It’s unbelievable but true: you can still wade into the shallows of the South Fork of the American River, and find flecks of gold, just like the fortune-seeking pioneers first did over a century and a half ago. One of the best places to do it is in Jamestown, one of California’s original Gold Rush towns.
Try your hand at prospecting—shops around town sell gold pans. Ask to be shown the special swirl technique that helps separate tiny bits of gold from river silt. Admittedly, it is hard to know what’s what in the bottom of your pan, especially with plenty of 'fool’s gold' (technically worthless iron pyrite glittering in the bottom of your pan). For better luck, plus geological and historical trivia while you search and swirl, try panning with a guide.
Afterward, you can experience Jamestown history in another way at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. Combining industrial heritage and railroad history, “the movie-star railroad” (as it’s long been known) has been a popular filming location for nearly its entire existence; credits range from an early talkie to Back to the Future Part III. Walking tours of the still-working railroad roundhouse, which includes a look at props from past films, are a big hit with kids and devoted train fans. And every weekend April through October, park visitors can hop aboard a vintage passenger coach pulled by an authentic locomotive—for a six-mile, 45-minute cruise through the scenic Sierra foothills.
While you’re there, be sure to take some time to stroll around this picturesque California Historical Landmark town; many of the buildings date back to the tail end of the gold rush or earlier. The National Hotel and Restaurant dates to 1859, and the Willow Steak House, established in 1864, used to be a bar that catered to the builders of the Sierra Railway. Both continue to serve visitors today.