Rockhounding is the recreational collecting of rocks and/or mineral specimens from their natural environment. Recreational gold panning is a popular type of rockhounding in California and the Mother Lode. All you need to detect and recover gold from a stream bed is gold pan. In the days of the California Gold Rush in 1849 prospectors sifted through the area with sluice boxes and many struck it rich.
The Calaveras Gem and Mineral Society’s Gem and Jewelry Show is put on in March by the club at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds in Angels Camp. The show generally includes a kid’s area, exhibit cases, demonstrations, snack bar, silent auction, door prizes and a raffle. Vendors sell such items as minerals, meteorites, fossils, gems, rocks, jewelry, beads, tools and supplies for making jewelry. For more about it visit calaverasgemandmineral.org
Getting started in rockhounding is easy; a collection can begin with a single “pretty” rock. The avid rock collector will learn quite a bit of petrology, mineralogy and geology in their search. There is information that will help in the identification and classifying of specimens, and preparation them for display. The hobby can lead naturally into lapidary or mineral and gemstone cutting and mounting.
The most definitive characteristics of a rock or a mineral is its hardness, which you can determine by comparing it against the standardized Mohs Scale of Hardness.
- Talc 1
- Gypsum 2 (A fingernail is 2.5 so it will put a scratch on a gypsum stone)
- Calcite 3 (A copper penny has a hardness of about 3)
- Fluorite 4
- Apatite 5 (Glass and a knife blade are between 6 and 7)
- Feldspar 6
- Quartz 7
- Topaz 8
- Corundum 9
- Diamond 10
Many states regulate the collection of some rocks and minerals, even on public lands, so it is advisable to read up on local laws before prospecting. Rock and mineral collecting is prohibited in national parks.
Under Federal law, artifacts more than 100 years old are classified as archaeological resources and must be left alone. If you should find an American Indian artifact, such as an arrowhead, bead, or stone bowl, please leave it in place and contact an archaeologist to report it. They will study the artifact in the place it was found to learn more about it.
For more information about mining in the Mother Lode visit The Bureau of Land Management’s website.
Mother Lode Rockhounding History
Avery, Hathaway Pines and Sheep Ranch
Avery, Hathaway Pines and Sheep Ranch were seasonally inhabited by both the Miwok and Washoe tribes, the area still retains evidence of their presence. Bedrock mortars, or grinding rocks can be found in many places throughout the area. Many people recall Native American groups living or camping here as late as 1940. Cattlemen and sheepmen also used this road (hwy 4) to drive their herds to the summer ranges in the high country. Sheep Ranch was once surrounded by these sheep corrals, and in 1860 gold ore was discovered in the corrals where the sheep were kept at night. Soon Sheep Ranch was a bustling gold mining town.
Columbia became a town of 4,000 to 5,000 in the 1850s, following the discovery of gold here by the Hildreth party March 27, 1850. Gold shipments from this small area were estimated to total $87 million at 1860’s prices.
At an elevation of 2,143 (perhaps a few feet lower than before gold miners dug into the ground) there are no natural lakes or rivers in the immediate area. The seasonal ponds and gullys and expensive city water slowed the progress of gold miners.
Copperopolis, originally known as Copper Canyon was founded in 1860. It provided most of the metal for the shells and bullets of the Union Army during the Civil War. The ore was taken to Stockton, shipped downriver to San Francisco, put on sailing ships and taken around Cape Horn, where they finally arrived at smelters in Boston, and Philadelphia.
Enjoying great prosperity between 1860 and 1867 the population grew to 10,000, much larger then any of the nearby gold camps. At the end of the war, the price of copper dropped to 19 cents a pound compared to 55 cents during the war. This forced closure of many of the mines and population dwindled.
Douglas Flat California Historical Landmark number 272 states: “Douglas Flat was a roaring mining camp of the early 1850s. In 1857 the Harper and Lone Star Claims produced $130,000 worth of gold. The so-called Central Hill Channel, an ancient river deposit from which vast quantities of gold have been taken, is located here.”
Glencoe was formerly called Mosquito Gulch. The business portion of the town was on the north side of Mosquito Gulch, but not one of the old buildings remains. The mines were first worked by the Mexicans in the early 1850s – quartz mining predominated but there was some placer mining.
Groveland, gold was discovered here in 1849, and thousands of dollars in placer gold were taken from mines on Garotte Creek, Big Creek, and other diggings. Among the buildings remaining from the Gold Rush is the Iron Door Saloon built in 1852, still flourishing and claiming to be the oldest saloon in California!
Jamestown In June of 1848, Benjamin Wood and party camped beside the small creek. According to the Bureau of Mines, a 150-pound gold mass found there resulted in 75 pounds of gold. The encampment was called Wood’s Diggings and later, Wood’s Crossing and was one of the very first finds of gold in the MotherLode area.
George James a lawyer and chief accolade hired local miners to work his claims and paid them in scrip. When he realized that he hadn’t found enough gold to make good on the scrip he quietly snuck out of town. The angry miners tried to rename the town American Camp but the U.S. Post Office already had several towns by that name. In 1853 the post office established under the name Jamestown.
Mining continued off and on through the years. On Christmas Eve in 1992, miners at the Jamestown Mine discovered several large pieces of gold. One of the larger ones is on display at Ironstone Vineyards weighs 45 pounds! That piece of gold is the largest piece of crystallized gold on display.
Mokelumne Hill huge gold nuggets were found in the area, in fact gold was so abundant claims of land were divided in to tiny plots of 16-50 feet. The largest known quartz crystals were recovered from a mine on the south side of Chili Gulch.
Mokelumne is an Indian word, first applied to the nearby river. Earliest settlement was at Happy Valley by French trappers. In 1848 gold was discovered by discharged members of Stevenson’s Regiment, New Yorkers who fought in the Mexican war.
Mokelumne Hill was the center of the richest placer mining section of Calaveras County and one of the principal mining towns of California. Corral Flat produced over thirty millions in gold. Sixteen feet square constituted a claim. The so-called ‘French War’ for possession of gold mines occurred in 1851.
1.4 miles South of Mokelumne HIll on Highway 49 is a marker designating Chili Gulch. This five-mile gulch was the richest placer mining section in Calaveras County. It received its name from Chileans who worked it in 1848 and 1849, and was the scene of the so-called Chilean War. In December 1849, Anglo-European miners in Calaveras County drew up a local mining code that called for all foreign miners to leave the country within 15 days, leading to much protest and violence. The so-called “Chilean War” resulted in several deaths and the expulsion of Chilean miners from their claims.
Mountain Ranch Some tertiary gravel was located in Mountain Ranch during the days of the gold rush and there were some very rich small spots of gold quartz veins that have been worked on as well.
Murphys was founded by the brothers John and Daniel Murphy after they discovered gold in 1849. The objective of many immigrants coming over the Sierras by Ebbetts Pass, Murphys Flat and surrounding mines produced 20 million dollars in gold. Early regulations restricted claims to 8 ft. square. A suspension flume conveying water across Murphys Creek and drainage race draining the flat were two outstanding accomplishments of early day miners.
Some gold can still be found in the streams in this area and the gold bearing quartz veins can be found in slate and schist, and have mostly a rosy color.
Red Hills Area
Red Hills Area Serpentine rock is apple-green to black and is often mottled with light and dark colored areas. It has a shiny or wax-like appearance and slightly soapy feel. Serpentine is usually fine-grained and compact but may be granular, platy or fibrous. It’s found in central and northern California in the Coast Ranges, Klamath Mountains and Sierra Nevada foothills. Serpentine rock is primarily composed of one or more of the three magnesium silicate minerals: lizardite,chrysotile and antigorite. Chrysotile often occurs as fibrous veinlets in serpentine. Chrysotile in fibrous form is the most common type of asbestos. Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals that readily separates into thin, strong and flexible fibers that are heat resistant. Lizardite and antigorite don’t form asbestos fibers and instead are plate-like.
Serpentine is metamorphic and/or magnesium-rich igneous rock, Hardness 4-6 Visit the page about Red hills in the destination guide for more about the area.
Rail Road Flat
Rail Road Flat was founded in 1849 and named after primitive muledrawn ore cars used here. The center of rich placer and quartz mining, its largest producer was the Petticoat Mine.
San Andreas, gold from the surrounding ancient river channels and placer mines contributed greatly to the success of the Union during the Civil War.
Known as Queen of the Southern Mines, Sonora was as wild as other mining towns but bigger. It was settled in 1848 by miners from Sonora, Mexico, who called it Sonorian Camp. A mine where Sonora High School now stands yielded a 28 lb. nugget in 1851 and produced 990 lbs. of gold in one week in 1879.
It started out as a Latin-flavored metropolis with adobe houses, fandango halls, and bull baiting. When American miners learned of foreigners working the rich area conflict began. The situation came to a climax when the state legislature passed a law requiring foreign miners to pay a monthly tax of $20 per man. After some gunplay, over 2,000 Mexicans departed Sonora. Ironically, the tax proved to be the end of Sonora as a boomtown. Things were so quiet that the local newspaper, Sonora Herald, went out of business. The tax was found to be illegal and was repealed in 1851, but Sonora never regained its pre-tax lawlessness. Four devastating fires reduced various buildings to ashes, but Sonora still has some historical buildings and Victorian homes to admire. For more information about the area visit the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center is housed in what once served as the town jail.
Soulsbyville, site of the famous Soulsby Mine discovered by Benjamin Soulsby, Soulsbyville is the first community in Tuolumne County to be founded (1855) entirely upon the operation of a lode mine. First to work the mine were hard rock miners from Cornwall, England, the first group of 499 Cornishmen arrived in 1858. According to the State Historical Landmark umber 420.
Summersville (Tuolumne) – The area’s first non-Indian settlers, the Franklin Summers family, arrived in 1854 and built a log cabin a half mile west of this spot, the geographical center of East Belt Placer Gold Rush from 1856 to 1857. In 1858, James Blakely discovered the first quartz lode half a mile east of here and named it ‘Eureka’. The mine became the nucleus of the town of Summersville, which was later called Carters and finally became Tuolumne. Other mining towns lively in gold rush days were Long Gulch, two miles south, and Cherokee, two miles north.” For a more detailed history visit the Tuolumne Museum.
Yosemite’s major attractions such as Half Dome and El Capitan are of course Granite. Shaped over long periods of time granite forms the bedrock of much of the Sierra Nevada, including most of Yosemite National Park.
The Yosemite landscape as we see it today strongly reflects the dynamic influence of flowing ice that long ago covered much of its higher regions. Yosemite Valley has often been referred to as a “classic” glacial valley. A glacier tends to straighten a valley and smooth its walls as it grinds past them.
For more about Yosemite visit the destination guide.
Rockfalls are the most powerful geologic force shaping Yosemite Valley today. Although rockfalls are relatively uncommon, several rockfalls occur in Yosemite Valley each year; they are dangerous. Use extra caution when on or immediately below cliffs.