Day 15: Woods Creek and Yosemite

Today has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. We had a fantastic 2 hour gold mining lesson down at a dry creek with Frying Pan Frank, Brent and T.J (and a couple of their dogs).

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We were a bit sceptical at first, we honestly thought that they would chuck a few flakes of gold into the earth so we would come away pleased. But, this was evidently not the case. We worked hard to extract gold, and we learnt so much from these professionals. Frank (known as Frying Pan Frank, because he’s a good chef) has his own claim, and he showed us how to prospect and go through the various stages of cleaning up the soil, sifting through it and then finding the gold. He has his own step by step way of going through the process, and his obvious desire to share his skills makes it easy to learn.

Karen using the dry washer.

We also learnt how to use the dry washer – and this helps to get things done a bit quicker. Brent’s father set up the spot along the creek so that ‘everyone could have their chance at the experience of prospecting and finding gold’, and school kids have enjoyed learning these skills here.

We felt that not only did we have a super, enjoyable morning, but that there was a sense of ‘passing down the skills’ which we really valued.

We would totally recommend the experience, so if you ever come along to Jamestown be sure to look these guys up. If you think $180 is expensive for 2 people, we think the quality of the teaching and the fun that you have really is worth it (in fact, we’d recommend a slightly more expensive three-hour session). Oh, and you never know you might also come away with some gold. Whatever you find is yours to keep. We found a little bit – Frank reckons about $20-30, but I don’t suppose we will be in a hurry to sell it. It’s a great memento of our time here!

So check these guys out here:

and here:

Then it was on to Yosemite…Wow! This park is amazing. The sights are extraordinary and change regularly throughout the park. Most people tend to come in to the park from the West for a day trip to see the stunning waterfalls and perhaps do a spot of hiking. We’ll be doing some of that tomorrow (from the East side, minus the waterfalls – because of the drought), but our purpose today was slightly different: we were driving through the whole park from West to East on Highway 120, a distance of over 50 miles on windy roads getting higher and higher on the Sierra plateau. It’s slow going, but well worth it, and every few miles the scenery completely changes from extensive pine forest around Yosemite Creek to staggering vistas of white rock around Olmsted Point, to verdant stretches of watery flatland like the Tuolomne Meadows. The many lakes in the park are just stunning with their mountainous backdrops: especially Tenaya Lake, which even has a shoreline and a beach. We could have spent days just taking pictures and soaking up the scenery. There are beautiful lakes that you can swim in and hikes all over the place. We can’t wait to come back tomorrow and experience some more, though today’s drive has been a really magical experience, taking in the park as a whole in a snapshot and really opening our eyes to the majesty of its natural beauty.

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We have stopped for the night at Mammoth Lakes Inn, just beyond the park. This is a ski resort from about October until July (we know, a long season). We found the hotel service to be a bit rubbish, so we won’t dwell on that, and why would we when there is so much beauty to experience up the road in Yosemite, and we will continue doing that tomorrow.

Day 14. Panning for Gold in Columbia

Undisturbed by Flo (the ghost) through the night, we were in high spirits until Karen jumped in the shower and the knob fell off, so to speak. Turns out we had only been put in the room in which she karked it (Flo, not Karen)! So with shattered porcelain shower knob in hand we meekly took our seats for breakfast, and I think we got away with it… we’re now in room 7 with a teddy bear rather than a ghost for company.

Anyway, we’re getting off the point, because our real destination today was Jamestown Gold Prospecting Adventures, across the way (“you can’t miss the claim jumper hanging in front of our store”). Here we met Bryant, a real retro ’49er with plenty of gold on show in his shop (and plenty of gravel in his voice!)

Hanging claim jumper.
Hanging claim jumper.

Bit of a hitch… we have to wait until tomorrow for the proper panning, but we had heerd tell of another opportunity down the road, so we hopped on our trusty steed and galloped off on a tour of mining towns… Copperopolis, Angel’s Camp, and first of all, Columbia, a living gold town.

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Wow. Columbia really is authentic. It’s sort of part-musuem town, and part real-town. Like all of the other towns in this area, there are hardly any inhabitants, so there’s a sort of ghost-town atmosphere in and around the smattering of tourists and the handful of be-costumed shopkeepers. We skirted the bank and the local livery store to find the mine, and started to pan in the searing heat of temperate California.

Naturally, we expected to unearth fat lumps of the yellow stuff before tea break, so we were a bit disconsolate when our first few attempts yielded naff all. Eventually we spotted a couple of glittery speckles, but you know what they say: having harvested a goodly portion, we took our gains to the mine-owner only to find that it was fool’s gold, and we was fools.

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Ah well! Lunch in the period saloon on site (Sarsaparillo is a bit like Dr. Pepper), and then a tour of the museum itself and a quick lesson in what gold really looks like. Then for good measure we did another spot of unsuccessful panning. Better luck tomorrow.

Nevertheless undaunted, we did a little tour of the area, through another gold town called Angel’s Camp, a copper mining town called Copperopolis, and around a beautiful lake, Lake Tulloch, which unlike many of the watercourses in the area is weathering the current drought pretty well.

The scenery is stunning, and in this sort of heat, really harsh. You can see what hard work gold mining really was – and if it made anybody a fortune, it was money well earned!

scorched lands and dry river beds.
scorched lands and dry river beds.
The Golden Chain Highway Bridge. This goes over the Melones water course which is quite dry.
The Golden Chain Highway Bridge. This goes over the Melones water course which in this part is quite dry.
Lake Tulloch is holding up better.
Lake Tulloch is holding up better.

Day 13: Into the Sierra Nevada

Leaving wine country we headed East, though the impression was that we were going further into the West. It was wild west territory we were hitting, and the landscape changed markedly from the lush greens of the valleys to the yellow prairies and then the speckled hillsides of gold rush country.

Brush heading East but West

apparently best burgers in the valley. They were pretty good!
apparently best burgers in the valley. They were pretty good!

Burger at Hula's

Stopping for lunch at a classic American Diner with a Hawaiian twist (!!!) – Hula’s in Escalon – we reached our new digs mid-afternoon. Riding in on our trusty black stallion, we felt every bit the outsider coming into town. Dominic yearned for his all-black jeans and shirt so he could look like a proper bad cowboy; and Karen fished in the suitcase for enough petticoats to pass in this town as we clattered into the saloon.

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“Y’all look like you need a drink,” came a voice from the corner. And here we met Sabrina, the charming bartender of the National Historic Hotel – hosts in the past of many a western film crew.

As you might expect, the hotel, like the town, is right out of the nineteenth century, and comes with everything from a stoop to a soaking room (bath) to a resident ghost, and stories of shoot-outs. A tour around the town took two-and-a-bit minutes, but we lengthened it by taking plenty of snapshots just to confirm to the locals that we were indeed the out-of-towners. By 6pm we were absolutely baked because the outside temp was still 101 degrees fahrenheit. Considering that the hottest temp ever recorded in the UK is 98 degrees, that is damn hot!

As we settled into a pint and lots of chat with Sabrina and the proprietor Stephen, we heard all the stories, and felt like we really should be outside by the camp fire waiting for sundown and the howling of the coyotes. We heard about Christopher Lloyd filming Back to the Future 3 here, and enjoying a couple of whiskey’s of an evening; we also heard about Black Bart the bank robber, a San Francisco school teacher by day, who was finally caught just down the road but who never revealed where his $10m was stashed; and we heard about Flora, a young girl who was planning her wedding when her fiancé got shot and killed in the saloon bar: Flo died of a broken heart two days later, but still haunts the hotel to this day.

Dominic’s reading Sam North’s excellent book “Diamonds” at the moment, which is all about the Sierra Nevada Diamond Rush of the 1870s. Well worth a read, especially when you are holed up in the very towns that were part of those early prospecting days!

Tomorrow we’re going panning: there’s gold in dem dere hills.