Put yourself in the shoes of the tens of thousands of forty-niners who traveled west in search of gold during the wild 1849 California gold rush.
Buy a gold pan from a mining supply store. In California's gold country, hardware stores often carry them. Look for one that has riffles - bars or slats - and a catch hole in the bottom, since these help the gold to separate from other particles more easily. Plastic pans are generally preferred over metal pans because they are lighter, have shallower angles (which reduces the risk of gold's being tossed out of the pan), and because gold is easier to spot against plastic than against shiny metal.
Before you begin, familiarize yourself with the recreational prospecting regulations of the area in which you wish to pan for gold.
Choose a location along a river or creek to pan. Places where the water slows down noticeably, such as behind sandbars or large rocks, are usually good spots for panning. You can also ask park officials or local prospecting organizations for recommendations about the best places to pan.
Fill the pan almost to the top with sand from the edge of the creek or river. Try sand from various depths. Use a shovel to dig deeper.
Dip the pan's edge into the stream and fill it with water.
Hold the pan with one hand and swirl it to mix the sand. Any gold will start settling toward the bottom of the pan.
Swirl the pan faster. You will lose some of the water, along with lighter particles of sand, as you go.
Begin scraping the top sand out of the pan with your free hand.
Continue until much of the pan is empty, leaving only small bits of gold - if you're lucky - in a little water.
Use tweezers or a pipette to retrieve tiny gold particles and pick out larger samples with your fingers.
Keep all gold samples in plastic vials or sample bottles.