Treasure Hunting History in California

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History of Treasure Hunting in California

Golden State


Gold was first discovered by the Spaniards as early as the 1500s, but mining operations did not begin until the 1780s along the Colorado River. Gold was next discovered in the San Gabriel River (near Los Angeles), San Francisco, Palo Alto, Santa Clara, San Jose, and Santa Cruz by Mexican prospectors who kept these finds secret. Of course, gold was then found at the infamous Sutter's Mill near Sacramento in 1848 and made headlines worldwide. The ensuing great California Gold Rush spawned massive gold discoveries in 40 counties. The richest, Tuolumne County, boasts 8 million troy ounces of gold taken since then. Lucky for you, gold has been discovered everywhere in the state!!

Placer Deposits

A placer deposit is a concentration of a natural material that has accumulated in unconsolidated sediments of a stream bed, beach, or residual deposit. Gold derived by weathering or other process from lode deposits is likely to accumulate in placer deposits because of its weight and resistance to corrosion. In addition, its characteristically sun-yellow color makes it easily and quickly recognizable even in very small quantities.

The gold pan or miner's pan is a shallow sheet-iron vessel with sloping sides and flat bottom used to wash gold-bearing gravel or other material containing heavy minerals. The process of washing material in a pan, referred to as "panning," is the simplest, most commonly used, and least expensive method for a prospector to separate gold from the silt, sand, and gravel of the stream deposits. It is a tedious, back-breaking job and only with practice does one become proficient in the operation. Thankfully, technology finally caught up with our gold fever and brought us metal detectors!

Many placer districts in California have been mined on a large scale as recently as the mid-1950's. Streams draining the rich Mother Lode region--the Feather, Mokelumne, American, Cosumnes, Calaveras, and Yuba Rivers--and the Trinity River in northern California have concentrated considerable quantities of gold in gravels. In addition, placers associated with gravels that are stream remnants from an older erosion cycle occur in the same general area.

You can always ask for permission to hunt on any private property, but there are also several places you can pan and metal detect in public access areas. As always, please respect other's claims.

Some of the following Public Access Areas are controlled by the BLM or the National Forest Service. Contact the designated authority for more information including maps and regulations before you go out.

* American River (State Property): This river winds through the Auburn State Rec Area which is located just to the NE of Auburn. Detecting, panning, and a few other methods are authorized except high banking.

* Bagby Rec Area (County Property): Located at the halfway point between Mariposa and Couterville at the junction of the Merced River and Hwy 49. Detecting, panning, dredging, and highbanking with a fee.

* Big Flat (Trinity Nat'l Forest): From Weaverville, follow Hwy 299 west for 22 miles to the Big Flat Free Permit Area. Camping is allowed. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other prospecting methods may be used.

* Butte Creek (BLM): First, get a permit from the BLM (Redding District) before you go out!! Directions: From Paradise, follow Skyway north to de Sabla. Just north of de Sabla, turn left on the fork (Ponderosa Way / Mill Road) and follow to Butte Creek. Detecting, panning, and a few other methods are authorized.

* Convict Flat (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Downieville, follow Hwy 49 west for 7-10 miles. Picnic area is located between Indian Valley Campground and Ramshorn Campground. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods authorized. 4" Dredging only during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.

* Keysville Rec Area (BLM): Near Bakersfield in Kern County. Located near Lake Isabella on the Kern River. Metal detecting, panning, sluicing, drywashing, and 3" dredging.

* Indian Valley (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Camptonville, follow Hwy 49 east for 9 miles. Campsite located next to hwy. Metal detecting and panning authorized. Dredging only during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.

* Oregon Creek (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Nevada City, follow Hwy 49 north for 17 miles until you arrive at the confluence of the Yuba River and Oregon Creek at the Rec Area. Metal detecting, sluicing, and panning.

* Ramshorn (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Goodyears Bar, follow Hwy 49 west for two miles. Campsite is located on the right side of the Hwy. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods authorized. 4" Dredging only during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.

* San Gabriel River - East Fork (Angeles National Forest): From Pomona, follow I-10 west to Hwy 39 and go north. If you are going out on a weekend or holiday, take Hwy 39 to Foothill Blvd and turn right. Follow to Glendora to the Ranger Station for a roadside parking permit. Otherwise, stay on HWY 39 and follow north through Azusa and into the San Gabriel Canyon. Turn right, past bridge onto the E. Fork Road. Prospecting area begins at the East Fork bridge through Follows Camp to the Narrows. Pans and metal detecting. Dredging also allowed only between the East Fork Bridge and the Cattle Guard bridge year round.

* South Yuba (BLM): From Nevada City, follow Hwy 49 NE 12-14 miles to either the North Bloomfield County Rd or the Tyler Foote County Rd. Follow either to the South Uba Rec Area. Camping is allowed. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods. Dredging is only allowed in some portions.

* Stanislaus South Fork (Stanislaus National Forest): From Columbia (North of Sonora on Hwy 50), take Italian Bar Rd north to the South Fork of the Stanislaus River (canyon). Prospecting area is 700 ft beyond the bridge over 5 Mile Creek for about a mile. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods. Dredging only with a permit during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.

* Union Flat (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Downieville, follow Hwy 49 east for 5 miles. Campsite / rec area is located between the river and Hwy 49. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods authorized. 4" Dredging only during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.

* Wild Plum (Tahoe Nat'l Forest): From Downievile, follow Hwy 49 upstream for 5 miles and turn onto Wild Plum Rd to the Rec Area. Camping is allowed. Metal detecting, panning, and a few other methods authorized. 4" Dredging only during a varying range of dates from the spring to fall.


GARNET - Gem- and specimen-quality white to pale green grossularite garnet occurs on Indian Creek in Siskiyou County and along Traverse Creek near Georgetown in Eldorado County. Other locations for these types of grossularites are the south side of Watts Valley in Fresno County, near Selma in Tulare County, near Big Bar in Butte County and near El Toro in Orange County. Some of the finest quality spessartite garnet known come from pegmatites in San Diego County. Spessartites have been found on Gem Hill near Mesa Grande and in mines in the Rincon and Pala Districts. The most productive area with the finest quality garnets is on the western side of Hatfield Creek Valley near Romona. Near Indian Head Hill in San Diego County is a deposit of fine-quality hessonite garnet, and another deposit is near Dos Cabezas.

AGATE - California's "Mojave Blue" agate has gained a great deal of attention in the past several years. This pastel blue or blue-gray agate cuts into attractive cabochons for jewelry and, in the hands of an expert carver, makes outstanding carvings.

Specialty Stones - Deposits in the State are blessed with a variety of collector/specialty stones. Stones have been cut from fine-quality, pink apatite from San Diego County. Some small colorless stones have been cut from analcine, but the location from which the material was recovered is unknown. Fine-quality, brown colored stones have been cut from axinite from deposits in Calaveras, Madera, Riverside, and San Diego Counties. Benitoite, the State gemstone, is the collector/specialty stone for which the State is best known. San Benito County is the only source of this fine, blue colored gem. Large, fine-quality, light to medium green colored stones can be cut from fluorite found in Los Angeles County. Large, colorless stones are cut from scheelite from deposits in Kern and Inyo Counties. Nearly flawless, colorless stones have been cut from natrolite from San Benito County. The author also has seen natrolite stones that were labeled as being from Los Angeles County. Deposits in the State also yield fine-quality, brown epidote, colorless calcite and colemanite, and augelite.

QUARTZ CRYSTALS - Deposits in California are another source of significant amounts of quality quartz crystal. For many years cobbles and round crystals have been found in streambeds in Amador and Calveras Counties. The best quality, largest, and most abundant crystals come from ancient stream channels in the Mokelumne Hill area of Calveras County. Over the years, various mines in the area have produced thousands of kilograms of rock crystal, with some of the individual crystals weighing as much as 275 kilograms and many of the crystals measuring more than 600 millimeters in length and 250 millimeters in diameter. The American Museum of Natural History has a 150 millimeter sphere cut from a Mokelumne Hill rock crystal. Additionally, the pegmatites of Hiriart Hill, San Diego County, have produced hundreds of kilograms of fine-quality rock crystal from which a number of 60 to 90 millimeter spheres have been cut.

TOURMALINE - Tourmaline was, until recently, the single largest contributor to the value of gemstones produced from California. And for the past 5 years, California has ranked as high as second and as low as sixth in the value of natural gemstone produced in the United States. The State's fabulous tourmalines were discovered by the gemstone industry in the late 1870's or early 1880's. The caveat, discovery by the gemstone industry, is used because Native Americans discovered and used these beautiful tourmalines long before that.

Since their discovery, the tourmaline deposits in Riverside and San Diego Counties have had more tourmaline produced and of greater value than any other deposits in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, it is probable that only the deposits in Brazil have been more productive.

One of the reasons for the productivity of the area is the longevity of the individual mines. Many of them have operated intermittently from the 1890's until the present. The famous Himalaya Mine is quite likely the best example.

Records indicate that from 1898 until 1914, the Himalaya was the world's largest producer of tourmaline. Furthermore, the records indicate that in 1904 production from the mine was at least 5.5 metric tons. In 1989, 84 years later, a single pocket in the mine produced more than 0.5 metric ton of tourmaline.

The history of production from the mine is not one of steady continuous operation. The mine operated continuously from 1898 until 1914, after which it operated sporadically until 1952. At this time, it once again began continuous operations that lasted until 1964 when it returned to intermittent operation until 1977. Since then the mine has been in operation under the direction of Pala International.

California tourmalines come in all colors except certain shades of blue and yellow. They also occur in bicolors, tricolors, and concentrically and laterally zoned combinations. Crystals vary in diameter from about 3 millimeters to as much as 125 millimeters, and vary in length from about 12 millimeters to as much as 250 millimeters.

Because of the large size of the crystals available, some large stones have been cut from California tourmaline. A 400-carat pink-red stone has been cut, as well as a flawless 75 carat green to pink bicolor and flawless 30- to 40 carat green to colorless to pink tricolored stones.

California deposits should continue to produce quantities of faceting, carving, and cabochon grade, as well as specimen-grade tourmalines for some time into the future. In late 1992, a new deposit of tourmaline was discovered in Riverside County that could result in greater production over even a longer period of time.

TURQUOISE - The production of turquoise from deposits in California can be traced back to pre-Colombian Native Americans. Prehistoric mining tools have been found in some of the old workings of the turquoise mines in San Bernardino County.

Over the years, the State's deposits have produced a substantial amount of turquoise. Deposits are located in San Bernardino, Imperial, and Inyo Counties. The material occurs as nodules and as vein filling. Most of the nodules are small in size, about the size of the end of your thumb, and the vein material is about 4 millimeters thick. In the better grade materials, the color varies from a pale to a dark blue, poorer grade materials are greenish-blue and green in color. Some of the material has yellow-brown limonite spiderwebbing.

In the past, a number of turquoise mines operated in the State, several or more mines in each of the counties. Today, only a single mine, the Apache Canyon Mine, is commercially producing turquoise. Material from the mine is a fine blue color, hard, and takes a good polish.


California offers many incredible opportunities. If this is your interest, here's a few ideas to get you started:

* Schools and College Campuses

* Parks / Playgrounds / Picnic Areas

* Foundations, Wells, and Cellar Holes of Old Churches or Houses

* Downtown Construction Sites

* Swimming Holes and Beaches (especially following a storm)

* Camp Grounds, Boyscout Camps, WPA Camps, and Mining Camps

* Sports Facilities

* Ghost Towns

* Rodeo Arenas, Riding Stables, and Race Tracks

* Old Fair and Carnival Locations

* Old Town Dumpsites


As in other areas of the US, there are several tales of lost California treasure concerning caches buried for safety. In many of these stories, people either died or forgot where they buried the stash. Contributing factors include:

1. Federal laws making possession of gold illegal in the early 1900s

2. Distrust of banks during the Great Depression.

* In Mokelumne Hill along Route 49 in the Mother Lode country, a cache of $50 gold coins is said to be in an old foundation wall.

* A bandits' underground hiding place near Avila, San Luis Obispo County, is said to have been the depository for much loot. Can you find the cave?

* Dr. John Marsh's cache of $40,000 in gold coins, (Marsh Creek, east side of Mount Diablo, near Brentwood, Contra Costa County), would be worth many times that if it were found today.

These excerpts are a sampling from American Coin Treasures and Hoards

References to Find More Treasure in California

* The World Rushed in: The California Gold Rush Experience

* Historical Atlas of California - All about California's History

* Sierra Nevada Placer Gold Deposits: Mother Lode Gold Country Geology

* The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited

* Lost Gold and Silver Mines of the Southwest - What better place for gold?

* California's Gold Rush Country: A Guide to the Best of the Mother Lode

* Buried Treasures of California: CA's Mtns, Deserts, Beaches, and Cities

* Buried Treasures of the SW: Lost Mines, Hidden Payrolls, and Spanish Gold

* E.California TH'ers Ghost Town Guide - Find valuable tokens and coins

* Guide to Treasure in California - California's Treasure await You!!

* Southern California's Best Ghost Towns - Did prospectors drop any coins?

* Ghost Towns of Northern California - Lots of relics in the north.

* Up and Down California in 1860-1864 - Civil War era journey in California

* Frontier Mining Camps & Ghost Towns - Possible nugget caches lie waiting

* Ghost Towns of California - A comprehensive guide

* Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of CA - Like old assayer coins?

California Metal Detecting & Prospecting Websites

* Ghost - California Ghost Town Directory

* The Ghost Town Gallery - Super Picture Gallery Site!

* Desert USA - Outdoors trips from gold to ghost towns

* Ghost Town Explorers - Exploring CA's Mines and Ghost Towns

* United Prospectors - Check out their California Claims!

* The Gold Prospecting Page - Locations in CA w/ tips

* Gold Fun - CA Guided Gold Mining Trips

* 2GETGOLD - CA gold history, travel, and panning info

* Northern Mining Council - Info for Miners in N. CA

* Intn'l CA Mining Journal - Worldwide mining, M/D, prospecting

* Mother Lode Gold: - California Gold Specimen Auction and Gallery

* Shirttail - Gold Prospecting in the heart of CA

* Treasures of Santa Clara - Finds made in the Santa Clara Valley

* San Francisco Diggings - Relic finds made in SF

* North Bay Treasure Hunters - Get tips from the real pros in CA

* The Discovery of Gold in California - History

* California Division of Mines and Geology

* The Virtual California Gold Country

* The Whipple Well - Depository of Information for places in California

* State Website - Discover new hunting sites or research mining / metal detecting laws and regulations on state-owned property

* State Treasure Tale - Lost Treasure OnlineŠ Link

* More State Tales - On Lost Treasure USA!!

Back to How & Where to Find Treasure Treasurefish HOME

Information posted is from various United States Geologic Service (USGS) material and the Gold Prospectors Association of America ( GPAA) Mining Guide. The GPAA is a professional, family oriented organization that's been around for awhile and they'll treat you right. There's many more areas to find gold than what's listed above. If you are serious about finding gold, we recommend that you check out your local club to learn the proper techniques and some good spots to hunt from the pros. The only alternative is to spend a whole lot of money on gas and wasting valuable time doing your own thing.


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