Good Spots for Gold in California's Motherlode: Nevada County

(Nevada County, California. Map courtesy Snob Hollow Designs,

I use the term mining broadly in this series of posts to include a range of small-scale mining approaches such as sluicing, drywashing, sniping or crevicing, and highbanking. What is not included here is, of course, suction dredging. Dredging activities are not allowed in California under the repression and idiocy of the current state moratorium.

However, you can still grab your trusty gold pan or a piece of the above-mentioned mining gear and try your hand at recovering some color in the once-Golden State. In this series of posts I’ll provide you with a few tips on some good spots to try and what you can expect to recover from them (providing you already have some basic mining/prospecting skills).

Mining Equipment

(DISCLAIMER: It is highly possible that at least some of the locations mentioned here are now claimed up, on private property, or are otherwise off limits. Therefore I make no promises as to their accessibility as of the publication date of this post. Do your research up front, talk to the locals, and above all DO NOT trespass or claim jump. J.R.)

Nevada County

Nevada County and especially Nevada City and Grass Valley are very near and dear to my heart and I am very familiar with this area. My grandmother retired to Grass Valley in the early 1970s and by 1980 my favorite aunt purchased a home and acreage just north of Nevada City off State Highway 49, the "Gold Rush" Highway.

During much of the 1980s I was working claims on the North Yuba River and the quaint mining town of Nevada City was my primary supply point. My aunt's place, replete with a gold-bearing creek and very old tailings piles, was my main "rest and recuperation" (R&R) spot.

One of the Motherlode's Richest Areas

As an aside, it might interest you to know that those old tailings on my aunt's property produced more than one placer nugget for me (one of the few tailings locations I found to be consistent gold producers). Although my main focus at the time was dredging and highbanking on the North Yuba, I was always ready, willing, and able to dig up my poor aunt's property when I was "bumming and slumming" in Nevada City!

But I digress here. Historically speaking, this area of California's Motherlode was one of the richest around and included extensive placer diggings as well as many hard rock mines, including the famous Empire Mine. The total known production of gold in Nevada County exceeds 18,000,000 troy ounces with over 10,000,000 troy ounces of that in the form of vein or "lode" gold and the remainder, of course, in placer gold.

Gold is Everywhere in Nevada County

Gold is everywhere in Nevada County. Virtually every creek, stream, bench, gravel bar, or bone-dry gully is carrying color in the form of fines, flakes, coarse pieces, and yes, nuggets if you can gain access and are willing to poke around and sample a bit.

Back in the 1980s (if I disremember correctly) a telephone line or construction crew was trenching within the city limits of Nevada City when they accidentally uncovered a rich placer pocket that had lain there untouched for millenia. I was up on the North Yuba when that happened and man, you should've seen the excitement and gold frenzy that find created! The mini-stampede that followed was absolutely crazy.

Many Areas Never Get "Worked Out"

Not far from Nevada City is the old rough and tumble (now somewhat more sedate) and aptly named community of Rough and Ready. Rich placers were worked in and around Rough and Ready and part of this area's prehistoric rivers of gold were hydraulicked long ago, as were those near Nevada City.

Gold Prospecting Books

Additionally, due to the massive amounts of hard-rock mining and tertiary channel tunneling in Nevada County most areas still contain impressive amounts of free gold. This and the fact that much of the terrain in the region can be quite steep means that the gold continues to move downslope to replenish lower-laying spots. This helps ensure that many areas never get truly "worked out."

Where to Look

So where should you look for gold in Nevada County? Here's the short and simple answer to that question: anywhere you can my friend. Pay particular attention to the following:

Old tailings piles: Some of the best and most productive tailings I have every worked lie within or just outside the city limits of Nevada City. You can pan these, drywash them, or run them through a sluice box or highbanker. Expect flakes and coarser pieces of placer gold, including small nuggets.

(Note: if you run across old square-headed iron nails nearby, you are on good tailings ground, my friend. J.R.)

Bench gravels: There are many good bench gravels in the area that can be and should be worked. Some of these hold good gold-producing potential since in past years most small-scale miners (including myself) were single-mindedly focused on deeper water dredging activities.

Small streams and creeks: Don't ignore the smaller streams and creeks in the area. Even the tiniest stretches of flowing water can carry good gold values. My aunt's property outside of Nevada City was a classic example...a small, barely running creek running across one edge of the property was a panner's or highbanker's dream.

Tertiary gravels: Some locations in the area contain exposed areas of ancient tertiary gravels. These have long been noted for their gold-producing characteristics, but you may find them hard to work since many are "upslope" and require lots of effort to process.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: Before you pack your camping and mining gear and go rushing headlong out the door for Nevada County you must understand that this area has undergone a "population boom" of sorts over the past 25 years or so. The last time I was in the area was the summer of 2008 when my son and I were working the North Yuba (it's hard to let go of old times!). When we drove down to Grass Valley for supplies I was both shocked and horrified by the amount of people, the insane traffic, and the overall "urbanization" that had taken place in the area. Expect that many areas will be inaccessible due to development, being claimed up, or residing within private property boundaries.

That's it for now. Take care out there and keep coming back.

If you liked this post, you may want to read: "Gold Detector Reviews: Tesoro's 'Vaquero'"

(c) J.R. 2010

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. I enjoyed reading your stories and the information you mentioned. This area is not only beautiful but so rich with history I just want to explore it.
    Thank you Joy

  2. You're welcome Joy. Keep coming back.


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