Most of the gold in the Colorado rivers is placer gold, as fine as flour from a stone mill. So if you look at the Uncompahgre river as a 75-mile-long stone mill, you will see that it starts above Ouray, working on chunks of bedrock and veins of quartz, and ends up at confluence park, all sanded smooth and laid in beds. Gold still lays in wait in the gravel bars, locked in the tree roots, and under huge boulders, along the entire 75-mile length of the river, allegedly. But this is Colorado, so it's not going to be easy. You'll pour the gold right back into the river if your technique is not excellent. For this reason, many folks give up the search: panning is easy to do but not easy to do well.
For the most part, it is a patient man's pastime, full of steadiness and long hours listening to the en white noise of the river. But, every once in a while, it's more than a flash in the pan. Everyone dreams of sinking their shovel into a pile of yellow-golden sand or plopping a tiny leather bag full of the heavy dust on the bartop in Ouray and loudly demanding a sasparilla. For the hearty folks full of gumption and apple pie, it's a pretty easy past-time to get into, considering you are willing to put in the work.
First, go say hi to Dave Lehmann at The Prospector in Delta. He sells pans and all the stuff. In fact, prospectors come from all around the western US just to see his showroom. It's worth a trip to Delta and a great place to start your research. According to Lehmann, the best resource for the newb is the book (and website) "Finding Gold in Colorado" by (Kevin A Singel). This book covers the whole state, but there is a chapter that focuses specifically on the Unc.
But, before you sashay out to start splashing your pan, it's a good idea to research the rules and regs for the area you are going into. Most public lands allow casual prospecting and allow you to take out flakes and specks. Still, nuggets and lumps sometimes have to be reported (in the state parks, for instance). Once you have a destination in mind, go all WWW to determine which field office oversees that area. Call the office, or better yet, stop in and ask in person. According to Lehmann, every district is a bit different, and the regulations can and do change regularly.
Also, you might want to connect with the local chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, which can help you find local claim owners and get you in touch with someone that caught the gold fever long ago. It's at least as infectious as the most aggressive strain of Covid, they say, so be warned.
"Most folks are really willing to help out," says Lehmann, "but then again, some are not." It's just a matter of finding what works for you; like so much in life, panning is like that. It's infinitely easier to learn something new if you know someone that has done it before you.
According to Lehmann, there is still reason to have caution around these parts when it comes to gold too. "Claim jumping is trespassing on someone else's mineral rights," he says, "and you might end up with a bullet," he adds, as he chuckles nervously. "There are two types of thinking on this," he says, "some people don't put signage on their claims because it's like saying it's here for the taking." But, he adds, others want enough signage to be able to prosecute if they find you "jumping" their claim. Best to do your homework, and around Ouray, it's a complicated mess of private and public lands.
Where to go, where to go? On the Upper Unc, the Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour is an excellent (think safe) place to bring the family panning for a small fee. The Ouray City Parks and especially the river park north of town are a great place to get your pan wet. According to Mindat.org, there is a relatively rich placer deposit here. Mine Tailings above and around Ouray often still produce gold. Keep in mind, the headwaters of the Unc are so mineral-rich that virtually all streams, creeks, and rivulets above Ouray carry something of value. And every winter, a bit more is wedged, cracked, and scraped free.
On the lower Unc (from Colona down to Delta), there is a chance to see some color in the pan wherever there is public fishing access. Check out Billy Creek Wildlife Area. The Montrose City Parks give good gravel bar access, especially Riverbottom and West Main Trailhead. Also, Chipeta Lake and behind Home Depot are worth checking out. Most of Olathe and Delta is private access only, but Confluence Park in Delta has it all, literally: it's where the river has dropped its load for as long as man can remember.
Since the Spanish explorers first came through this area in the 1600s, precious metals have been taken from these waters. And long after we are all gone, the gold will trickle down from the high country on its journey. Like a 75-mile-long sluice box, it's sifting and sorting its contents as the heavier metals get pulled down, deep into the dark iron sands - waiting.
Waiting for an adventurous, yet meticulous, new breed of searcher with a bucket of optimism, a shovel, and a pan, it wants to be free. It wants you to feel its weight and impress upon you that craving for more. There's always more, in the next gravel bank or locked in the roots of that big cottonwood. The gold is calling you. It’s just one more shovel. It’s one more bucket of black sand to take home and work in the garage this week. Your share is out there for the taking. Just don't go out and quit your day job - quite yet.
Written by Jacob Wilson
Jacob grew up in the Montrose and Ridgway area. He’s a freelance writer and web content creator. When he’s not busy creating strategic, money-making content for local businesses and blogs, he spends most of his summer at the river park with his daughter and dogs.