Where to Gold Pan for Free in Coloma, CA - WanderWisdom - Travel
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Where to Gold Pan for Free in Coloma, CA

I've been gold prospecting for 10 years, mainly in the Bradshaw Mountains, Yavapai, 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!!

Great Tips on Finding Gold

© 2011 John R Wilsdon


John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 23, 2012:

Hello GoGreenTips,

I don't make much money prospecting. I find the process of trying to find gold an adventure. Most of the time amateur prospectors recover, in Arizona, rather small flake in rather small amounts. Once in a while you will come upon a small nugget.

The recreation and camaraderie are what I enjoy. Of course, there always is that chance you could hit the big one (like the lottery!).

Greg Johnson from Indianapolis on September 23, 2012:

Interesting hub! I never knew that one could pan for gold and congratulations for finding some! Do you make much money from panning for gold?

Derdriu on November 26, 2011:

john000: What an excellent, informative, practical recounting of a rare adventure in panning for gold within a state park! It is wonderful that such opportunities still are possible since they give one such a sense of cultural history and geographical place. This is the stuff of which unforgettable field trips and family stories are made.

Thank you for sharing your expertise and your adventure, voted up, etc.,


hanwillingham on October 20, 2011:

Good hub and very interesting!

Certified Gold on October 13, 2011:

Sounds like a fun day with the family! Very fun to read Hub! Cheers!

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 06, 2011:


Thanks. That's the key, isn't it, "It won't make you rich but sure is fun."? I have about a thimble full of gold flake after trips over 3 years! But it sure is exciting.

Lenore Robinson from Delaware on September 06, 2011:

Enjoyed your hub. Sounds like fun and would like to give it a try. Beautiful pictures!

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on September 05, 2011:

Floating mind. Thanks for commenting. I belong to a prospecting club in Arizona, and it is great fun to go on an outing. One of our recent members moved from Vermont. 2012 is right around the corner!

floating mind from Chicago, Illinois on September 05, 2011:

Good hub. I thought I was the only one walking around with an interest in finding out what it is like to pan for gold. On the eastern have the country, you can pan for gold in the Potomac river. New Hampshire and Vermont also have good places to pan for gold. I have been looking into planning a trip to one of these location to try panning for myself. Current plan is during 2012.

PETER LUMETTA from KENAI, ALAKSA on September 05, 2011:

A fun read and something I have done a few times as I traveled through California. Lot of color in the sands there, won't make you rich but it sure is fun. Thanks,