Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular vacation destinations in northern California. So much natural beauty, the water is crystal clear and the granite peaks and stunning vistas are out of this world!
Being that it is in Northern California, it’s not uncommon for folks to bring a gold pan along with them while vacationing here.
You might expect that there would be lots of gold, but there is actually less than you think. Lake Tahoe and the surrounding area are well outside of the known gold districts of the Sierras. But do not fear, just a short drive and you will be in the heart of some of the richest mining areas in the country!
Head West Young Man!
The gold that made the Sierra Nevada Mountains famous were not located in the high peaks, but rather in the foothills to the West.
As you drop down in elevation, you start entering the Mother Lode region of California that started the gold rush to this state. There is so much gold in this area, people can easily find some even 170+ years after the first discover at Sutter’s Mill.
A few areas to check out within 1 hour:
From South Tahoe, take Highway 50. You can find plenty of gold in the South Fork American River near Placerville. From Truckee, head west on Interstate 80 toward Colfax. This will get you in the area of the North Fork American River and Bear River. From Truckee, go west on Highway 20. This will get you access to the South Yuba River and the historic mining towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley. Countless small creeks in the Tahoe National Forest and El Dorado National Forest. Drive west about an hour from Lake Tahoe and you will find that just about every creek has some decent color.
Silver & Gold of the Comstock Lode
Of course, another great gold and silver rush occurred near Lake Tahoe, and they was the famous Comstock Lode discoveries. Minerals valued in the billions of dollars have been mined in the hills around and Virginia City.
Although this region has become more famous for its exceptional silver deposits, there is also a lot of gold in this area. In fact, the discovery of silver ore that lead to the Comstock Rush was made by a gold miners. He was finding gold, but was struggling to deal with a dark mysterious ore that was clogging his riffles. That ore ended up being rich silver.
A few areas to explore:
Go to Virginia City by taking Highway 50 past Carson City. The three main mining town in this area were Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City. You’d be missing out if you didn’t take the Chollar Mine Tour, which will lead you underground to explore the historic diggings of an early silver mine. It is in the heart of Virginia City. There is gold in the Carson River around Dayton and upstream all the way to Fallon. You won’t likely find any nuggets, but fine gold dust is present. Many, many dry gulches with no name or history of mining will produce gold, but the lack of water presents a challenge. A drywasher will be required to work them effectively.
For an adventurous gold seeker, it may be of interest that an ancient paleo placer once flowed from Northeast Nevada across through the American River area. Millions & millions of years of uplift, fracturing, avalanches and mass wasting have scattered and buried it. These ancient gravels could easily have been just as rich as those found in the foothills of the Sierras.
Small scattered benches deposits of gold rich material could certainly be out there undiscovered. Some of it may be up in the higher elevations outside of the known areas. My time exploring the California Gold country has surprised me with just how much gold-bearing ground there is out there that has not been worked.
Read: 18 Gold Mining Towns on California’s Highway 49
Beach Hunting on the Lake
Since we are talking about treasure hunting, I would be missing out if I did not mention that the best gold you might find is right at Lake Tahoe itself. Consider that Lake Tahoe gets 20 million visitors per year, and most of them come in just a few months during the summer!
Metal detecting along the beaches of Lake Tahoe can turn up some amazing things. There are lots or rich Californian women who have lost their diamond rings while sunbathing at Tahoe. A good multi-purpose metal detector like the Minelab Equinox 800 might be the perfect choice, because you can use it for coins and jewelry at Lake Tahoe, and then hunt for gold nuggets elsewhere.
Some people get really serious and use wetsuits and diving equipment to search for lost jewelry, but you can also just swing along the sandy beaches and find some good stuff too. I recommend getting out early in the morning. You will get a lot of questions from curious onlookers and I prefer to get out before the crowds.
Next: The Fascinating History of Bodie, California