting waterfalls for gold:
- Most of the gold will be at the base of the waterfall deep underwater. This process happens because the water pressure forces gold into crevices and clay at the base of the waterfall. The higher the water pressure, the deeper the gold will likely be found. It can also push small gold flakes to the undercutting behind the waterfall.
- Gold flakes can get caught under various obstacles right before the waterfall drops. If the waterfall is shallow, it’ll press small pieces of gold against rocks, logs, and anything else in the way. However, navigating a fast-paced waterfall can be dangerous. Always take the necessary precautions.
- Stronger waterfalls have a higher chance of displacing gold. If the gold doesn’t get pressed into the river bed, it’ll likely flow downstream at a rapid pace. So, you’ll most likely find it near river bends, black sand, and false bedrock where the river slows down (after the waterfall).
12. Prospect in Connected Bodies of Water
Rivers often connect to many other bodies of water, including small streams, lakes, and tributaries. These connected bodies of water are often hotspots for gold because they force water pressure from multiple directions. Small gold bits have nowhere to go but down, which means they settle at the bottom of the river.
So, here are the reasons why you should consider connected bodies of water while prospecting for gold in rivers:
- A large river forcing itself into a narrow waterway is one of the main ways to know if a creek has gold in it. Not only does it mean small gold pieces can get trapped around the edges, but it also creates downward pressure from the current’s narrowing edges. For a more detailed explanation, check out my post about how to look for gold in a creek: How to Know if a Creek Has Gold in It – 7 Signs
- Looking through connected waterways greatly increases the chance of coming across a stream or creek that has gone through different parts of the terrain. For example, the main river might not have gold, but a small tributary could’ve rushed right over numerous gold veins that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
- Forbes estimates that our planet’s oceans have a collective 20,000,000 tons of gold in them. Searching rivers that connect to oceans is a great way to find dislodged gold nuggets, dust, flakes, and other bits from a much bigger body of water. Coastal rivers often come from mountainous regions, which also increases the likelihood of finding gold.
Finding gold in a river can be very rewarding. However, it presents numerous challenges that you won’t find in other hobbies. Many beginners have loads of questions about gold prospecting in rivers, streams, and creeks, so let’s get into the most common concerns below.
What Are the Chances of Finding Gold in a River?
The chances of finding gold in a river are very low, especially since most rivers don’t have gold in accessible locations. Furthermore, people have been pulling gold from the same rivers for well over a century.
Rare Gold Nuggets reports that less than 1% of rivers have large gold nuggets, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find gold dust and gold flakes.
Does Black Sand Mean Gold Is Nearby?
Black sand often forms when iron combines with other minerals and rocks that crumble apart. This process takes several years. Gold and iron often form under the same conditions, so finding black sand is a great indicator that you might be near gold. Search the nearby river bend around the black sand.
What Kind of River Soil Has the Most Dirt?
Clay is the most common soil to find dirt. It’s very dense and compact, which means gold of any size can’t travel through it. It’s just as effective at catching gold as bedrock. Sand and other loose sediments are much less likely to have gold because it doesn’t prevent it from moving around and flowing with the river (aside from iron-packed black sand, which is denser).
What Does Raw Gold Look Like in a River?
Raw gold is often dusty or flaky in the vast majority of rivers that have the metal. If you find a gold nugget in a river, it’s more likely to be rounded from the non-stop water pressure of the river. Additionally, it’ll likely have other minerals and rocks attached to it since it broke off of the main gold vein.
Things To Know
Before finding gold in rivers, you should know that not every river has gold. You might need a gold claim, and private rivers are typically off-limits. Additionally, various natural occurrences can reveal or move gold around the river. You might be able to find some next year, but nothing this year.
Let’s take a detailed look at each of these issues below:
- You won’t be able to find gold in every river. Geographical location, geological features, and many other factors play a role in which rivers have gold. Furthermore, if all of the gold was prospected from the river, you won’t be able to find any. The good news is that you might be able to come back after tectonic plate shifting.
- There’s a chance you’ll need a gold claim. Most public lands allow you to prospect for gold without a claim. However, it’s always better to check ahead of time. Collecting and keeping gold you find without a claim can land you with a hefty fine in some locations.
- Always ask for permission before prospecting for gold on private land, including bodies of water. Many rivers have sections that flow through private property. You’ll be on public BLM land in one part and someone’s backyard at another spot. Check the map to know where you’re allowed to access the river publicly.
- Earthquakes, floods, rainstorms, and many other natural occurrences will shift gold flakes. All of these natural phenomena will move gold throughout the area. Bedrock crevices will form, new land will be exposed, and small bits of gold will move to different locations.
- Finding gold in rivers takes a lot of time, preparation, and practice. You might not find gold your first, second, or fifth time, but it’s well worth the adventure. Once you know where to look and hone your skills in the area, you’ll be able to find gold through one or more of your favorite prospecting methods.
Although finding gold can be difficult, rivers are some of the best places to look. Not only do they harbor gold that’s fallen from nearby veins, but they also trap it in crevices, false bedrock, and gravel. Once you know where to look, you’re much closer to finding gold dust, gold nuggets, and more.