Historic California Gold Mines Combine Education and Adventure

Finding the cooler California gold mines for you...

California gold mines - Tunnel cart

When the '49ers swarmed the Sierra Nevada foothills, they exploited the surface gold and placer deposits -- basically whatever gold could be obtained aboveground using small-scale equipment such as pans and sluice boxes.

As surface gold became increasingly scarce, the only way to find gold was to dig deep down into hard rock (following veins of quartz), which required enormous capital, heavy equipment, and extensive labor. The large companies that conducted these operations during the late 1800s and early 1900s did indeed produce millions of ounces of gold.

Today, many of these old California gold mines have been turned into tourist attractions. They offer visitors a realistic view of the dangerous, dirty work of mining, as well as a look at some of the more impressive specimens ever to be uncovered.

Some California gold mines even invite you to put on a hard hat and venture deep into the bowels of the earth!

But not all California gold mines are tourist attractions. Plenty of precious metal remains buried in the earth, and with the price of gold skyrocketing these days, there's renewed interest in pulling it out. At least one historic mine recently has closed its doors to the public in order to resume digging. (See more on that at the end of this page.)

This is the exception, however, not the rule. Tough environmental regulations make it unlikely that many other mines will follow suit. So -- lucky for us! -- tourist attractions they will remain.

How can you "strike it rich" at California gold mines? Check out our list of must-see large-scale digging operations, and make plans to visit one (or all) next time you're in the Mother Lode.

We think you'll agree that "geotourism" has never been so much fun!





1. OLD HANGTOWN'S GOLD BUG PARK & MINE

This favorite among California gold mines is located just outside Placerville, which gained a reputation during the 1800s as "Old Hangtown."

Hangtown Gold MineOur kids love all the California gold mines, but we have a special place in our hearts for this one.

We stretched our visit over a whole day -- the highlight, of course, being the underground hard-hat tour. Ours was the self-guided audio tour, but you can also choose a real-person guided tour into the 352-foot drift of this historic 1888 hard-rock mine.

We rounded out the day with a hike, a picnic lunch (they have a great covered pavilion), and a visit to Hattie's Museum.

The Hendy Stamp Mill also is a must-see. Check out its newest attraction -- a real working blacksmith shop!

2635 Gold Bug Lane, Placerville, CA; (530) 642-5207 (general information) or (530) 642-5238 (guided tours)


2. EMPIRE MINE STATE HISTORIC PARK

Did you know California gold mines could double as wedding venues? This one, with its breathtaking gardens, is a popular place to tie the knot!

Empire Gold MineThe "king" of California gold mines, Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley is the site of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in the state.

From its beginning in 1850 to its closing in 1956, this California gold mine produced 5.8 million ounces of gold. But here's an interesting fact: Only about 20 percent of available gold was extracted. Eighty percent still remains buried at the site!

Visiting the park is a treat -- not just for the tour of the original mining buildings and owner's cottage, but also because of the beautiful rose garden and 845 acres of forested back country and 12 miles of trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.

Although you can look down the abyss leading to 367 miles of abandoned and flooded mining shafts and tunnels, there's no underground tour as of now. But there's an underground tour project in the works, slated to open in 2013.

If you go, try to plan your visit on a weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when volunteers dressed in 1905 period clothing entertain park visitors at the cottage. Other events include the Mother's Day weekend springtime open house, featuring living history, food, and entertainment; and the annual Miner's Picnic in late summer. There's a holiday open house during the Thanksgiving weekend.

10791 East Empire St., Grass Valley, CA; (530) 273-8522


3. MALAKOFF DIGGINS STATE HISTORIC PARK

California gold mines and ghost towns often go hand in hand. This park is near the ghost town of North Bloomfield, which is pictured in its heyday at the park’s visitor center.

Roaring Camp MineStay in a miner’s cabin or tent while you explore the site of California’s largest hydraulic mine.

This controversial mining technique washed away entire mountains to find gold, leaving behind huge cliffs carved by mighty streams of water.

The result? Amazing landscapes that remind folks of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.

This remote park is located about 26 miles from Nevada City. To get there, take Highway 49 to Tyler Foote Crossing.

If you’re camping overnight, be sure to stock up on supplies; it’s an 8- to 10-mile drive to the nearest store.

Also good to know: There are no showers at the camp, but the cabins have wood-burning stoves.

23579 North Bloomfield Road, Nevada City, CA; (530) 265-2740


4. ROARING CAMP MINING CO.

Not all California gold mines are easily reached. Because of its remoteness, this one still has a lot of gold to be uncovered!

Roaring Camp Mine

Visiting an operating gold mine is just one of the many activities you can enjoy at this secluded site at Clinton Bar in the Mokelumne River canyon.

You can also camp, hike, fish, pan for gold, and swim and dive in a crystal-clear swimming hole.

We like the idea of camping right on the river and joining in one of the “common operation” digs (held on selected dates), when everyone digs together and divides equally any gold they find.

Bonus if you camp here: A Saturday night cookout is included. All-day guided tours (with lunch at the Trading Post) also are available.

13010 Tabeaud Road, Pine Grove, CA; (209) 296-4100


5. KENNEDY GOLD MINE

Many California gold mines have claims to fame. At 5,912 feet, the Kennedy Gold Mine near Jackson is one of the deepest gold mines in the world.

Kennedy Gold MineTake a guided or self-guided surface tour. Even though you can’t go underground, you can still see a great deal, such as the stamp and gold recovery mill, tailing wheels, a steam boiler, and the huge steel head whose pulleys guided the miners underground.

Be sure to view the historic video of miners working circa 1914, and stop by the gift shop.

12594 Kennedy Mine Road, Jackson, CA; (209) 223-9542


6. GOLD CLIFF MINE

California gold mines such as this one in Angels Camp also contain pyrites, mica, garnet, iron – even colonies of bats! Keep a sharp eye attuned to this fascinating underground world.

Gold Cliff MineThe historic Gold Cliff Mine extends 2,000 feet below the surface. In its heyday between 1899 and 1920, it produced almost 6 tons of gold.

It could be argued, however, that the “heyday” is still happening – in the form of challenging exploration, gold rush-era history, and captivating folklore.

Daily 3½- 5-hour tours take you rafting across a 270-foot-deep flooded stope with crystal-clear water. (A “stope,” in case you’re wondering, is an excavation made by the mining of ore from steeply inclined or vertical veins.)

Inside the mine, you climb through several stopes using knotted hang lines, harnesses, and ladders.

Because of the difficulty, this trip is not recommended for kids under 12.

5350 Moaning Cave Road, Vallecito, CA; (866) 762-2837 or (209) 736-2708


7. SIXTEEN TO ONE MINE

Some California gold mines, like this mine near Alleghany, are known as “pocket mines” because gold is found in highly concentrated deposits within the quartz vein.

16 to 1 Gold Mine

This unique California gold mine offers tours by appointment only (email mmiller@origsix.com). The tour begins with a look at the history of the Alleghany mining district and the operation of the Sixteen to One mine, which began in 1896 and is still running.

Special tours include the “Miner for a Day” tour in which you spend a full day at the mine (lunch included), and the Executive Tour, an individualized all-day tour with the company president.

If you were wondering (like we were) how the Sixteen to One mine got its name, the term refers to the arbitrary ratio of the number of ounces of silver equal in value to one ounce of gold in the bi-metallic monetary system established by Portugal in 1688 and adopted by the U.S. in 1792.

P.O. Box 909, Alleghany, CA; (530) 287-3223


8. CALIFORNIA STATE MINING & MINERAL MUSEUM

California gold mines have revealed some awesome booty! You’ll be impressed by all that glitters within this official mineral collection of the state of California.

Calfornia State Mining Museum

This must-see museum at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds in the southern Mother Lode houses more than 13,000 objects, including mining artifacts and rare specimens of crystalline gold, as well as beautiful gem and mineral specimens from California and around the world.

Don’t miss the 13.8-pound “Fricot nugget,” the largest remaining intact mass of crystalline gold from 19th century California. It was found in the American River in 1864.

While you’re here, take a stroll through the mine tunnel, assay office, and a working model of a stamp mill.

5005 Fairgrounds Road, Mariposa, CA; (209) 742-7625


9. NORTH STAR MINE POWERHOUSE & PELTON WHEEL MUSEUM

When California gold mines offer lovely picnic areas, as this one does, you’ll be tempted to linger!

Northstar Mininig Museum

The largest Pelton wheel ever constructed (32 feet high) once supplied power to the North Star Mine on Allison Ranch Road in Grass Valley. See it displayed along with hundreds of mining artifacts, a working stamp mill, and a Cornish pump.

10933 Allison Ranch Road, Grass Valley, CA; (530) 273-4255



NOTE: Farewell to the Boss Buggy and the geode-cracking machine at Sutter Gold Mine. This historic mine, located off Highway 49 just north of Sutter Creek, no longer offers public tours. Because of the soaring price of gold, the decision was made to resume commercial digging operations in 2011. According to news reports, Sutter Gold Mine could produce at least 1,800 ounces of gold each month and employ 100 people.




Which is Your Favorite California Gold Rush Mine?

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