Forged in the frenzy of the gold rush, Sacramento isn’t just the capital of California -- it's also the oldest incorporated city in the golden state. Infused with an instant population boost thanks to the sudden influx of miners hoping to strike it rich, the city formed its charter in 1949, merely a year before statehood was granted. Over 150 million ounces of gold -- most of it from the hills, rivers and streams surrounding Sacramento -- have been produced since those early miners hit town. Geologists say more gold remains to be found, which is why, more than a century later, gold panning is still a popular -- and sometimes lucrative -- pastime.
Gold panning, while not the most efficient, is nonetheless one of the oldest forms of gold prospecting. The equipment needed is minimal -- a pan and a shovel are the basics, although a strainer is useful for weeding out larger rocks. Gold pans range in size from 10 to 17 inches in diameter and come in a variety of colors, usually black, blue or green. The color is important because it allows smaller flecks of gold to stand out once sand and other debris has been washed away. While the state parks surrounding Sacramento allow gold panning, enthusiasts are warned to seek permission before prospecting on private lands and to watch for posted claims.
Auburn State Recreation Area
A good place to try your hand at panning for gold is the Auburn State Recreation Area, located east of Sacramento on State Highway 49. The park covers a 20-mile stretch of the north and middle forks of the American River. This is the first river prospectors worked after gold was discovered downstream in Coloma, and panning along its shores is still a popular activity. Because this is a public area and claims can't be filed, the entire area is open to prospectors. If you want to spend the night, Auburn State Recreation Area includes two river-fronting campgrounds: Mineral Bar, located on the north fork of the river; and Ruck-a-Chucky, which is recommended for high-clearance vehicles since access to the campground is over dirt and gravel roads.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park, situated on the south fork of the American River, is the site where gold was discovered in 1948 by James Marshall. To this day, the area remains a popular gold panning site. If you're new to the craft, the park offers gold panning lessons on a daily basis for a nominal charge, and several local businesses sell gold pans and other supplies you'll need. New prospectors should know, however, that some of the river is off-limits to panners due to mining rights and prior claims. You can try your luck on the northeast shore of the river by Mt. Murphy Road Bridge; panning is also allowed along the mile-long Coloma Resort riverfront campground for all registered guests. The resort features both RV and tent sites in case you'd like to stay awhile.
Eldorado National Forest
Another popular prospecting area is inside the Eldorado National Forest near the original gold discovery site east of Coloma. This vast woodlands contains over 677,000 acres of mountains, forests, rivers and streams stretching all the way to the Nevada border. The forest service says that many streams and rivers are still gold-bearing, but in an area so vast, finding a spot might be a little overwhelming. A good place to start would be the park's Pipi campground on the banks of the middle fork of the Cosumnes River. Panners consider this a rich river, since gold has been found on the sand bars and along the shore. With 51 sites on the riverbank in the campground, you can stake out a site close to camp without a lot of trudging through the brush. There's also a general store for supplies and a restaurant as well.