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Where to Gold Pan for Free in Coloma, CA

I've been gold prospecting for 11 years, mainly in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County, Arizona, where I found over 8 grams of placer.

A 49ers Story

My most recent short trip outside of Arizona was for 3 days in August, 2011. The intention of the trip was to celebrate my father-in-law's 90th birthday in the Central Valley of California. But what else might I do with my time?

The answer came pretty quickly since this is an area in which the quest for gold opened up the west in 1848. In fact, this was the first place! While building a saw mill, James W. Marshall found gold in the Coloma-Lotus Valley. His partner John Sutter is also well-known for starting Sutter's Fort in 1839. The fort was built in the same location as the state capitol, Sacramento.

As we traveled north, we climbed many rolling grass-covered hills peppered with oak trees. The area is referred to as the Sierra Foothills. The landscape is truly beautiful. There was little traffic as the spots to see up the road probably attract visitors with an interest in history or camping. I don't think you can beat this area if searching for a laid back, cool place to camp. Most of the little towns we passed were popular among the mid 19th century prospectors who took part in the gold rush. These include names like: Mariposa, Coulterville, Sonora, Columbia, Angels Camp, and then Sutter Creek, Placerville, and Coloma.

Having prospected for gold in Arizona for 2 years, I am always curious about where gold might be found when on a vacation. I believe gold can be found in all of the U.S. states, so where might an individual be able to pan for gold without violating federal, state, or local law?

It turns out that there is a wonderful spot where people can enjoy nature and pan for gold for free. The place is the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park in Coloma, CA. We drove up Interstate 5 from Southern California north to U.S. 50 to CA-193 North which meets CA-49.

Not all those who wander are lost.

— J.R.R. Tolkien

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park

As you approach the park from the south the major streets form an L. Cold Springs Road intersects 49. Just a little farther up 49 and you are in the park.On both sides of 49 there are lots of things to visit. You can see the gold discovery museum, mill site, and Marshall's cabin. Fourth graders annually are transported to this park to learn about an important part of California history and history of the United States. They have a chance to look for curios at Beakeart's Gun Shop. Trough mining and gold pans can also be rented there. Students get to see the Sutter's sawmill replica a little further up the road.

The visitor center is next to the Gun Shop with plenty of parking. The ranger at the visitor center told us that if we were primarily interested in gold panning we could drive across the street to the Mt. Murphy Road bridge. Across that bridge (solid concrete and looks just as strong as it was when built in 1911) panning is allowed just on the northeast shore of the American River. You may only use your hands and the pan to dig. NO OTHER TOOLS ARE ALLOWED. We displayed our cashier's receipt ($7 for seniors 62 or over) on the dash of our truck and parked just beyond the bridge on the side of the road. Six spaces are available if you want to get close to the panning. The walk from the visitor's center is short, so if the spaces are full, not to worry.

There is a marked trail that goes from the side of the road down to the shore. There you can walk until you find a nice spot to pan. We headed for an area with some tall grass and vegetation. Here you can see large rocks that had been swept up on shore by the strong current. I decided to get some material up the bank a way instead of panning material under the water. At a spot where the water seemed to have slowed down near a small bend, I began to pan.

I panned for about 30 - 45 minute intervals. My wife and I took breaks behind a screen of vegetation, and we were visited by a duck and her young. These critters were very friendly and allowed themselves to be fed by hand. Then it was back to the bank. After about 2 hours, I made a discovery.

On the downward side of a big rock on the bank, I dug some material and went to the river to pan. There, as I got through a little black sand (there isn't much), I saw a yellow sparkle that you couldn't miss. I have provided a photo to show that there is some gold in the American River. I didn't get much, just a little flake and a tiny piece of quartz with a tiny flake attached, but it was worth the effort. We had enjoyed the outdoors where it was cool near the river, and we enjoyed the lure of the hunt. Most amateur prospectors aren't in it for the money anyway. We were there a little less than 5 hours and only encountered one other family group.

Marshall Monument, which is on the southwest side of the park, was a delightful spot. You can hear the river very clearly from there, as you view the river and the opposite bank. See photo. Moving along High Street east and north you encounter Marshall Cabin, the Jail Ruins, and much more. A detailed map is a big help.

Learn Where to Pan

Reasonable and Relaxing

We made this a 2 day trip; it's a great get-away on a budget. The price of gasoline notwithstanding, prices in the area were reasonable - we had a room at a hotel for $59.

Most of the sites to see extend on either side of the road for a bit over one mile. If panning for gold is a secondary concern, and you are looking for a relaxing place to vacation, the area in and around Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is a fun place to be. If you want to take a vacation and gold panning is your primary concern, you might want to pass this up. But then again, you never know where those big nuggets lie!!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 John R Wilsdon