There’s something appealing about sloshing a pan of dirt around in the frigid meltwater from mountain peaks, your fingers turning a painful cherry red, for the chance of finding colors in the pan — the tiny, elusive bits of flour gold that are so small you have to gather them up with an eyedropper.
“It’s gold fever — the hope of getting rich,” said Betsy Tomlinson, who co-owns Country Boy Mine in Breckenridge with her husband, Doug. “I see it with people when they find one piece.”
The couple purchased the historic Country Boy Mine nearly 20 years ago to open as a tourist attraction, where guests can now venture nearly 1,000 feet into the underground, hard-rock mine before trying their luck gold panning and visiting the burros and other attractions.
“We have an underground spring in the mine that goes by the vein structure that is constantly replenishing our stream,” Tomlinson said. “We named it Eureka Creek. People pan in the stream, and we find gold every day — not every person, but every day. It’s a lot of fun.”
The biggest piece they’ve found to date was the size of a grain of rice.
The right equipment
For gold pans, which can be purchased at Country Boy Mine along with other parts of the panning toolkit, Tomlinson prefers metal.
“They’re sturdier, and you can use them as a shovel,” she said, although “a lot of people swear by plastic because of the riffles,” which are designed to catch the gold. With the metal pans, the rust serves as a riffle, she said. On cold days, panners can work their material indoors at the blacksmith shop, and on sunny days, there are views from the stream. “The technique is easy because it’s fill, shake, splash,” she said.
What’s not always easy is the patience required. In any case, it’s a chance to experience Colorado history.
“The streams here still have a little gold in them,” said Dave Philips, jeweler at Summit Gold in Frisco, who has tales of folks using metal detectors for some good finds. “I won’t name any names, but one guy with a metal detector, five or six years ago, found three nuggets, which are very unusual up here. Between them, they weighed 2.5 ounces.”
Although he has panned for gold and owns a sluicebox himself, Philips said that “it is the hardest work you will ever do, guaranteed. You’ve got to have a good back. The bottom line in gold panning is numbers. Even if you’ve got a good spot, the more dirt you go through, the better you’ll do.”
Thrill of the hunt
Gold panning is about “the thrill of finding a big nugget,” said Gary Beaderstadt, of the Gold Prospectors of Colorado, host of the annual Colorado State Gold Panning Championships, which took place in Breckenridge last year and will be in Cripple Creek this year. Participants compete in speed panning, skill panning and dry panning. But it’s also about the camaraderie, Beaderstadt said. The group hosts outings on its four claims along the Arkansas River and six claims in Fairplay, where members pan for gold, learn about equipment such as the Desert Fox — a machine that separates gold from the black sands for you — and help one another out.
“We all realize that we are not going to get rich — but you never know when you are going to find a big nugget,” Beaderstadt said.
For an exhibit about mining techniques that includes gold panning, check out the free, self-guided Frisco Historic Park and Museum at Second and Main streets in downtown Frisco. Both Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort offer faux “gemstone” panning for tots, along with other summer activities.
The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance also hosts two sites that offer mine tours and gold panning. There’s panning in the creek at Lomax Placer Mine on Peak 8 and a sluicebox panning experience at the Washington Gold and Silver Mine in Illinois Gulch.
“It’s not easy,” said Cindy Hintgen, operations manager for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. “That’s why there are very few millionaires.”
But it still makes for a fun day in the sun, and she reminds families not to forget the sunscreen.
“Practice” is the key to success, according to Stephen Medlin, a bearded and grizzled prospector who leads tours at the Lomax Placer Mine. Medlin has hunted gold around the world since the 1970s. But as for his Summit County finds, he remained tight-lipped.
“Why give away the keys to the bank?” he asked.
“Even though we didn’t find any gold, we found other cool stuff,” said Tessarae Harris, of Kansas, who panned for gold in the Lomax Placer Mine stream with her brother Malachi on July 6. “This is the most mud I’ve ever played in.”
“For the price, this is a really good time,” said her grandmother, Danita Jones. “What do kids like to do better than to play in the mud and the water?”