THERE MIGHT BE GOLD IN THEM THAR MOUNTAINS
By Andy Dennison
Gold on wash pan. Courtesy photo.
There’s nothing quite like getting “color in your pan.”
That flicker of gold flake among the swirling sands is stunning. It connects you with Deep Time, with the magma-hot wonders of the Earth’s crust.
And it makes you want more.
Such was the case for the thousands who heard the gilded siren call of the Gold Rush to California, Colorado and anywhere that the precious shiny metal might be found. Quite a few came to the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where the gold camps of Elizabethtown and Twining sprung up to house, feed and entertain the miners.
But in the northern reaches of the Land of Enchantment, the gold lodes didn’t compare to more prominent goldfields in Colorado, California or Nevada. Therefore, the gold rush in these parts was rather muted, despite a promising string of 12,000-foot-plus high basalt peaks which have borne gold… but not to bonanza proportions.
The largest gold producer in New Mexico history was the Aztec Mine, east of Elizabethtown on the slope of Mt. Baldy, now on Philmont Boy Scout Ranch property. But most gold-bearing lodes around here are difficult to get to — and not worth the effort. So, by the end of World War II, most fortune-seekers had left New Mexico for more profitable goldfields in the West.
What they left behind is known as placer gold — the result of forces of erosion that broke the gold away from its home rock and moved it downhill to the streams. It’s what can be captured in a pan or sluice and, to this day, still courses out of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and settles in stream beds below.
So, to find out where to go to find that mesmerizing color in the pan, The Taos News’ Summer Guide went prospecting and found Jerry Becker, who lives in Angel Fire and runs gold-panning excursions around the area. A native of Texas, Becker has been to most of the gold-bearing terrain around, has explored the relics of the bygone Gold Rush days, and has put his pan in most of the water that flows off the slopes of the Sangre de Cristos.
“I got my first flake in Moreno Creek near Eagle Nest,” said Becker, who retired to this area in the late 1990s. “I was so excited I thought my blood was going to boil. You just can’t describe the feeling.”
Gold in vial. Courtesy Photo.
Here’s Becker’s basics: Placer gold comes as flakes or nuggets. Once in a stream, the gold moves down according to the force of the flow. Where the water slows, either at a bend in the river, behind a boulder or in a more level area the gold — heavier than the other rock — drops out and settles among the sands and gravels. That’s where you can dip your pan, swirl it around water and … eureka! … there it is!
In order to give others a chance to feel the thrill of dipping into a high-mountain stream and coming out with gold, we asked Becker to give us a rundown of the most promising spots in and around Taos. All are under U.S. Forest Service purview and, thus, can only be worked by hand.
Pioneer Creek flows north off of Gold Hill into Red River. It was the site of several producing mines in the 1870s and 1930s (the poverty of the Great Depression propelled many to go to great lengths), but they shut down in World War II because the war effort needed the iron from old mines. What is called gold flour can be found “almost anywhere in the gravels” of Pioneer Creek, says Becker, especially after flooding. It’s one of the few areas you can get to in a two-wheeled vehicle.
Twining, now known as Taos Ski Valley, had a significant gold camp in the 1890s. Within 200 yards of the ski town, old mining equipment can be found among the overgrowth. Placer gold can be found “all over the area,” says Becker, including the upper reaches of the Río Hondo (Bull O’ The Woods) off the aptly named Gold Hill, and Lake Fork River out of Williams Lake below Wheeler Peak.
Placer Creek, also sourcing in Gold Hill, is fed by gold-bearing bedrock that is close to the surface — often within a foot. That makes panning productive, but getting there is a hump. The old road, blasted out in the 1870s, requires an ATV or hardy four-wheeler. The old mine became a Super Fund site in 2003 because of heavy metals migrating out of the old tailings.
History tells us that no one’s going to get rich on the gold in Northern New Mexico. So, these days, putting a pan into the gravels of a stream is more a pastime than a money-making venture, says Becker.
But you never know. The glint of gold flake in the pan always says that there’s a big lode somewhere up above.
Therefore, the siren’s call will never die.