Sure, Colorado is known for rock climbing, hiking and skiing. But there is a little-known hobby that hearkens back to the state’s gold rush days still practiced today by 21st-century miners using the same hand tools that explorers used hundreds of years ago.
“It’s treasure hunting,” says recreational miner Joseph Heiden, who enjoys searching the Tarryall Mountains that span the eastern part of South Park for topaz and amazonite.
Heiden is a self-described “rockhound.” The phrase, according to most dictionaries, refers to an amateur or professional collector of rocks, minerals, ore, crystals, fossils and gems.
I went on my first mining trip ever with my boyfriend and his brothers Joe and Russell Heiden this past May. My particular rockhounding involved a pan versus a pick, but trust me, the processes are equally tedious.
First off, swishing a bunch of water around in a gold pan is a lot harder than it sounds.
You can’t just put your pan in the river and pick up any old clump of dirt. You have to understand how gold moves down the river. To find it in a stream or river, you need to find what prospectors deem “the pay streak.” This is where gold is deposited from large flood activity on the river and tends to be on bedrock, inside bends and behind large boulders.
Gold is a heavy, lazy mineral. It will pick the path of least resistance and often move in a straight line through a meandering stream.
Finding the right inside bend to pan is where you may have to be more lucky than skillful. You may need to test several sites before finding the right one.
From my experience, this involves miles of hiking along a river and digging with a shovel into ice-cold mountain water, pulling up heavy chunks of mixed-together, murky gravel and then putting it into a gold pan.
Gold panning itself is a monk-like ritual because of its repetitive nature. It’s easy to get lost in washing water over your pan, shaking it vigorously to separate the lighter sands from the black sand and gold, stratifying the material over and over again — allowing the gold to ultimately sink to the bottom of the pan where it then makes the pattern of an abstract painting. The gold you find in this process is not a flashy nugget, but instead a streak of individual, beautiful shimmers.
But the tedious process can ultimately be rewarding. Not necessarily because you strike huge nuggets of gold, but after sometimes hours of repetitive panning, you find yourself getting lost in nature, too — listening to the babbling sound of a stream or the song of a bird.
Recreational miners in Colorado, however, are more lucky than those in other states because Colorado is second only to California in the variety of minerals found within its boundaries. That’s according to the Colorado Geological Survey, which reports the state contains more than 30 varieties of gems. In fact, the largest faceted diamond found in the U.S. was prospected in Colorado, a whopping 16.87 carats.
The Rocky Mountains are home to a treasure trove of precious gemstones such as amethyst, rhodochrosite and smoky quartz. Aquamarine, the mineral found 13,000 feet above sea level, is even the official state gem.
The state’s rivers likewise wash gold dust and occasional gold nuggets down from rugged glacier-carved slopes, according to the Bureau of Land Management for Colorado.
The unusual, often-grueling hobby has gained more followers in recent years thanks to a Colorado-based reality show called “Prospectors.” The show details bombastic gem-hunters scavenging the central Colorado mountains for purported riches such as the aquamarine that is said to be hidden in Mount Antero just outside of Buena Vista.
Rockhounding is the more accessible form of prospecting, longtime diggers say. They say there are more places to find hidden gemstones than there are to find gold nuggets. That’s mostly thanks to gold being searchable by metal detectors and other man-made devices, hence there being generally less of it that hasn’t already been found.
To find a crystal or a gemstone, you have to pretty much see a needle in a haystack. That’s because you’re looking for something the size of an egg, buried deep in the ground in a vast mountain range. The hobby can sometimes feel like the ultimate exercise in Quixotism.
“It’s not something you really see, not in the dirt,” Heiden says. “Basically, it’s hard to explain.”
But when you see it you know, these same digger say. If you know the signs. It could be folds in the earth, a vein of pegmatite or a difference in crystallization amongst the rocks.
Recreational prospectors are not really methodical about their process. They say you can only learn to gold-pan or rockhound by being willing to get your hands dirty — whether that’s picking up a shovel and going out digging on your own or with other people.
The BLM in Colorado says recreational rock collecting and gold panning are allowed on most of the state’s public lands, except for certain designated areas, such as wilderness areas, Wilderness Study Areas, and developed special management areas or recreation sites. Prospectors can also collect precious and semi-precious gems without a permit as long as it’s a “reasonable” amount and as long as the activity is for personal use and not a commercial purpose. That amount is further defined by the BLM as “the maximum amount which one person can fit in a five-gallon container in one day.”
The BLM says individuals do not need a permit for mining as long as their equipment is non-mechanized, meaning it doesn’t have a motor.
Either way, it’s always good to check with state regulators or with someone overseeing the area you plan to visit, given that even some of the reality stars of the “Prospectors” were slapped with citations over not having the necessary mining permits.
As with all outdoor activities, there are some general etiquette rules to follow. Like the well-known hiker’s adage, “pack it in, pack it out,” the recreational prospector’s adage is similar: “Leave it as you found it.”
Another rule about recreational prospectors: they don’t like to divulge exactly where their treasures are buried. Finding where to prospect is like hearing a tall tale, where truth and fiction have merged so much over time, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two.
IF YOU GO
Recreational prospecting resources.
BLM of Colorado – www.blm.gov/co/st/en/BLM_Program/recreation/Recreation_Activities/rock_collecting_and.html
Colorado Mineral Society – www.coloradomineralsociety.org
Where to Prospect – www.salida.com/salida-best-of/best-of-salida-rockhounding.html, www.coloradoprospector.com