A Real Gold Rush

We find discovering gold in California’s Mother Lode country is still as exciting as it was for the original forty-niners

Standing in the middle of a clear-running creek in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, I’m rhythmically swirling the water in my black plastic pan. As the sand and gravel begin to settle to the bottom, I find myself staring at a half-dozen shiny gold flakes. And here’s where things begin to get a little weird.

You see, despite the fact that the rational part of my brain knows there’s not enough gold here to buy myself a chocolate shake at my neighborhood In-n-Out, the excitement of my first gold strike somehow makes the half-hour of shoveling and sifting it’s taken to get to this point seem oh-so worth it. I’m also overcome by the notion that I absolutely must get my hands on more of this sparkly stuff, a feeling many of the prospectors who worked this same stream more than a century ago must surely have known.

While filling up a tiny one-ounce vial with these flakes might earn you a nice chunk of change, the appeal of gold prospecting goes much deeper. Simply put, there’s something magical about patiently working your way through a five-gallon bucket of what appears to be worthless gravel to discover one of the rarest and most sought after commodities in the history of mankind.

Gold Prospecting Adventures, which was started by my guide Brent Shock’s father 17 years ago in the small gold rush-era village of Jamestown, offers a range of experiences designed to appeal to everyone from the casual tourist to the hardcore amateur prospector. But make no mistake—this isn’t one of those contrived experiences where someone salts your pan with a few flakes when you’re not looking.

As I stepped into knee-high rubber boots and waded into the water along this shady stretch of Wood’s Creek, Shock started me off with a patient hands-on tutorial on the use of the gold pan. But, while the pan has been a prospector’s primary tool for more than a century, things got a good bit more interesting an hour or so into my visit when he introduced me to the long metal trough known as a sluice box.

Where the gold pan is slow and labor intensive, the sluice box uses the stream’s current to wash away the gravel and trap the heavier gold flakes along a series of small baffles. Since this method allowed me to process about 20 times more gravel per hour, gold flakes started appearing so fast I was sure I’d have enough of the stuff to retire by the time I decided to knock off for the day.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t happen. But I did come away convinced that the payoff for a day spent gold prospecting goes way beyond the value of whatever precious metal you actually bring home.

Xtrordinary Xtra
While it’s still possible to find gold nuggets weighing up to three ounces, they can’t compare to the 75-pound monster a miner pulled out of Wood’s Creek back in the mid-1800s.

Xtrordinary Xtra
If you find you’ve been bitten hard by the gold bug, check out the multi-day courses that teach you the simple techniques that can help you learn how to find profitable gold deposits and stake your own valuable claim.

The Facts
Name: Gold Prospecting Adventures
Location: 18170 Main Street, Jamestown, CA; about 110 miles southeast of Sacramento.
Phone: 209-984-4653
Website: www.goldprospecting.com

My Advice

  • Most gold panning excursions last from two to five hours. You’ll need to sign in at the operation’s shop in town, where you’ll be given directions to their faux 1849 mining camp on nearby Wood’s Creek.
  • Though you’ll have to work for whatever gold you find, how long and hard you want to work is left entirely up to you.
  • Because the amount of gold you find is directly related to how much material you’re able to sift through, we recommend you sign up for the program that includes instruction on both panning technique and the use of a sluice box.
  • Serious amateur prospectors might also want to consider one of the more intensive outings that allow you to process the equivalent of 1,000 pans of material per hour.
  • Because you’re liable to be working here awhile, consider packing a small cooler full of sandwiches, snacks, and cold drinks.