The California Hills still have gold in them. The area is rich in history, and the old mining towns tucked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range have stories to accompany them. Most are stories from the Gold Rush Years, which occurred in the late 1800s.
Just recently, my 11 year old son took a strong interest in gold panning. His request for his birthday was to go looking for nuggets in the California Hills. This sounded like the perfect adventure for our family. After some research and a solid recommendation from one of my coworkers, we booked a trip with an outfit called California Gold Panning.
Our adventure started with driving to the mountains. This took some time. We left the San Francisco Bay Area and allowed two hours of driving time to reach the town of Jamestown, California. We had lunches packed and changes of clothes, in case we should get wet or dirty. Afterall, panning for gold in a river is most likely to end up with someone falling in!
We arrived at our destination, a parking lot at the end of a road, and located on the edge of a river. Our gracious hosts greeted us and introduced us to the world of gold panning. They set us to work, shoveling mud from the bank of the river and demonstrated how to set it through the strainer. The strainer was set atop a large bucket, and it caught the large rocks, allowing all other smaller material to settle into the bucket. The children loved shoveling. Our hosts instructed us where the best locations were to collect the mud and sediment that may harbor the gold. The activity was labor-intensive, but also super-fun. The children loved using their shovels to collect large amounts of material for the buckets. Some of the material they collected wasn’t exactly what was instructed by our hosts, but they were having fun, so we didn’t squash their fun-bubble!
Once we had a full bucket of strained muddy sediment, we then took turns pouring it through a sluice box. This contraption is like a ramp with grates that is set in the river stream. As the mud is poured through the running water, any gold settles to the bottom of the grating. Gold is markedly heavier than water and river sediment, so it falls to the bottom faster than other items its size. We repeated this process multiple times. Our party of three adults and three children filled six buckets in three hours. This doesn’t sound like much, but we all felt we worked hard for this tally. We were laughing, telling stories, and even catching frogs amid the gold hunting process.
Once our family felt we were finished with digging, straining, and sluicing, we notified our hosts. They took the sluice box and poured it into a pan. Our host demonstrated how to swirl the contents in the gold pan to pull out the gold. The pan looked like a wok with grooves, and these ridges function to catch the gold. While shaking and swirling the pan, our host showcased consistency in his motions, making sure any gold worked its way to the bottom of the pan. Shaking in a hasty fashion or tilting the pan too quickly can cause prospectors to miss out on small pieces of gold, as this precious material may get mixed back in with the rest of the material and accidentally discarded. The key is to take time when inspecting the residue and not to rush. Gold can often be very small and easy to overlook.
Our first official prospecting adventure yielded four gold flakes! Two of them were quite meaty in size. Our family, and especially my 11-year-old birthday boy, were super happy. Our group was also filthy: mud was sprayed across everyone’s shirts and foreheads! If mud is a sign of fun, then we hit the payload! My family was also super happy visiting the local ice cream shop prior to driving home!
Gold panning is a century-old practice, and it continues to captivate individuals with its promise of unexpected wealth. By using a pan to extract gold from river sediments, the prospector's patience and skill is put to the test. We definitely found out that it took multiple hours to extract a few gold flakes. But what a thrill!! The excitement of gold panning lies in the unpredictable nature of the activity, where the outcome is always a surprise. My children loved every moment, and our family enjoyed taking the time to bond in the riverbed. Gold panning not only provides a taste of history but also a sense of adventure. Like most things, practice is crucial. The more familiar you become with the process, the more efficient you'll be at spotting that elusive glint of gold.
I may not quit my day job, but I would love to head to the foothills for another fun day in the river!