Sunday, August 19, 2018

Gold Prospecting from Denver up to Central City on Clear Creek

There’s no doubting that my absolute favorite hobby is gold prospecting. I try to get up to Colorado two or three times a year to chase the pretty yellow stuff. I have also prospected in North Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota. I guess you wouldn’t call me a greenhorn anymore haha.



Most people don’t know there is gold right in the Denver area. In fact you can get some flood gold right in view of the Denver skyscrapers. The old timers discovered gold in the area in 1858 around the site of present-day Confluence Park. After grabbing the easy gold. They then set about looking for the source of the placers they had found. Testing as they went, they followed the golden trail up into the front range out by Idaho Springs and Central City. From there very productive hard rock mines began popping up and a genuine Colorado Gold Rush took shape.  By 1860 the mining town of Central City had a population of 10,000.

Nowadays the hard rock mines have pretty much all shut down thanks to the EPA coming in and imposing environmental rules that turned large scale mining into an unprofitable enterprise. The good news is that there is plenty of gold up there still.  Here's some ore from an old mine tailings pile from a previous trip:



Clear Creek runs down the canyon from Central City and has decent flood gold washing down from the sources above. Each spring the snow melt redistributes and replenishes the flood gold in the creek. I’m going to try to give some ideas of where and how to get into Clear Creek so you can find yourself a little of your own Colorado flood gold.

First off let’s talk about flood gold. What it is and how to find it.  It is very fine (nothing like the picture above).... sometimes it even floats in your pan. You need to be a pretty skilled planner and quite meticulous to grab this gold. Personally I have a different tactic when working on Clear Creek. Gold recovery is about volume. The more dirt you process the more gold you’ll get. Makes sense right? Well, so very often you’ll see someone working a pan and just take forever. They’ll work the material a little bit. Then look for gold. Then work it some more and look again. Thirty minutes later they’re still on the same pan.

Honestly you aren’t going to get much gold like that. Remember, the more material you get through the more gold you are going to have at the end of the day. Here’s the strategy I take if I am only using pans and not my sluice. I take the big gallon ziploc baggies. I’ll dig and classify my material and then pan it down about 90%. Once I have it down to that final 10% I empty it into the ziploc baggy and start on another pan.

This strategy allows me to avoid that final 10% which is the most tedious and time consuming part of the panning process. It allows me to get through a lot more dirt and thus theoretically grab a lot more gold in the end. I take the ziplocs home with me and do the final processing there when I can take my time.  Now if you want to really run more dirt get yourself a little sluice box and really get after it. You’ll be able to process many, many times the dirt and be more efficient as well.

Did I forget to mention the garnets in Clear Creek? Yepp that’s right Clear Creek is full of beautiful little red shining garnets. I enjoy the garnets almost as much as I do the gold honestly. I have vials of the little gems at home. So don’t just tune your eyes to looking for the gold in your pan also look for the little red shining garnets.

Also be on the lookout for river glass. They look like beautiful shiny gems and are bigger than the garnets. I’ve found really pretty reds and greens. They have been rolled and tumbled downstream and are nice and smooth. I usually find a couple pieces a day when I’m prospecting. You’ll swear they are gems but it’s just really pretty tumbled glass. Super cool stuff though!



So let’s talk about some actual places to get in Clear Creek and find some gold. The most famous spot is the Arapahoe Bar. The old timers discovered a huge placer deposit here on the flats just outside Golden. The Arapahoe Bar has been worked extensively though. Two large bucket line dredges raced through here in the 1860s grabbing as much gold as they could.

The good news is that there is still gold here. As I said earlier every spring the snow melt brings more gold down the creek and onto the bar. Typically I like to go on up Clear Creek into the canyons west of Golden but I did spend some time on Arapahoe Bar this year to check it out. There is a little parking area and after about a hundred yard easy walk you are at the site.


The material on Arapahoe Bar is quite different from higher up Clear Creek. There is much more black sand present and the black sand is chunkier and bigger. The black sand up above is finer and much less concentrated.

I did find the garnets to be more plentiful on the Arapahoe Bar. So one bad and one good haha. Anyway, I brought home a big bag of concentrates from my day but I have yet to process it. The information I am giving here is from what I saw in my pans at the site.

I have hopped in Clear Creek a little further east at Prospect Park but did not have any luck and have no plans to return.  There are many better places in my opinion! 

Typically I head west from Golden up Highway 6 to do my prospecting. It’s more secluded so I’m not overrun with other prospectors. I prefer my own little spot to enjoy the beauty of the mountains. Plus I figure the closer I am to the hard rock sources up in Central City the better the gold should be right?

The drive up Highway 6 is simply beautiful. A winding canyon road with big cliffs on either side. Clear Creek crashing along beside you. A few fun little tunnels to navigate and some fearless rock climbers to watch. Truly a gift of nature.


There are several pullouts on the drive. This is where you are going to get your access to the creek. You’ll probably have a little hike but it’s no big deal unless you are lugging a big cooler or something like that. My advice is to pack light. Water, sunscreen, a few granola bars, a couple gold pans, classifier and your ziplocs should suffice. A nice five gallon bucket is useful. Remember, the more you hike in, the more you have to hike out at the end of the day. You’ll be tired from a day on the river and you’ll also have many pounds of dirt to hike out. Be smart!

I’ve tried several spots on Clear Creek and have had success at every point.  At the first tunnel heading up there is a parking area.  Clear Creek winds around a little mountain while the road tunnels right through.  There is a nice trail that follows the creek around the mountain.  It offers a couple of easy access points.

Keep heading up the canyon towards Central City and you will be offered plenty of places to access Clear Creek.  There are pullouts every so often.  Just pick a nice spot and go try your luck. There's gold everywhere to be found.

FYI the water is colder the higher up the mountain you go. The highest point I ever tried to prospect the water was so cold I could barely work in it. The result was a little hike up the mountainside where my girlfriend Taylor found a cool old miners cabin from back in the day.


I looked around and found a high bench the miners were working. I dug myself out a bucket from the high bench to process as you can see.


Anyway, I hope this helps you out in your quest for some beautiful Colorado Clear Creek gold. Enjoy your days in the creek and good hunting!

If you are up for a little more adventure and better gold I recommend heading about two hours west of Denver out onto the Arkansas River and a place called Cache Creek. Chunky gold and open to the public from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You can read about my adventures out at Cache Creek here.

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