10 Free Gold Panning Areas in California

If you want to get out and spend a day panning for gold, there are many places that you can go that donít require that you own a mining claim or get any special permission. Quite a few locations in California have been set aside to allow for recreational prospecting opportunities.

The places listed below are all free locations (some have a small day-use fee) that you can spend a day panning or sluicing for gold. It is always a good idea to check with each park or land management agency to get the latest rules and regulations for that area.

Free Gold Panning California
10 free gold panning sites in California. These sites are open to the public and provide great prospecting opportunities for gold prospectors!


1. Auburn State Recreation Area


This great location to pan for gold is 1 mile south of Auburn, California. It encompasses over 40 miles of the North and Middle Forks of the American River. Both of these rivers have a rich mining history and contain good gold that can be panned.

This was once a great place to metal detect for gold nuggets, but they recently changed the rules and it is no longer allowed.

A quote directly from the California Parks reads:

"Recreational gold panning is allowed only in permanent, running streambeds.
All use of metal detectors is prohibited."

Even with these limitations, there are lots of places to explore. With so many miles of river bank to explore, strap on a pair of boots and see what you can find!

Free Gold Panning California
With over 40 miles of access along the North and Middle Forks of the American River, you'll have no difficulty finding places to prospect in the Auburn State Recreation Area.


2. Butte Recreation Area


Day-use gold panning and sluicing permits are issued for designated areas within the Butte Recreation area located about 25 miles northeast of Chico. Permits are issued at the Redding BLM office.

A permit will reserve approximately 100 yards of riverbank that you will have to yourself, and it costs just $5 per day.

Instructions about obtaining a permit, camping information, and other details are found here in these Instructions for Obtaining a Recreational Mineral Collection Permit Forks of Butte Creek Special Recreation Management Area.


3. Columbia State Historic Park


Columbia was once one of the largest towns in California. Back in 1853 it had a population of 25,000, mostly miners digging in the surrounding area to search for riches. Known as the "Gem of the Southern Mines," it is now a popular tourist area that gets a great number of visitors during the summer. Unlike so many other town of the Gold Rush era, the town was never abandoned.

This State Park is located 3 miles north of Sonora on Highway 49. There are a variety of activities for tourists relating to the gold rush in the area, including gold panning opportunities.

This is more of a tourist destination that a traditional mining area now, but its still a great place to visit and a particularly good option for kids. You can wander around the town and explore miner cabins, the assay office, jail, firehouse and lots more. Check out Matelot Gulch Mining Company to buy pay dirt and pan for gold and gems. You can get instruction from skilled panners.


4. Keysville Recreational Mining Area


Gold was found at Keysville on Greenhorn Creek, a tributary to the Kern River. 400-acres of the Kern River has been set aside by the BLM for recreational gold panning opportunities, which encompasses 1.25 miles along the Kern River. This area is located about 2 miles northwest of Isabella Lake.

Keysville Gold Nugget
The Keysville Recreational Mining area provides ample opportunity for the public to search for gold on the Kern River.


5. Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park


At the famous Malakoff Diggins you can go panning for gold along Humbug Creek near Nevada City. The section that is open for panning runs from Chinese Gardens to Relief Hill Bridge.

This was the site of one of Californiaís largest hydraulic mining operations. Huge hydraulic monitors washed away the hillsides to extract gold from the ancient river benches situated up on the hills.

Mountains were literally washed away at this amazing site. The scars of this incredible mining operation are still quite visible to this day.

You can bring your own pan, or one can be rented from the museum for a small fee. There are also many other activities and things you can explore when you visit this amazing historical site.

The Malakoff Diggins is the largest hydraulic mining site in California. The scars are still evident a century-and-a-half later.


6. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park


This was the site that started it all... where John Sutter discovered a gold nugget that would eventually draw hundreds of thousands of people to California.

Walk down Main Street, visit a replica of Sutter's Mill, explore the Gold Discovery Museum and try your hand at gold panning while you are there.

A location within the park is set aside for gold panning (hands and pans only) on the banks of the American River across from the parks museum. Take Mt. Murphy Road across the bridge and take the Levee trail along the northeast bank of the river.

Several businesses in the area sell gold pans and other basic prospecting supplies if you need them.


7. Merced River


There are several miles of the Merced River near Briceburg that are open to recreational gold panning within the Merced River Recreation Area.

Be aware that there are several miles of open river for prospecting, but there are also some existing claims in the area to be aware of. There is a good BLM map located here that indicates where the existing claims are located.

You can do some panning at McCabe Flat Campground and the Cable Rock Day Use Area.

Merced River Gold Nugget
A nice chunky gold nugget found after a long day of sluicing on the Merced River.


8. South Yuba River State Park


You can pan for gold along the South Yuba River within the Wild and Scenic section between Malakoff Diggins and Englebright Reservoir. Gold panning demonstrations take place at the park during the summer.

This is another "hands and pans" section of the river. This mean that you can only use a gold pan and your bare hands to gather material. No picks, shovels, or other tools are allowed.

Many of the gold panning areas in California are designated as "HANDS & PANS ONLY." This means that you are not allowed to use any larger mining equipment and no special tools. This includes even basic digging tools like trowels and shovels. You can only use your bare hands, or a gold pan to scoop up material.

Tip: In these areas, a metal gold pan can be beneficial. The added strength and sharper edge can work as your "shovel" and allow you to scrape down toward bedrock where the richer gold concentrates will be.


9. Swasey Recreation Area


Small-scale prospecting opportunities can be found it the Swasey Recreation Area near Redding. This area cannot be claimed, so there are historic gold producing areas where you can pan and find gold.

Metal detecting for gold nuggets is very popular here, as well as sluicing in Clear Creek. This is an incredibly rich area that gets less pressure than many other locations because it is located well north of the California Mother Lode.

A good network of bike trails can help you access various areas throughout the area, including smaller creeks and gulches that may also contain gold. There are lots of prospecting opportunities in this area.


10. Trinity River


The stretch of the Trinity River that is open to low-impact gold panning is within the Wild and Scenic area from Lewiston to Pigeon Point.

Other areas that are open to panning are various campgrounds situated along the river that have been withdrawn from mineral entry. This is one of the most beautiful parts of California.

Trinity River Gold Panning
The Trinity River is one of California's true gems. This incredibly beautiful river has a rich gold mining history.

Additional Reading about Gold Mining in California:

California's First Gold Discovery

Kern River Gold

Feather River Gold

Prospecting in Southern California eBook