Feeling Lucky? Here’s How to Pan for Gold in California Right Now

Could the Big Melt yield more fortune? Probably not.

gold panning in california
Display of real gold on one hand and Pyrite, also known as Fool's Gold, on other | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Display of real gold on one hand and Pyrite, also known as Fool's Gold, on other | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

I’m standing calf-deep in icy water, panning for gold, while I worry the rest of me is getting a sunburn even though I’m wearing SPF 50. The water is swollen and rushing quickly downriver, and I’m scared to venture much deeper because the American River has already claimed two lives this season. This is the real deal experience, poised a nugget’s throw from where James Marshall squatted and found a huge chunk of gold in a sawmill tailrace in 1848, starting the Gold Rush. Marshall’s clutch for a glinty thing forever changed the face of California and spelled disaster for Native American populations. Here at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, California, structures interpret the event; there’s a replica sawmill, museum, sacred Nisenan chaw-se (stone for grinding acorns into flour), Mormon Battalion cabin, Chinese Joss House and other areas that make it clear that the rush for gold was an international phenomenon. People came from all over the globe.

Earlier, I learned how to pan for gold at the troughs set up for schoolchildren, elbow to elbow with kids working hard for that gold fleck or a seeded garnet to make their day. But now I’m in the river alone, looking for a hunk of gold. And although I’m physically uncomfortable, I can see the allure. It’s like the casino; you just want to try one more pan before you give up. I’m ready to share the tips to do your own gold panning, but first, we must attack a myth.

Many people are talking about how the “big melt” is stirring up riverbeds and uncovering more gold, giving way to a second Gold Rush. It’s absolutely true that California has seen record amounts of precipitation this year. Golden Gate Weather Services reports that in Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe, roughly equidistant from Coloma, the rainfall as of this date has been 139 and 177 percent of the regular full-season rate, respectively. So will we see large nuggets drifting from the depths as water aggressively swirls across riverbed soil? Not so hasty there, Jedidiah, and hold your horses, Nellie.

“When the Gold Rush happened, we always say that gold had been depositing here for 300 million years since the Jurassic period,” says Steve Hilton, deputy district superintendent and supervisor of the Cultural Resources Programs for the California State Parks Gold Fields District. “One good season of rain doesn’t replenish that gold.”

Marshall Gold Discovery State Park
Marshall Gold Discovery State Park where gold was first discovered in 1885. | Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

All over the region, you’ll find “tailings” or large piles of rocks left over from hydraulic mining, the environmentally destructive practice of using machinery to blast water at sandbanks to loosen the gold from the rock. After that kind of treatment, the river will unlikely yield much more than flecks. “Dredging and corporate mining endeavors to turn rivers from their natural banks allowed miners to expose and collect much of the gold. While there is still a lot of gold left that gets eroded, much of the easy pickings have been collected,” says Hilton. Still, people happily pan, and there’s always a chance that a Eureka moment will happen. Here’s how to make it more likely.

Here's how to try your luck 

1) First, get a pan. They’re for sale at most Gold Rush sites in northern California. You could also stop by Placerville Hardware, purportedly the oldest hardware store west of the Mississippi, in nearby Placerville (placer being a kind of gold). In this charming, historic store, there are still holes drilled in the wooden counter to capture tiny flecks of gold from when miners would weigh their take. But you can use any shallow bowl.
2) Look for slow water, says staff services analyst/volunteer coordinator Jerrie Beard. If there’s a tree in the water catching swirls of flow around it, that indicates an ideal place to dig with your pan. Gold is heavy, so the more that water is slowed down, the more chance gold sits in the sediment.
3) Dig your pan in deeply. Wedge it into the sand/soil at the bottom of the river as far as you can. You’ll now have a pan full of sand, rocks, water, and hopefully gold.
4) Raise your pan back above the water and start swirling the water around the pan in a circular fashion. This moves undesirable elements to the top of the water, while gold sinks to the bottom.
5) Start rinsing. This means you must slosh the top level of your contents back into the river–it’s horrible because you think there probably is a big nugget in there, and you’re losing it. But you must trust in the weight of gold.
6) If you have an “official” pan, there will be ridges inside the rim. Beard says you should rinse as many times as there are ridges because the ridges will potentially retain gold for you as you slosh out grit and pebbles. Hold the pan with the ridges away from you. No ridges? No matter. The 1800s miners didn’t have them either.
7) Keep swirling water around the pan until you get a clear view of what’s left in it. Look for flecks of gold, not silver. Both are shiny and get you excited, but silver indicates “fool’s gold” or pyrite.
8) Have a small vial or water-filled vessel handy to hold your gold. Press a dry finger onto the fleck and then carefully drag your finger over the lip of the vial to release the flake inside. Beard recommends doing this over the pan in case you drop it. At Coloma’s gold panning troughs, staff have this down to a science; there are built-in holders to keep your vial upright while you continue to pan.

I did have a great day both at the trough and in the river but came away with a little fortune, four flecks the size of an ant. To me, the true wealth came from contemplating the Grandmother Rock, across the river from the gold panning beach. Here, Nisenan women ground acorns to feed families for so long that the rock bears deep holes from their rock-on-rock grinding over the centuries. It takes 100 years to go 1 inch into the rock, and some of these holes are 12 inches deep. Beard asked the schoolchildren to do the math, and they gasped when they came up with 1,200 years—and the Gold Rush was not even 200 years ago. It puts everything in perspective. “Gold only has value when we put value on it,” Beard told the schoolchildren during her tour. “The Nisenan didn’t value gold.”

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Erika Mailman is a contributor for Thrillist.