Pan for Gold in Northern California
The Gold Rush may be over, but there are still some nuggets hidden in the Golden State’s creeks and riverbeds for prospectors with a little patience. While we don’t recommend panning for gold as a primary source of income, it’s a fun outdoor activity for the whole family and a great opportunity to learn about California history. Whether you strike out on your own or opt for a lesson with an expert, we’ve found the best places to take your family, and what you should know before you go.
Organized Gold-Panning: Exhibits and Expeditions
Black Chasm Cavern, Moaning Cavern These caves, located in the appealingly named Volcano, California, have mining flumes over 100 feet long. Kids are guaranteed success: pay for a gold or gem “bag” and the flumes will be pre-seeded with nuggets and gemstones.
Columbia State Historic Park This well-preserved historic mining town used to be the second-largest city in California. Over a billion dollars in gold were mined here between 1850 and 1870. Now, costumed docents who work in 19th century-appropriate shops and trades, populate it. Take the kids on a historic stagecoach tour and then learn to gold pan at the Hidden Treasure Gold Mine.
Jamestown Gold Prospecting Adventure Guided escorted expeditions from three to five hours, starting from historic Jamestown in the beautiful Tuolumne County.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park For just $7, get a 45-minute gold-panning lesson and get hands-on experience in the troughs at this state historic park in Coloma, just north of Placerville.
DIY Gold-Panning: Where and How to Look for Gold in the Wild
Angel’s Camp Just two and a half hours outside the Bay Area, this historic town in Calaveras County along Highway 49 is a great base for a day of prospecting. Start at the Calaveras Visitor Center and pick up some pans, then stake a claim along the Stanislaus River.
Forks of Butte Creek Recreation Area. A little more than three hours north of San Francisco, the beautiful Butte Creek Recreation Area offers hiking, camping, and is a popular gold-panning destination. Permits are required for gold panning in this area, contact the Bureau of Land Management for a mineral collection permit at 530-224-2100.
South Yuba River State Park This 20-mile stretch of the South Yuba River offers scenic vistas, swimming holes, and independent or docent-led panning opportunities.
Some tips before you strike out:
Be sure you're on public land and recreational prospecting is allowed.
Choose an area where the water is deep enough to submerge your pan completely and water is flowing just fast enough to keep silt moving downstream.
Don't be fooled! Bring a piece of white tile with you. If you find a nugget, scratch it on the tile; if the streak is gold, you've got the real thing! If it's greenish black, you've got pyrite, aka Fool's Gold.
You can buy gold pans online, or use a steel cooking pan from home. For more details and illustrated instructions, see the wiki-how page.
Mallory Pickett is a freelance journalist in Berkeley.