The heavy runoff from last winter's snowpack means potential good news for prospectors
Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine," James Marshall shouted when he spotted a glimmer in the American River. Nearly 150 years later, geologists estimate that California's Gold Country still contains as much as 70 percent of the gold it did in 1849. And experienced miners think this will be an unusually good season to find it. Placerville prospector Paul A. Bailey credits last winter's heavy rains: "All the water dislodged boulders and trees, and released pockets of gold." Of course, even in this very good year, the odds of striking it rich with a pan at water's edge are slim. (One Sunset writer spent 3 hours panning a small stream near Placerville and came up with...one tiny gold flake.) But spending time beside a Gold Country stream has other rewards.
START WITH A PAN (AND MAYBE A LESSON)
You're looking for placer gold - gold eroded from hard rock, then washed into Sierra foothill streambeds. Basic equipment is a vial (to put your gold in), a small shovel, waders if you don't want wet feet, and a gold pan. The process sounds simple. You load the pan with sand and stream water, and swirl the mixture around until the heavy gold settles to the bottom. In practice, though, the task requires finesse and a teacher. Bring along an experienced friend, or take a panning lesson.
Any stream crossing the Mother Lode between Downieville and Mariposa has potential. Chambers of commerce in towns such as Grass Valley, Auburn, Placerville, and Mariposa have information on favored local spots. So do mining equipment stores. Stretches of foothill rivers run through private lands and, hemmed in by barbed-wire fences, are obviously off-limits. But gold panning is legal throughout portions of national forests, BLM lands, and many state parks. Some public lands have prior mining claims on them, though, so check with these Forest Service offices before you pan: Tahoe National Forest, (916) 265-4531; Eldorado National Forest, (916) 644-6048; Stanislaus National Forest, (209) 532-3671; and Sierra National Forest, (209) 297-0706. …