Panning for gold in California’s Gold Rush sites

posted May 26, 2016

Panning for gold in California’s Gold Rush sites

Today, California may be better associated with blockbuster screen moments, sunny beaches and culturally significant cities, but the west coast state has a ‘rich’ history to rival the glistening of Tinsel Town.

Also known as Gold Country, California was once the centre of the most prolific Gold Rush ever experienced in the USA. Make like the early prospectors on your holidays to America and discover this area’s unique treasure in our guide to exploring California’s Gold Rush sites!

California’s ‘golden’ history

Liberated in 1776, the United States of America found itself in a dire financial situation after years of fighting for freedom from British rule. With no remarkable gold or silver reserves to speak of, issuing paper money had led to crippling inflation. A costly resolution to the conflict with Mexico would see the already struggling new country pay out a further $15 million to secure a large area of land – what is now the stretch between Texas and California. What no one had realised before the deal was set in stone was that gold deposits had been discovered just days earlier in a Californian sawmill. This momentous finding would take the area from rags to riches, initiating the events that ensured its statehood and created the California we know today.

Between 1848 and 1850, California experienced the first and largest Gold Rush in American history as people flocked to the region with dreams of making their fortune. In the decade that followed the initial discovery, gold stocks to the value of over half a billion were found in California’s Gold Rush sites, and prospecting folk weren’t the only ones making a profit. Traders and merchants set up whole towns to cater to these early treasure-hunting pioneers, running convenience shops and saloons or selling the equipment needed to collect gold.

“The California Gold Rush was a historically significant event. One of the largest human migrations in world history, the people that settled here represent one of the most diverse populations in the United States,” explains Kristina from the Sacramento History Museum – one of the state’s leading centres for learning more about this important era in American history.

 “The gold that the prospectors sought sparked the imagination and bolstered the courage of the spirited pioneers who made the perilous journey to reach a new land. Many perished and only a few found the fortunes they had dreamed of. This tale of human strength and fragility is universally shared and appreciated by our visitors.”

California gold rush

Where to experience gold rush fever today

If you’re looking to hunt down some of the good stuff for yourself, many of California’s Gold Rush sites remain intact today and some even offer the chance to pan like the prospectors!

Joshua Tree National Park

First-time visitors may want to soak in the state’s spectacular scenery as they gather their treasure-hunting bearings. A Forever West escorted tour is a fantastic way to see more of America’s vast west coast.  Accompanied by a professional to point out significant spots, you’ll visit the stunning National Parks such as Yosemite, Death Valley and the picturesque Joshua Tree National Park. This expansive landscape, named for its unusual yucca plants, makes for the perfect photo opportunity with its mountain ranges, wacky trees and the abandoned gold mining ruins that remind us we’re truly in the Gold Country.

It’s worth noting that many of California’s Gold Rush sites are off the beaten track. Those going it alone on the west coast may benefit from convenient RV hire in the USA for a road trip through some of the most breathtaking scenery America has to offer. 2016 marks the centenary year of the country’s National Park Service. Why not celebrate by planning your own cross country trip visiting some of the 58 National Parks it works to promote and preserve for future generations?

Joshua Tree National Park

Sacramento History Museum

No trip to the Gold Country would be complete without visiting California’s state capital, Sacramento. Its appeal isn’t hard to see as Kristina says: “The weather here is wonderful! We enjoy a Mediterranean climate: mild winters, warm summers, beautiful sunny days and breezy evenings.

“Thanks to the long growing season we have one of the richest agricultural bounties in the United States. And thanks to our wonderfully diverse population the variety of foods you will find here is amazing. And the spirit of the West lives on. Our pioneering ancestors left a mark that you can still feel today. Dreamers are welcome!”
For those seeking out California’s Gold Rush sites, The Sacramento History Museum provides the complete history of the area. From its original inhabitants – the Maidu and Nisenan tribes – to the adventurous settlers who came in search of gold, the museum tells the story of the people who lived in and built the Sacramento we enjoy today.

Along with many interactive exhibits explaining the city’s golden heritage, the museum also encourages guests to try their hand at gold panning or explore the historic district on a Gold Rush Experience walking tour.

Sacramento History Museum

Empire Mine State Historic Park

Boasting both exceptional access to the state’s hard-rock mining heritage and beautiful gardens and fountains to boot, Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley is a must-visit location for anyone interested in unearthing California’s Gold Rush sites.

Courtney from the Empire Mine Park Association describes the park’s continued significance in the area’s gold mining activity: “Since the discovery of gold in Grass Valley in 1850 by George McKnight, the county’s history changed dramatically. Suddenly, miners from all over the world, including Cornish tin miners, flocked to be part of the action.

“With its stamp mills thundering 24 hours a day, Empire Mine was a leading source of employment and prosperity. Today, Empire Mine continues to attract people from all over the world, and welcomes around 100,000 visitors each year.”

During its heyday, Empire Mine was one of the original, largest and more prosperous hard-rock gold mines in North America. In its 106 years of operation between 1850 and 1956, the mine was responsible for producing a massive 5.8 million ounces of gold from its impressive 367 miles of underground deep mine shafts. Visitors can head to the Visitors Centre and learn more about mining for gold in the theatre by watching Tears from the Sun, a film that sheds light on several industrial dredging techniques including hard-rock and hydraulic.

Seemingly a world away from the industrial mine, tours of Empire Cottage and its splendid gardens reveal the family behind the mine and in particular their taste for Cotswold-style architecture. In 1878, when William Bowers Bourn Jr. inherited the mine from his father, he had the famous San Francisco architect Willis Polk design Empire Cottage in the quintessentially Victorian style. Tours of the cottage, Mine Yard, Clubhouse and gardens make it clear that “Empire Mine remains a rare combination of elegance, gold, grit and glory,” says Courtney.

Empire Mine State Historic Park

California Cavern

California Cavern, a State Historic Landmark in Calaveras County, has a rich history in gold associated with it. Organising cavern tours across a number of California’s gold rush sites, including the black Chasm Cavern and Moaning Cavern Adventure Park, Cave & Mine Adventures says the California Cavern cave was “one of the first and only, as we know, to be used as a hotel and storage for the hotel.

“When the hotel was established, a town developed from there, all to extract the gold from the local creek located just outside one of the cave entrances. Some of the old foundation footings are still present from this 1800s town known as Cave City.”

Families can join in walking tours of this cave, learning about its Gold Rush connection and discovering a different kind of treasure – the remarkable crystalline formations along its ceilings. Brave explorers, on the other hand, can take the underground exploration one step further. The Mammoth Cave Expedition is not for the faint-hearted, involving squeezing and crawling through California Cavern’s natural passages in 13 chambers, but those who dare are in for a treat with awe-inspiring views and the chance to learn more about this historic site.

If you’re hoping to get hands-on and find some gold of your own, gold panning on site is just the thing. The 100-foot mining flume at California Cavern offers young prospectors ample opportunity to learn the panning technique and gather some gold of their own to take home in a vial.

California Cavern

Image Credit: Empire Mine State Historic Park, Sacramento History Museum, Hey Paul (

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