We took a family road trip to Columbia, CA because I wanted to pan for gold while my son was in 4th Grade. Although I grew up in California, I don't recall ever having a chance to do this activity.
Internet research quickly lead me to Columbia Historic State Park, an 1850s-style mining town in the middle of the state, which brings the whole period to life.
About three hours from Berkeley or Oakland, Columbia is in the direction of Angels Camp, Twain Harte, and other Sierra Foothill destinations. It could be on your way to Yosemite, if you want a stop.
There is a single main drag to walk down, past mini-museums that show off California's history, including a jail, a schoolhouse, and a fire station. There's an old-fashioned bowling lane, candle-dipping, and one of those old-timey photo studios where you dress-up in costumes for a black and white snapshot. A stagecoach with horses sits in the middle of the street. Little House on the Prairie fans will be delighted.
At the end of the street, there are boulders that invite climbing, and a tiny shop where you can pay for access to panning and a lesson. We bought a lesson for two kids and stood by while the instructor, a real-life gold miner who actually moved to the area in hopes of striking it rich with a lucky discovery, showed the kids how to do it.
Food choices were limited in Columbia, so consider a picnic. We did find a pizza in an ancient saloon at the other end of town, but it looked like the hours might be unreliable.
Other places to pan for gold in California
- Black Chasm Cavern – cave tour and gemstone mining, 2+ hours from Berkeley, en route to South Lake Tahoe
- Marshall Gold Discovery State Park – also a period-themed experience for kids, in Coloma, CA, near Placerville, CA which is not too far out of the way during trips to either North or South Lake Tahoe