It was late January, 1848, and James Marshall was working on a sawmill which John Sutter was building beside the American River. He saw something shiny in the tailrace, and bent over for a closer look. When he stood up, history took a sharp turn. Marshall had found gold, and his discovery became a major cause of one of the biggest voluntary migrations in history.
Gold. The very word has always provoked wanderlust and imagination, excited greed in the purest of spirits. Throughout the history of mankind, the great civilizations have treasured gold-rare, easily fashioned, eternally beautiful. The quest for gold drove Europeans to the New World. Inca and Aztec gold filled the coffers of the Spanish treasury and largely financed the conquest of Central and South America. Perhaps in all of us there is, somewhere, a spark of lust for gold.
The '49ers and others who swarmed to the California fields didn't get all the gold. Some still lies waiting in the rocks and rivers of the Sierra foothills, and it's possible for you to find it.
The easiest and safest way for weekend Argonauts to quest for gold is by panning in the rivers and creeks of the Mother Lode country-as long as they obey the law and mining regulations, respect property rights, and don't wander onto someone else's claim. (In some areas, for example, you're limited to a gold pan and your hands--no other tools allowed.)
Some of the best places to pan for gold are in and near the State Historic Parks which commemorate the gold rush. Even if you don't find a flake or so of gold, you'll strike a rich vein of history.
The following state parks welcome recreational gold panners to try their luck. Most offer gold pans and panning lessons at little cost; rangers can give you advice on where to pan legally and safely. In addition, there are some commercial outfits offering gold panning tours and advice. Most of these areas are located along or near State Route 49 in the Sierra foothills.
The historic parks commemorate the gold rush era of California, with restored 19th century homes and commercial buildings, interpretive exhibits, and living history programs. Some also offer other activities, such as camping, fishing, hiking, shopping, seasonal events, and places to stay and dine.
To find your way, use AAA's Bay and Mountain Region map. For places to stay, check AAA's new Bed and Breakfast guide and the AAA California/Nevada TourBook.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is in the town of Coloma on S.R. 49, 8 miles north of Placerville and 20 miles south of Auburn.
This is where the gold that started the rush was found. You can go recreational gold panning inside the park along a designated half-mile stretch of the American River. A four-minute video at the park's museum/visitor center will give you instructions. Several how-to pamphlets are available at the visitors center for a nominal charge. Gold pans are sold at several locations throughout the park, including J. Shannon Tinsmith and Bekeart's Gun Shop. Bekeart's also gives hands-on instruction in gold panning using troughs at the store. Gold ore is for sale by the bag, including panning demonstration and lesson.
On October 5 and 6, Marshall Gold Discovery State Park will host the U.S. National Gold Panning Championships.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is open 8 a.m. to sunset daily, the museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours are shorter in winter. Day-use fee is $5 per vehicle. Information: (916) 622-3470.
Columbia State Historic Park, on S.R. 49 three miles north of Sonora, includes the well-preserved gold rush town of Columbia, "Gem of the Southern Mines."
Columbia's Matelot Gulch Mine Store and Hidden Treasure Gold Mine offers gold panning lessons and also gold-mining tours. Matelot teaches people to pan for gold via troughs in the back of the store that are salted with gold. Panning starts at $5, including lessons and the guarantee youÕll find gold.
The Hidden Treasure Gold Mine, founded in 1879, is still a working mine today. Matelot conducts bus tours of this mine, 4.5 miles from Columbia, for $7 per seat. On the 75-minute tour you'll learn how gold was mined in the old days, and how it is mined today.
Matelot Gulch Mine Store is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Days and hours vary the rest of the year, so call before you visit. Information: (209) 532-9693.
Columbia State Historic Park has a slate of colorful year-round events. Among them are an art show September 15, a poison oak show September 22, and a fall harvest festival October 13. Information: Columbia Chamber of Commerce, (209) 536-1672, or Columbia State Historic Park, (209) 532-4301. The gold rush burg of Jamestown is three miles southwest of Sonora.
The place to pan in Jamestown is the Jimtown Goldmining Camp, operated by Gold Prospecting Expeditions (GPE). You pan on Wood's Creek with an experienced GPE guide. Panning for one adult begins at $10 for half an hour ($15 an hour); kids 13-17 are half the adult price. The entire family (including three kids 12 and under) can pan for $20 for half an hour and $30 an hour. Prices include lessons.
GPE offers other panning packages, too, combining panning with whitewater rafting or helicopter rides. Gold Prospecting Expeditions is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. GPE also operates in a number of other California locations. For more information, take a look at GPE's Web site  site or call them at (800) 596-0009.
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, 26 miles northeast of Nevada City, is in the "northern mines" region of mountains and pine trees. You can reach it via North Bloomfield Road, part of which is graded gravel, or the Tyler/Foote Crossing from S.R. 49.
The park contains Malakoff Diggins, once the world's largest hydraulic gold mine, where powerful water monitors carved an awesome pit over a mile long and a half mile wide. The park contains the old gold mining town of North Bloomfield, with several preserved buildings, including Park Museum, the park's visitors center.
Gold panning is free. You can sign out a pan without charge, take a how-to sheet, and pan for gold by yourself in a designated area of Humbug Creek. Town site tours and evening campfire programs are scheduled during the summer. Park day-use fee, payable at the museum, is $5 per car ($4 for seniors over 62), $1 for dogs.
The park is open all year around, sunrise to sunset, though access roads, some partially unpaved, can be difficult to drive in winter weather, especially for campers and RVs. The Park Museum/visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the winter.
Campsites and rental cabins are available at the park. For more information about the park or accommodations, call the Malakoff Diggins at (916) 265-2740.
West of Nevada City, you can pan for gold at the South Yuba River State Park Project, a 20-mile stretch of river being studied for inclusion in the state park system.
Most of the interpretive activity and gold panning centers around the historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge; youÕll find it where Pleasant Valley Road crosses the river, 8 miles north of S.R. 20. Regulations for state park lands limit you to mining with "hands and pans" only-no picks or trowels or other tools allowed. There are interpretive programs about the history of the area, including gold panning demonstrations, every Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. through September. Gold pans are available at the park for loan; you can also buy a gold pan at the park office ($6.25).
Note: Some nearby lands are under the jurisdiction of BLM; others are privately owned. In this area, it's especially important to respect the rights of private owners and stay off their property and claims. Know whose land you're on, and what the restrictions are.
There is no camping at the South Yuba River Project. But for day-users, the park is rich with hiking trails, marvelous river swimming, scenic vistas, and historic sites, including the Bridgeport Covered Bridge, the longest single span covered bridge in the U.S. For more information on such programs as bridge tours, wildflower walks, and cemetery tours, call the Ranger Station at Bridgeport at (916) 432-2546.
For more information about gold country, visit www.historichwy49.com .
This article was first published in July 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.