1. American River
This was the river that started it all. Gold was first discovered here at Sutter’s Mill, and gold was soon found all throughout the river. This was the richest river in the entire state. Between all the different forks of this river, there are literally hundreds of miles of gold-bearing water here.
A great area that you can prospect today is at the Auburn State Recreation Area. This area provides many miles of access for prospecting and other recreational opportunities.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma is another popular destination for gold panning. You can purchase a permit at the park’s visitor center, which allows you to pan for gold in the river.
2. Kern River
Kernville and Keyesville were the two major mining towns that sprang up when gold was first found in the Kern River. Rich placer deposits were also found in nearby Greenhorn Creek.
There is good access at the Keyesville Recreational Mining Area, which provides 400 acres of access for prospectors. Visitors can try their hand at panning for gold, using sluice boxes, highbankers, and other small-scale mining equipment. The area is open to the public, making it a popular spot for both beginners and experienced gold prospectors.
3. Santa Maria River
Gold can be found in the Santa Maria River in Southern California. The gold here is very fine, and finding access to the river will be challenging. There are even reports that miners have found gold on the beach in the area where the river enters the Pacific Ocean.
4. San Gabriel River
Gold was first discovered in the San Gabriel Mountains in 1842, several years before the California Gold Rush of 1849. This discovery led to a rush of prospectors and miners to the region in search of gold. This has always been a popular area for prospectors due to its proximity to Los Angeles.
The East Fork of the San Gabriel River is considered the richest part of the river.
Unfortunately, some of the best areas for gold prospecting are now off-limits because of the formation of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. This is Forest Service land that includes some of the richest areas for prospecting.
5. San Diego River
Mining in San Diego County has a very rich history, with small mines dotting the landscape of this harsh desert. Placer deposits can be found in many dry washes and gulleys throughout the vast region. No surprise that gold can be panned from the San Diego River.
This area sits well outside of the best known mining areas in California, but the amount of mining that has taken place in this far south parts of the state is actually quite astounding. There is very little water here, so your prospecting methods may need to be adjusted. Major flooding events in the desert can help to move gold, replenishing placer deposits that were “mined out” by the early miners in the region.
6. Colorado River
The might Colorado River actually has a great amount of gold. However, most of it is so fine textured that it’s difficult to actually recover. Further upstream in Grand Canyon there were some historic mining efforts to extract the fine gold from the gravels. Most of these efforts ended in failure.
This river flows through seven states, but by the time it reaches California, any of the gold that has made it this far is almost certain to be microscopic particles and extremely challenging to recover.
7. Sacramento River
The Sacramento River flows well west of the richest gold areas in California, but since the waters that feed into it include the Feather River and American River you can bet that there is some gold here too! Since it isn’t as close to the source most of the gold is finer textured.
Of course, most of California’s richest rivers (American River, Feather River, Yuba River, etc.) all flow into the Sacramento River. During major flooding events, fine gold dust can move great distances. There are certainly some fine gold deposits that could be prospected in the Sacramento River.
I once encountered two prospectors up near Redding that were running Gold Cubes with a water pump to process fine gravels on the banks of the Sacramento River. They let me look in the top box to see what they were recovering, and I will just say that the amount of gold they were recovering was quite a surprise.
8. Feather River
The Feather River drains the northern extent of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and is part of the richest mining areas in California. Oroville, Nelson’s Camp and Rich Bar were some of the best mining areas, but there are literally dozens of historic mining camps along the Feather River.
The area around Oroville and Yuba City are incredibly rich with gold. Lots of ground was churned up by bucket line dredges. There is still plenty of gold here left to find.
Heading north up the Feather River Canyon there are miles and miles or river, although it is heavily claimed today. Consider exploring some of the tributaries that feed into the canyon, as these also contain a lot of gold.
9. Yuba River
The Yuba River is another one of the major gold rivers in California. The town of Downieville was one of the main gold camps during the California Gold Rush. There is lots of gold all throughout the river. Some big gold nuggets have come out of this river as well. Lots of hydraulic mines and dredge fields are located in the Yuba River country.
South Yuba River State Park is a popular destination for gold panning. There are specific areas within the park where visitors can try their hand at gold prospecting. The park provides information on permits and regulations. Only “hands and pans” are allowed.
Some private claims and resorts along the Yuba River may offer access to gold panning for their guests or members. Check with these establishments for availability and any associated fees. This is a good option throughout the Mother Lode Country, as much of the best ground remains claimed up.
10. Cosumnes River
There is a lot of gold still left to be found from the Cosumnes River. The early miners worked the areas around Indian Diggings, Grizzly Flats, Michigan Bar and Buck’s Bar. This is still rich gold country and worth exploring. The many tributaries to the river throughout the El Dorado Natural Forest offer great prospecting opportunities.
11. Tuolumne River
This is another very rich area that is great for gold prospecting. Most of the mining takes place upstream of Lake Don Pedro in the main river, as well as the many creeks that flow into it. You can find gold just about anywhere in this area. Just make sure you are on public land and aren’t on anyone’s mining claim.
Sonora is one of the most well-known mining towns in the region. It served as a supply center for miners and a hub for mining activities along the Tuolumne River.
Columbia is another historic mining town near the Tuolumne River, known for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era buildings and artifacts. It’s now a state historic park.
Jamestown is a town in the Tuolumne River area with a rich mining history. Visitors can explore Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, which showcases the area’s mining and railroad heritage.
12. Merced River
One of the main dredging fields in California was at Snelling on the Merced River. The area produced millions in gold over the years, with much of the production coming from the bucket dredges operating in the mid 1900s.
The Merced River Recreational Area is a great spot to check out. It offers the opportunity for casual prospecting along a proven area of the Merced River.
13. San Joaquin River
This is the longest river in the Mother Lode Country, and many of the richest rivers in California drain into it. Although it was never as rich as the rivers that were close to the source, there is decent gold in many areas. Use a gold pan to check the gravels and see if you can turn up a little “color.”
14. King River
The King River is south of the richest golden rivers of the Sierra Nevada, so it never got much attention during the height of the gold rush. There isn’t too much gold here, but you can still find a little bit hidden amongst the gravel.
15. Mokelumne River
There are tons of great areas to explore along the Mokelumne River. Some of the earliest camps were Campo Seco, Camanche, Jackson, Lancha Plana, and San Andreas. It wasn’t long after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill that gold was found on the Mokelumne River.
Mokelumne Hill, often referred to as “Moke Hill,” is a historic gold mining town located near the Mokelumne River in Calaveras County. It was founded during the Gold Rush and was once a bustling center of mining activity. Today, Mokelumne Hill retains its historical charm, with well-preserved buildings and historical markers. Visitors can explore Main Street and learn about the town’s Gold Rush heritage.
16. Calaveras River
Rich veins of gold in quartz were located near Angel’s Camp that fed the placer deposits of the Calaveras River. There are many hard rock mines in this area and the river is full of gold. Other gold camps along the Calaveras River include Jenny Lind, El Dorado and Calaveritas.
17. Stanislaus River
There were once thousands of miners at the town of Sonora working to recover gold. There were several large hydraulic mines in this area. Hildreth’s Diggings were near the town of Columbia and there were thousands of miners working here too. Today you can pan for gold at the Columbia State Historic Park.
18. Klamath River
The Klamath River is far north of most of California gold country. Many don’t even realize that there was gold mining up this far, but actually the Klamath River is absolutely loaded with gold. You can recover gold around the town of Yreka, following the road all the way up to Happy Camp. Some very, very big gold nuggets have been mined from the mighty Klamath.
There’s a lot of good ground along the Klamath River that is claimed up by a prospecting club called the New 49ers. It’s a relatively expensive club to join, but they have access to miles of rich area adjacent to the Klamath River. A hard working prospector could probably make their money back in gold.
19. Trinity River
The Trinity River is another great place to prospect for gold. One of the biggest mining camps in this area was at Weaverville. There were some huge hydraulic mining operations here, but there were also many prospectors that searched the small creeks in the area. This area has loads of gold. In fact,
I know people who use metal detectors in this area and find many ounces of gold nuggets each year. There are lots of ancient bench deposits on the mountains above the river, and there are rich gold deposits throughout this country. There’s still a lot of potential for miners in this region.
20. Salmon River
The Salmon River is a rich tributary to the Klamath River. You really have to work to get to this area, but it actually was one of northern California’s richest rivers. This flows through a region that the old-timers called the “Northern Mines.” Many great areas to explore in this remote area.
21. Scott River
The Scott River is another rich tributary to the Klamath River. It’s a long drive for most people to get here, but it is a really beautiful part of the state with a lot of rich gold mining areas. The river itself certainly has a lot of gold, and you will find that pretty much all the tributaries will produce some gold as well, with a rich gold belt that spans north into Southern Oregon too.
Additional Information about gold in California: