The gold prospector of Colorado

DENVER — Donning overalls, a plaid long-sleeve shirt and a beat-up old miner’s hat, this 74-year-old prospector from New Mexico looks exactly the way one would think he would.

Stan Gurley has panned for gold for 14 years in Colorado, from Silverthorne to Grand Junction, to Leadville and Breckenridge. And he doesn’t just pan for gold — Gurley goes back in time as he shares the history of panning while he shovels and sifts through gravel, rock and sand.

“[Gold panning] gives me a rush,” he said.

Gurley first dabbled in gold panning in the Mojave Desert, where he claims there is still much gold to be found. For this member of the Gold Prospectors of Colorado, which has existed since 1974, gold panning is more than a hobby — it is a ritual that takes him back to the days of the Gold Rush. 

”What can I say? I love doing it. I was a roofer for 38 years and raised my family on it. So being outdoors is my forte,” Gurley said. ”Our club is … one of the only clubs in the state of Colorado that owns their land and can work them.”

Rachael Storm, the curator of business and industry for History Colorado, said that long before settlements were constructed for gold panning, there were Hispanic settlements established for sheep herding and cultivating beans and chilies.

“Kind of two things happened right at the same time: mining and ranching. There was no Colorado yet. We had New Mexico, Mexico, and Western Kansas Territory,” Storm said. “In 1858 we had some folks come out looking for gold. And then the next year, when the Gold Rush started in 1859, that same year was the year that several gentlemen from Texas started driving longhorns up. Mining and ranching is the base of our economy.”

Storm said cities such as Cherry Creek, Littleton, and Dry Creek were built during the Colorado Gold Rush.

“The first census that includes Colorado — what will eventually become [the] Colorado Territory — happened in 1870 and there are almost no women in the entire territory. It’s almost all men. They want adventure. They are the second sons of Midwest and East Coast farmers. They’re looking for a different kind of life. They don’t want to be tied down to land. This was a big adventure,” said Storm.

For Gurley, that adventure continues in the present day. One of the biggest challenges, he explained, is water.

“Prime season is right at the end of winter, just before the snow starts to melt,” Gurley said. “You want to be careful about getting in the water, number one, because you never know what's under — the current can take you away. And second, we have to be careful of what you do out there. You'll be in waders and they can get filled up, you get drowned.”

Gurley likes to pan for gold in areas considered public lands. Anyone interested in panning for gold should first confirm with the Bureau of Land Management what is considered to be public land. Nicolas Sandoval, a geologist and the mining law program lead with the Bureau of Land Management confirmed that some public lands are special to certain clubs or organizations.

“A prospector that has any questions on locations where they can conduct casual use activities, they would have to do their diligence to find on the map if these lines are open and one way is to ensure that they’re not developing resources on an area where they shouldn’t be,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval encourages those interested to reach out to the local field office geologist or the Forest Service Range District to learn where gold panning is allowed.

People can also pan for gold during gold mine tours. Chris Stone owns and operates Hidee Gold Mine Tours, LLC in Central City, just outside of Blackhawk.

“The thrill of discovery is paramount. Gold fever is very, very real,” he said. “There’s no other way to put it, that it turns into a lot of fun as a kid. I liked it because I tried to go out and get rich, and as I got older I liked it because it was a good family event, relatively affordable, and we’re blessed to be in the Rocky Mountains.”
Before Gurley even takes out his pan, he fills up a bucket with rock, dirt and sand. from the riverbank, which he shakes and sifts through until only the finest pieces remain. That’s what goes in his pan, which he’ll stratify further in water.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS.

Stone has operated his gold mine for 20 years. With his uncle, he started gold panning in other areas of Colorado in the early 90s.

His family has a history of mining. They owned a mine just outside of Carbondale. At the time, Stone was too young to work in the mine, so he would resort to fishing or gold panning with friends or his cousin.

“It’s better than chasing bears and falling into holes,” Stone joked.

Like Gurley and Storm, Stone loves the adventure of gold panning. “Not only do I do it professionally, I just enjoy it. I mean, I do like doing what I do up there. It’s been a lot of fun through the years. I encourage people to get out and don’t get too caught [up] in trying to make money or spending a lot of money.”
With shovels, pitchforks, buckets and boots, there’s a lot of equipment that goes into finding even the smallest flakes of gold.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS.

Gurley’s wife has even joined him on his adventure of gold panning. “It kind of makes me upset, though, because she's taken over as women's first-place champion and I never got in first place,” he said. “But I've got plenty of seconds.” 

Gold panning is not designed for those used to instant gratification — it requires extreme patience and can take a full day of sifting only to walk away empty-handed. 

So what keeps prospectors such as Gurley coming back?

“The fever! The thrill of finding it. It is an underground animal. I mean it's hard to explain,” he said. “I guess it depends upon the person… And me, I love the outdoors. I'd rather be outside sleeping on the ground than be in my own bed. You know, it's just the way I am.”