Flash in the Pan

The World Gold Panning Championships are coming to town. Here's how you can become a modern-day miner and find all that glitters.
Go for the gold with Angels Camp-based prospector Mike Darby. (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

Gold Country is about to get its shine on, with the U.S. Gold Panning Championships taking place at the Foresthill Heritage Festival on Sept. 3-4 and the World Gold Panning Championships coming to Placerville Sept. 11-18. Want to try your hand at finding treasure? We found five ways to learn the ins and outs of gold panning, like knocking the precious metal into the bottom of the pan, then using a back-and-forth arm motion to wash the dirt away. Whether you find pay dirt in pre-gilded troughs (think stocked trout farm) or on wild banks, here’s how to make the most of your golden opportunity.

Gold Rush Originals

Folks eager to find gold can hop over to Frogtown—more commonly known as Angels Camp—where prospector Mike Darby leads guided gold panning adventures through his company, Gold Rush Originals. On his three-hour tours, Darby brings the gear—including pans, pickaxes and rubber boots—and takes modern-day 49ers down to nearby streams like Greenhorn or Six Mile creeks, where they can spot shimmering flakes in the wild. Darby also plans to offer overnight camping excursions this summer, which will allow for two full days of hiking and gold panning along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River—and even more chances to feel that gold rush. $35. Tours by appointment. 1227 S. Main St. Angels Camp. 209-736-0044. goldrushoriginals.com

Hidden Treasure Gold Mine

This unassuming gift shop (which was originally built in the early 1900s) in Columbia State Historic Park boasts a treasure trove—actually 20 treasure troughs—in which panhandlers can search for gold morsels. Enthusiastic excavators can choose from three different options, from the Adventure Package (where folks rent a pan, get a group panning lesson and try their luck in the water-laden troughs) to the Eureka Package (a miner helps you pan for gold after the group lesson) to the Golden Deluxe, in which students learn different ways to mine for gems, including using pans and rocker boxes. If you don’t strike gold, don’t worry—the shop sells quartz and gold nuggets that have been mined in Columbia. $5-$12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Daily. 22675 Main St. Columbia. 209-532-9693. hiddentreasuregoldmine.com

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Get gold fever at this historic site in Coloma where James W. Marshall first hit pay dirt in 1848, spurring the 1849 Gold Rush migration to the foothills. The park offers daily gold-panning lessons every hour beginning at 10 a.m., with the last lesson starting at 4 p.m. Meet at Bekeart’s Gun Shop, and head out back for the 45-minute panning tutorial, which is taught in dirt-filled water troughs that have been sprinkled with fistfuls of glistening slivers. (If you’ve ever fished out of a stocked trout pond, you get the idea.) A vial for collecting gold flakes is included with the lesson. $7 ($8 for parking). 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. 310 Back St. Coloma. 530-622-3470. marshallgold.com

Pioneer Mining Supplies

Before you go panning around Gold Country on your own—the activity is allowed along the North and Middle forks of the American River in the Auburn State Recreation Area—stop by Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn to get set up with a lesson from local prospector Gary Shaver. Shaver—who brings the buckets, pans and vials necessary for the venture—takes newbies out to the Bear River campground in Colfax, where he teaches them how to find areas where the precious metal might have settled and how to use a sluice box to wash away most of the dirt before getting down to the panhandling that will reveal the shiny flecks of treasure. Prices start at $30. Lessons by appointment. 878 High St. Auburn. 530-823-9000. pioneermining.com

Roaring Camp Mining Company

Just a short drive from Jackson or Sutter Creek brings fortune seekers to Pine Grove’s Roaring Camp Mining Company, whose guided panning tours take rookie prospectors down to the Clinton Bar in the Mokelumne River Canyon—only accessible via horseback during the Gold Rush, which is why the majority of gold remained after the miners left. During this day-long excursion (10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday through Friday), pan fans can sift for flour gold (the mining term for gold dust) in the river, as well as swim, collect rocks and visit the Trading Post (the on-site cafe) for campground eats like hamburgers and hot dogs. $40 ($35 for ages 10 and under); reserve in advance. 13010 Tabeaud Rd. Pine Grove. 209-296-4100. roaringcampgold.com