Thursday, August 9, 2012


 The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a citizen’s advisory group termed the Resource Advisory Committee (RAC).  I serve on the Front Range RAC with headquarters (BLM District Headquarters) in Canon City, Colorado.  At our recent quarterly meeting, held in Salida, the RAC had an opportunity to visit the gold placers along and near the upper Arkansas River.  The BLM has authority over much/most of the public land along the river from Leadville to Canon City and beyond to Pueblo.    They manage (very well in my opinion) the river for a variety of activities (often in conjunction with Colorado Parks and Wildlife as the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area) including fishing, hiking, mountain biking, camping, rafting and other water activities, and recreational gold prospecting.  Campgrounds (Railroad Bridge, Hecla Junction, Ruby Mountain, Rincon, Vallie Bridge, and Five Points) are well maintained and busy in the summer months; prospective campers should examine the possibility of making reservations.  I prefer Ruby Mountain since fishing is readily available, hiking is very nice in the adjacent Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area (proposed as a National Monument), and pounding the rhyolite for red garnets (the “rubies”) is often productive.  Hecla Junction sits at the end of Browns Canyon and is near the site of an old fluorspar mine where “massive” (non-crystalline) fluorite may be collected.  Railroad Bridge is popular with gold panners.

Fishing for trout in the river is considered as world class, and a variety of river outfitters provide white water rafting, kayaking, and fishing opportunities.  However, visitors may try their skills along any of the numerous parking areas or campgrounds.

Gold panning brings many visitors to the Arkansas River and prospectors should be aware of special regulations and the fact that some claimed land exists along the river corridor.  Travelers interested in prospecting might want to examine the BLM's LR2000 database ( or contact the public room at the BLM state office for additional information (303-239-3600).  Another way to enjoy panning on the River is to join one of the local "gold clubs" such as Gold Prospectors of Colorado ( and participate in club activities.
The geology of the upper Arkansas River valley is interesting to say the least.  On the west side of the valley lays the Sawatch Range with 15 peaks, including Mt. Elbert (at 14,433 feet Colorado’s highest), exceeding 14k feet. The Valley is at an approximate elevation of ~7600 so there is a topographic relief of nearly 6800 feet.  The Sawatch Range is a large Laramide (refers to a crustal shortening mountain building event in the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary, ~72-~50 my) anticlinal structure that at one time included the southern part of the Mosquito Range east across the Arkansas River.  During the late Tertiary, a crustal extensional event culminated in a series of block faulted mountains and basins in central Colorado. The major topographic and structural feature in Colorado is the Rio Grande Rift Zone that trends from near El Paso, TX, to near Kremling, CO.  The Rio Grande River in New Mexico and Colorado, and the upper Arkansas and Blue rivers in Colorado all flow in grabens created in the fault system.  A graben is a down-dropped valley created by parallel faults on either side of the valley.  The rift system in the upper Arkansas River valley effectively split the Sawatch Anticline into two segments: the Sawatch and the Mosquito Ranges, separated by the Arkansas River.  This, and later, faulting helped create the spectacular topographic relief between the river valley and the mountains—Elbert, and other mountains, simply seem to rise straight up out of the valley.  

One particular area of interest for recreational placer miners along the upper Arkansas is an area known as Cache Creek.  Located near Granite, CO, along a creek flowing into the Arkansas with the same name, the placer area has a long history of producing gold. Discovered in 1859,  the gravels were first worked with pans and hand sluices but  low summer water flow in the creek hindered operations.  By 1863 water ditches diverting water had been dug and by 1889 hydraulic mining was dislodging tremendous amounts of gravel with major water resources being piped over the divide from Clear Creek to the south.  Most production had shut down by 1911 when Canon City and Pueblo successfully sued the gold companies for degrading (high sediment load) the water in the Arkansas River.  The BLM believes this was the first successful environmental lawsuit in Colorado.
 As with many/most former and “old” mining areas, fine gold was left behind by the hydraulic miners in the spoils area. And, for nearly 100 years the area was visited, on a somewhat sporadic basis, for recreational panning.  In 2000, the BLM acquired in excess of 2100 acres from the Conservation Fund.  The original goal of the BLM, in acquiring the acreage, was to help protect critical elk and riparian areas along the creek; recreational access was secondary in nature.

Since the Cache Creek acreage was acquired through a “recent direct purchase”, the General Mining Laws (43 CFR 3809) do not apply---the land cannot be claimed by private individuals or groups.  So, the BLM assumed that placering usage at Cache Creek would remain low (180 operating days) and therefore allowed the use of mechanical sluicing or high banking in a 26 acre core area.  The agency envisioned small scale recreational panning and sort of a “family orientated” activity.

 Wrong.  The “recession” arrived, the economy tanked, the price of gold skyrocketed, and miners were somewhat successful.  In addition, Cache Creek was well advertised in “prospecting magazines/journals” and on television and soon the place was crowded and any semblance of habitat was being destroyed, especially in the 26 acre core area.  People arrived from all parts of the U.S., many staying for the entire season (Memorial Day to the end of November).  Cache Creek was “in trouble”:  trees were being undercut and presented a danger to miners, “coyote holes” were dug and in danger of collapsing, water was being illegally diverted from private lands upslope from the BLM plot, sedimentation was vastly increasing, and miners were often in conflict with each other.  Cache Creek often resembled the boom mining areas of 150 years ago!
 The BLM needed to take steps to control the situation and begin doing so at the start of this decade: a camp host was installed to help with dispersed camping problems and try to answer questions of visitors, undercut tree were eliminated and other large trees were marked with orange rings to signify “no undercutting”, law enforcement and other BLM personnel made more frequent visits, and mechanical sluicing (high banking) was eliminated.  “Things” have improved but the BLM needs to formulate additional plans and locate resources to pay for the mitigation.  For example, usage remains high, increased sedimentation is an increasing problem, and the diversion of water on private land seems illegal (my opinion).  The RAC and the Royal Gorge Field Office will work together to formulate options.