Finding gold (of all sorts) near Yosemite

  • Story and photos by Sue Frause Special to The Herald
  • Friday, July 6, 2007 11:26am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

“Wouldn’t it be easier to go to Tiffany?” I asked one of my fellow gold diggers.

Digging for gold is hard work. And when you’re not digging, you’re panning or sluicing.

Sluicing?

That’s what you do in California’s Yosemite Gold Country. I was in Tuolumne County, 133 miles east of San Francisco. This pristine expanse of land reaches far into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

And then there’s that big chunk of wilderness the size of Rhode Island called Yosemite National Park.

But back to the gold. I was on an afternoon gold mining trip led by Joshua Vick, a gold geologist and owner of California Gold. A small group of us gathered at Woods Creek between the Gold Rush towns of Jamestown and Sonora.

“I’ve been looking for gold since I was a kid,” said the energetic guide, who sports a gold front tooth.

The sometime TV star, who has been featured on “The Hunt For Amazing Treasures,” tells us we’re in the middle of the Mother Lode belt and that Woods Creek is the richest in California.

Our group breaks up into crews of diggers, haulers, sluicers and panners. Digging and hauling is pretty basic stuff, but I’d never seen a sluice box before. Vick explains that because gold is heavy, when you dump the gravel into the top of the sluice box, the gold doesn’t escape but drops to the bottom of the box.

Patience is a must, as after sluicing, it’s panning time. Fred Wright Jr. of St. Petersburg, Fla., seemed to have the knack for the required “shiver and shake” routine with his gold pan.

I stuck to hauling buckets of gravel and dirt to the sluice box operators.

So what was our take? Quite a few gold flakes, which we bestowed upon the best digger of the bunch. Susan Manlin Katzman of St. Louis, Mo., admitted to having a major case of gold fever and plans to put the flakes in a vial and wear them around her neck.

There’s wine in them thar hills!

I’d heard about the California Gold Rush but had no idea this area was also a prominent wine region. In the mid-1900s, there were more than 100 wineries in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Today, 19 wineries make up the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance. One of the larger ones is Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys. The seven-story complex includes a tasting room, restaurant and gift shop.

Nearby is the Heritage Museum and Gallery, home to the world’s largest single specimen of crystalline gold leaf. The 44-pound treasure was not like anything we discovered in our sluice box the day before.

Outside are acres of vineyards, landscaped grounds and a plethora of flowers. An amphitheater seats 7,000 and is home to the Ironstone Summer Concert Series, while the nearby Lakeside Park is the venue for Sunday concerts in the park. The grounds are perfect for strolling and picnicking and, of course, sipping wine.

Perfectly preserved town

A fun place for outdoor strolling is Columbia, California’s best-preserved town from the 1850s. In 1945, it was designated Columbia State Historic Park, so you won’t find a Gap or McDonald’s here. The town sports wooden sidewalks and shopkeepers such as Floyd Oydegaard are garbed in period dress.

The former photographer calls himself a “historic re-enactor” and is outfitted in an 1880s vest and pants with a snappy black hat. He’s happy to regale customers with the history of the area, including all the Westerns that have been filmed here.

The list is impressive: Such movies as “High Noon” and “Radio Flyer” and the TV series “Death Valley Days” and “Little House on the Prairie” were shot here.

I hiked up Kennebec Hill to St. Anne’s Catholic Church, built in 1856 and the first brick church in California. This is also one of the few spots in town where your cell phone will work. Next door is Columbia Cemetery, guarded by two giant cypress trees.

Off to Yosemite

I somehow missed visiting Yosemite all these years, so it was time to see what the park is all about. Since we were staying outside the park in Groveland, we took scenic Highway 120 to Yosemite Valley. Sadly, the sunshine of the past few days had made an unwanted exit, so the views of Half Dome and El Capitan weren’t quite as stunning as against a deep, blue sky.

Spring is a good time to view the waterfalls in the park. In addition to upper and lower Yosemite falls, Bridalveil Fall is impressive. There’s a half-mile round-trip walk to the base of the fall, which begins at the trailhead located in the Bridalveil Fall Parking Area just off Wawona Road.

For an overview of the park, watch “The Spirit of Yosemite” in the West Auditorium behind the Valley Visitor Center. We lucked out as the newly remodeled $1.2 million center had just re-opened the day before, and its displays are creative and easy to understand. Nearby are the Yosemite Museum and the reconstructed Indian Village of Ahwahnee.

I signed up for a photography tour through Yexplore out of Sonora. Park resident and professional photographer Walter Flint was our guide, and he focused on Ansel Adams. Not only did we walk in the footsteps of the legendary photographer, we learned photography techniques (“Use a tripod”) and were given helpful hints (“Be in tune with weather and nature”).

Oh, about that weather. As we left Yosemite on our way back to Groveland, we were bid farewell with a spring snowstorm.

Mother Nature does her job well.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. She may be reached through her Web site at www.suefrause.com.

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