Even for experienced prospectors it can be tough to navigate regulations to figure out where you can go panning without breaking local laws or treading on private property.
So I put together this list of 9 places you can go panning in the American River with images, maps, and reviews from the community. Each place is owned by a government agency or private business that explicitly allows gold panning to make it as easy as possible for you to get out there and start finding that shiny stuff!
I explicitly tried to avoid “panning parks” or “pay to pan” businesses, except for the Marshall Gold Discovery Park, in order to give you the opportunity to prospect like a real 49er.
We divided our 9 areas between “easy access” for those who may not want a strenuous trip to the river and “off the beaten path” for those who are looking for more of an adventure.
“Easy access”: Our definition of easy access includes places you can drive to and only require a short distance (< 1 mile) to walk on a well-maintained path to reach the river.
“Off the beaten path”: It’s hard to truly get “off the beaten path” in Northern California (unlike Alaska, where we live) as the area is so heavily populated. So our definition of it includes trails or camping areas that require over a mile of hiking to reach the river, difficult or wilderness terrain, or offer opportunities to pan for gold in more secluded areas. These spots still may be popular with locals, so don’t be upset if you aren’t the only one there. They are only recommended for able-bodied prospectors!
Check out our custom American River panning map!
Our definition of easy access includes places you can drive to and only require a short distance (< 1 mile) to walk on a well-maintained path to reach the river.
Best Short Hike: Magnolia Ranch Trailhead in Pilot Hill, CA
The Magnolia Ranch Trailhead is a BLM recreational area that’s located in Pilot Hill.
It’s the trailhead of the 2.5-mile Gerle Loop Trail. You can access the river less than a mile from the trailhead!
According to the BLM it’s a “easy to moderate, mostly flat trail across rolling hills and oak woodlands with scenic views and access to the American River.”
Google Reviewers praise its cleanliness, the large parking area, and the scenic views.
Best River Watching: Greenwood Creek River Access in Lotus, CA
For the shortest walk to the South Fork of the American River in Lotus you can head over to the Greenwood Creek River Access, where you can practically drive up to the thing.
It’s just a half-mile east on US-49 from the Magnolia Ranch Trailhead, and is connected to the Gerle Loop Trail. As another BLM recreational area, you are allowed the opportunity for “passive recreation” at Greenwood Creek which includes gold panning.
Just steer clear of the actual access to the river as it’s a popular launching spot for kayakers and local rafting companies.
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Most Handicap Accessible: Dave Moore Nature Area in Lotus, CA
The Dave Moore Nature Area is a 1-mile loop trail off of Coloma Road that goes from the parking lot trailhead down to the South Fork of the American River and back again.
As a BLM recreational area, gold panning is allowed there.
This nature area was named after a fellow named Dave Moore who worked for the BLM as a Conservation Ranger and was diagnosed with MS. It was designed specifically to be easy to access and enjoy for folks with disabilities, so it’s an easy walk and has a handicap-accessible beach.
As far as the gold? Well this stretch of the river is so close to the heart of gold rush country that the BLM website says “Tailing piles from the Gold Rush period blanket the area which lend to the characteristic landscape that makes this area so unique.”
And like we say in our Ultimate Gold Prospecting Guide – you find gold by going where the gold has already been found!
Reviewers say it IS a good place to look for gold, but the river can be powerful and that prospectors should be careful depending on what time of year it is – as the water access can change from simple to dangerous depending on the height of the river.
Here’s what reviewer Patrick had to say:
Best Place to Learn to Pan: Marshall Gold Discovery Historic State Park in Coloma, CA
The Marshall Historic State Park is more than just a place to pan for gold. It’s a place to learn about the history and significance of the California Gold Rush.
Located on the site where gold was first discovered by James Marshall, the gold here sparked the greatest mass movement of people in the western hemisphere, ever.
You can take a guided tour of the park, test your skills in the American River or, if you’ve never panned gold before, take a 15 minute panning lesson and search the park’s panning troughs for gold flakes, fool’s gold, and garnets.
If you are an experienced gold prospector then you may want to quickly move onto other places on this list, as this is the most popular gold panning spot on this list. We find it more exciting, and more rewarding, to search in less popular areas.
Best Park: Henningsen Lotus Park in Lotus, CA
Located just down river from the Marshall Gold Discovery Historic State Park, the Henningsen Lotus Park seems to be a slightly less-crowded park to pan for gold on the South Fork of the American River.
Several of the 800+ Google Reviews mention gold panning as a popular activity there.
It might be a good place to go if you’re looking for easy access to the American River and to save yourself the fee you’ll pay at Marshall.
Off the beaten path
It’s hard to truly get “off the beaten path” in Northern California (unlike Alaska, where we live) as the area is so heavily populated. Our definition includes trails or camping areas that require over a mile of hiking to reach the river, offer difficult or wilderness terrain, or offer opportunities to pan for gold in more secluded areas.
These spots still may be somewhat popular with locals, so don’t be upset if you aren’t the only one there. They are only recommended for able-bodied prospectors!
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Most River to Explore: Auburn State Recreation Area in Auburn, CA
The Auburn State Recreation Area is a California state park that is open for folks looking for gold with the “hands-and-pans” method. That means no other tools or machinery may be used to find gold besides a pan.
This sprawling recreational area covers 40 miles of the North and Middle Forks of the American River! It was teeming with thousands of miners during the California Gold Rush, so you know there are some yellow pans to be had.
Panning is allowed in any portions of the rivers or tributaries except for the Knickerbocker area near Cool.
Reviewers say parking can be tough to find on the weekend and warn about the $10 entrance fee to the park. But just because the common areas can get crowded, doesn’t mean there aren’t some secret nooks to hideaway and pan gold.
Best Side Quest: Red Shack Trailhead (AKA Old Flume or Luse Ditch) in Placerville, CA
The Red Shack Trailhead (AKA the “Old Flume Trailhead”) is a BLM recreational area that is open to gold panning along with other forms of passive recreation.
While the trail down to the South Fork of the American River is only about 1-1.5 miles long, it gets progressively steeper as you get closer to the river, dropping almost 800 feet in a short distance near the water.
That makes this a challenging hike, and it’s recommended you give yourself some extra time to get down and up again.
The good news for prospectors is you know you’re in the heart of gold country as there’s another trail running roughly parallel to US-49 leading to an abandoned mine shaft. It’s fun to see if you’re into gold history, but remember messing around in abandoned underground mine shafts is extremely dangerous!
Best Moderate Hike: Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park in Pilot Hill, CA
Reviewers also say that because it’s so big, people are often spread out and it’s not crowded, which is perfect for a relaxing day finding that shiny stuff.
One downside is that because there’s so much pastureland there isn’t much shade on a hot day.
And the gold? Well with local business names like the “Mother Lode River Center” and the “Gold Nugget Getaway” within just a few miles, you know you’re near the heart of the California gold strike.
Here’s what James had to say about Cronan Ranch:
Most Remote: Ralston Picnic Area in Foresthill, CA
The Ralston Picnic Area is a Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) recreational area located just before PCWA’s Ralston Afterbay Dam off Mosquito Ridge Road on Forest Road 23.
The PCWA website advertises the picnic area as a “secluded getaway right on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the American River. In a slow moving, shallow area of the river, this makes it the perfect spot for a dip, fishing, gold panning or canoeing in the clear refreshing water.”
Foresthill is a small town located on a broad ridge between the North and Middle Forks of the American River on the gold-bearing gravel bed of an ancient river.
Just a couple miles up Mosquito Ridge Road, one reviewer has to say this about Circle Bridge that crosses the North Fork of Middle Fork American River:
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