The Gold Rush may be over. But believe it or not, Americans are still searching the West and any other ground that might contain even the smallest nugget of gold!

Panning for gold is something everyone can enjoy. Not only is it inexpensive, but it also combines teamwork and the thrill of the hunt. Imagine yourself among hundreds of grizzled prospectors, sleeping in mining tents, visiting the saloon, maybe getting into a brawl with Black Bart, or chatting with Mark Twain …

One of the best ways to experience the gold-mining tradition as it once was is to saddle up and travel back in time to the beautiful West’s treasured destination: the dude ranch, or guest ranch. And this vacation may earn you more than $2000, and leave you with a golden smile!

How it Began

In the 1880s, the West was a magnet for wealthy foreigners with its abundance of wild game and spectacular sights. Dude ranches were born and began taking in paying customers, or “dudes” as they were called, to help with the ranch in return for horseback riding, fly fishing, pack trips, and more. The world was romanced in the ‘20s and ‘30s with stories of cowboys and Indians and tales of the open frontier and outlaws. Easterners and Europeans that longed for wildlife, clean air, and unspoiled land were also drawn to the West.

In America today, dude ranches thrive in many western and central states. Bookings for 2006 are already about 30 percent higher over this time last year, reports Colleen Hodson, executive director of the American Dude Rancher’s Association in Cody, Wyoming. The association began in 1926 to preserve the western life and land, and to promote safety. To become a member, dude ranch management must complete an extensive two-year inspection and approval process. So choosing a dude ranch on the association’s list will practically ensure your safety and satisfaction.

The association’s original membership of 35 ranches, mostly from the Yellowstone area, has now grown to 100-plus member ranches in 12 western states and two Canadian provinces. The association is proud to maintain the land’s beauty and natural resources while growing the popular business.

Ranches range in their facilities and style. The American Dude Rancher’s Association puts ranches in three categories: the dude ranch, the working dude ranch, and the resort dude ranch. The dude ranch is for cowboys and cowgirls at heart who want to focus on riding, the outdoors, and western horseback activities. The working dude ranch allows you to get your hands dirty while working the ranch and taking care of livestock. The resort dude ranch combines riding with an array of on-site activities, including spas and fitness facilities, tennis, water sports, children’s adventures, and more.

Twin Peaks Ranch, Salmon, Idaho, is a working guest ranch — “We do raise and sell horses,“ says Co-manager Laurie Whitmore; “We raise and sell cattle, and we raise our own hay” — but the work, according Whitmore, is optional. “Our guests can do that if they choose,” she says. “They can come down and help with the horses, or help with the cattle. But we don’t insist that our guests do that, as some ranches might.” 

 Instead, Twin Peaks guests can indulge in a variety of year-round activities, including horseback riding, river rafting, overnight camping, and even helping in a real roundup and cattle drive. “Our activities schedule is what brings most people to us,” says Whitmore, who together with her husband Mike manages the ranch. “And our setting. We sit in a little bowl of mountains … we’re not on a mountain, and we’re not in a valley. People can just sit out on their porches, looking at the mountains. The scenery is just spectacular.”

The Element of Gold

Once you get to your choice of ranch and get settled in, the only elementary supplies you will need for gold panning are a shovel, an old dishpan or gold pan (around $5.00), a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, and a container to hold your treasures. You can find supplies at rock shops, hobby shops, hardware and metal detector stores.

Whitmore says that complete gold kits are sold along the route on one of Twin Peaks’ raft trips. “(The kit) even includes a little bag of dirt that has gold in it, that people can take back and just play with,” she says. “There is a lot of gold panning done in this area.”

A web site to assist in your search is www.goldmaps.com. According to the site, gold prospecting and panning is said to be the nation's fastest growing outdoor recreation. They sell detailed, color maps that will save you time and research, and give you the best chance of success. The maps show where gold has been found, which improves your odds for finding more gold. Their large scale maps explain how to pan, where to look in streambeds, and also entertain you with history and interesting facts.

 “You can even get a little bag of dirt with gold in it. There is a lot of gold panning done in this area.” — Laurie Whitmore, co-manager, Twin Peaks Guest Ranch

The World Famous Gold Prospecting Adventures LLC, located in Jamestown, California, is an exact replica of the original camp build in 1849. The camp has more than 25 attractions and allows guests to experience the fun and excitement of prospecting. They also offer one to three day courses for the gold hobbyist. Their Website is www.goldprospecting.com

Another great resource is the Gold Prospectors Association (GPAA) at www.goldprospectors.org. They make many resources available and provide avid prospectors with benefits such as supplies, training, local support, and their published GPAA Claims Club Membership Mining Guide.

Whether or not you go panning for gold, the dude ranch offers the relaxation, serene landscapes, and cherished history that no other place on earth offers. Depending on location, a dude ranch can be open year-round or seasonally. If you’re planning a winter trip, the Southwest’s warmer climate offers traditional ranches with riding and cattle drives. You can canter across the mighty desert and climb the rocky terrain for amazing mountain and valley views.

If you’d rather enjoy the snow, the central and northern Rockies make for great riding trips with magnificent views of the blanketed mountains. Dude ranches in the winter can also provide you access to winter sports like snowmobiling and skiing or elk and deer hunting. For a more peaceful day, ranches offer snowshoeing or horse-drawn sleigh rides, which allow views of the serene, white-blanketed mountains.

 In fact, the horse is an important part of any dude ranch experience. “It’s the horses,” says Whitmore. “People rode horses when they were kids, and they are coming back to find that — the joy they found in horses when they were younger. They always ask about the horses.” In fact, guests to Twin Peaks are pre-assigned their own horses for their entire stay. “When they arrive they can find one of the wranglers, and we’ll lead them down to the barn and say, ‘this is your horse.’ It makes them really bond.”

So what do you think, dude? Isn’t it time to turn off the cell phone, pack up your boots, and head out West? Saddle up, tip down your hat, and see how your next vacation can be golden!

Twin Peaks Ranch

Salmon, Idaho