Upon first glance, this part of Clear Creek in Wheat Ridge does not bring to mind thoughts of precious metals. Rusted industrial pipes protrude from the brambly terrain like snakes being charmed. In the creek, a row of ducks suns themselves atop a concrete parking bumper. Hopping a wooden fence from the bike path to get down to the water, I clock an empty bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade tucked into a nest of dried grass.

Yet, there is gold here.

I’m at Arapahoe Bar Gold Panning Park, a favorite local spot for gold prospectors in Denver, novice and expert alike. There are plenty of spots to find gold across the state—Finding Gold in Colorado has lots of resources for where to go and the Golden History Museum & Park also has guides in its library. But Arapahoe Bar Gold Panning Park is one of the better spots, mostly because the original prospectors from Colorado’s gold rush did not work that area. 

Before you rush out to pan for riches, it’s important to know the laws. In certain parks, such as Arapahoe Bar, gold panning is only allowed within certain limits, and the boundary is designated by neon signs on either end. If you’re in a state park, any nuggets you find are technically state property and must be reported to park staff. (Though the state says it is “generally OK to take flakes.”) The Bureau of Land Management allows people to look for gold with basic, non-mechanical equipment on most public lands without a permit, but some areas, such as the Arkansas River area, do require permits. There are also mining claims in many areas, and violating one can result in arrest. So, make sure to do your research if you are thinking of going outside of a designated area.

gold panning
Jason and Angela Tinder with friend Pat Widener pan for gold along Clear Creek. Photo by Georgia Perry

While cautiously climbing over slippery rocks to get to the water, I ran into Angela Tinder, her husband Jason, and their friend Pat Widener. Pat and Jason started prospecting for gold together eight years ago, while Angela just got into it a couple years back. “If you love being outside, in the mountains, or playing in the mud,” she says, then there is a good chance you will find prospecting fun, too. Plus, there is just something about discovering gold, seeing it sparkle in your pan. “Instead of in a jewelry store, under a glass case. You actually see it naturally. It’s an excitement I can’t explain,” she says, adding that the closest thing she can think of that compares to it is summiting a fourteener.

“The allure of gold has captivated humans for hundreds of years. Its discovery here was the spark that brought dreamers to what would become Colorado in the first place,” says Mark Dodge, curator of the Golden History Museum & Park. “That fever for discovery, adventure, and a rich experience still draws them today.”

“Rich experience” is the key phrase here, because striking it rich in the monetary sense is unlikely.

Over time, most experienced gold prospectors purchase increasingly sophisticated equipment to keep up with the habit. “For the most part, what you’re going to do is go out, work your butt off, and you’re going to spend $100 to find $10 worth of gold,” James Long, president of the Denver-based club Gold Prospectors of the Rockies told author Ian Neligh in his book Gold!: Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies. In the book, Neligh followed several dedicated gold prospectors in the state, and the consensus seems to be that finding thousands of dollars worth of gold dust (nuggets are incredibly rare) is definitely not impossible—a veteran prospector he profiled claimed he once found $62,000 worth of gold in three months’ time—but if you’re at that level, you are probably reinvesting all of your time and energy into your continued search for more gold.

But that possibility of striking gold, pun intended, is what keeps prospectors coming back. Plus, to get started, all you need is a pan (which starts at $10) and immense determination. More and more people are doing just that, says Jason, “since that stupid show came on!”

Jason is referring to Discovery Channel’s reality TV show, Gold Rush.

A couple years ago, a producer flew out to meet him and Pat. “For a while we thought we were gonna get on the big show,” Jason says. “It went really well,” but then the TV station decided to put their episode on the back burner.

For those who might be interested in panning for gold, here’s a tip, courtesy of the Tinders: When holding the pan, in order to get the rocks and sand out but keep the gold, you’ve got to tip it downward at such an angle that you’re going to naturally fear your gold is going to fall out as you rinse with water. But the gold is heavier than the rocks and dirt. You need to trust. Trust that it won’t slip out of your grasp.

“It’s mind over matter,” Angela says.

How to get started gold panning

Purchase a pan or, better yet, a basic tool set which includes a second finishing pan and screen to separate sand from gold, as well as some bottles to test different areas. You can get these materials from Gold-N-Detectors in Golden for $30. You will also want a garden spade to dig, and two five gallon buckets, which you can get from a hardware store.

For tutorials on the fundamentals of how to gold pan, check out this resource on Finding Gold in Colorado, which includes a half-hour instructional video from Colorado gold pan master, Freddy Dodge.

Once you have found gold, you can once again visit Gold-N-Detectors to sell it back—under normal circumstances. COVID-19 has put some restrictions on the business (they also normally provide hands-on tutorials) but owner Bill Chapman says he can connect you with local buyers.