Even though the Gold Rush of the 1850s is long over, you and the kids can travel back in time to do some gold panning of your own. Gold mining towns are generously sprinkled throughout California, where the Rush all began centuries ago. Rich with historical significance, each of these towns has its own brand of rural pleasures, from horseback riding and wine tasting to whitewater rafting and mountain climbing. Little ones who love to bang on pots can go all out swishing dirt and pebbles in their own gold rush pan, and who knows, one of your brood may even hit the mother lode.
Angels Camp in Central California, just 2 ½ hours from the Bay Area, is a historic mountain town filled with antique shops, restaurants, art galleries, and small-town hospitality. Located in Calaveras County along Highway 49, it is in the region of the Stanislaus National Forest, where you can test your pans and shovels along the Stanislaus River. Adults can also brave touring the depths of Moaning Cavern, while kids delight in the image of leaping frogs, seen throughout the town. (The frogs pay homage to Mark Twain’s story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” based in Angels Camp and inspired by the time Twain spent there.)
Chances are you’ve heard of this famous small town before. Located in Toulumne County at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this town boasts Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, where the kids can see historic locomotives that’ve been filmed in movies like Back to the Future 3. Jamestown Gold Panning is one great spot to learn the art of panning and sluicing. Located on Woods Creek, it’s where school kids love to go on their field trips and where your family can go on yours. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.
With a population of just over 200, Amador City is truly a small town, well worthy of a visit on the Highway 49 Gold Country strip. Located in Amador County, it’s a place where you can visit an old-fashioned soda fountain, tour underground gold mines with the fam, visit museums full of mining and Gold Rush memorabilia, and walk along the creek. Ride a buggy into Sutter Gold Mine, where you can pan for gold or gemstones and start the kids on a beautiful rock collection. Open everyday.
This small Toulumne County town in the Sierra Nevada foothills bustles with a slightly bigger population at 4,280. Before your quest for pay dirt, travel up into the high Sierras to let the kids see waterfalls, rivers, and lakes. Or stay among the many museums, shops, and parks closer to the village, where the kids can take a ride on a horse and carriage. Try your hand at gold panning at nearby Columbia State Park or the Toulumne or Stanislaus Rivers, with plenty of local guidance available to cheer you on.