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Weekend Escape: Northern California

Gold Opportunity

Finding a mother lode of family recreation at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

October 04, 1998|AMY PYLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Pyle writes from The Times' Sacramento bureau

MALAKOFF DIGGINS STATE HISTORIC PARK, Calif. — My back baking on a sun-warmed rock, cool water tickling my toes, I have just begun to drift toward a daydream when the sharp rap of hammer on rock rushes me back to reality. It is the unmistakable sound of gold fever.

We are capping off a long weekend of camping in Northern California's Gold Country. Here, on the banks of the South Yuba River, while we swim, skip stones and picnic, a family on the opposite shore digs up great handfuls of mud, hunches over sand-filled pans and searches the boulders for quartz rocks to smash. The youngest boy, no older than our 8-year-old, seems to be the designated smasher.

They have been bitten by the gold bug and so, for an afternoon, were we.

My husband, Bob, my two sons and I drove up from Sacramento on Saturday morning, an easy l 1/2-hour trek out Interstate 80 to California 49, the Mother Lode Highway. Back-seat whines of "I'm hungry" coincided with our arrival at the Nevada City Brewery, a picturesque stone building where beer was first brewed during the Gold Rush.

Our destination was Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in Nevada County, California's largest hydraulic mining operation from the mid-1860s until a federal judge halted the erosion in 1884. The rugged white and red cliffs left behind by water-blasting mountains to their rock-and-gravel core provide a dual lesson in geology and environmental devastation fueled by economic incentive. They also are undeniably beautiful.

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What attracted us to Malakoff were simpler considerations: the promise of a small but comfortable campsite (flush toilets!) and a partially restored ghost town to explore. I had discovered Malakoff--named for a Russian Fort that once stood near Sebastopol--by surfing the Internet on a great new site created by Foghorn Press, which can be accessed through http://www.smartpages.com.

Though the site warned that the final two miles to pine- and manzanita-studded Chute Hill campground are via gravel road, we were delighted to discover that it recently has been paved. The campsite is open year-round, though it sometimes becomes inaccessible in the winter because of snow. Through mid-November, daytime temperatures usually remain pleasant--in the 60s and 70s--though at night it can get down to freezing. There also are a few simple cabins available through the park reservation service.

Our tent up and sleeping bags unrolled, we hopped back in the car to register at park headquarters, housed in one of the restored ghost town buildings that catered to the 1,700 former residents of boomtown North Bloomfield. The back room is a museum with a hydraulic mining model, complete with squirting water, that captivated my sons. During the summer months the park provides gold-panning tours, but pans can be checked out for free at the museum, open on weekends year-round.

Ranger Ken Huie took us down to the shores of Humbug Creek--incorrectly named by some unlucky miners; it really did have gold although they didn't find it--and waded in to demonstrate his technique for separating gold from river silt: 1) Fill your pan with mud dug from the banks, below the water line. 2) Add water and swirl while pulling out large pebbles and twigs. 3) Shake, shake, jiggle, jiggle, tilt, pour until you get down to black sand. 4) Examine closely for the glint of gold.

Huie made it look so easy, depositing a dozen or so flakes into glass vials we had purchased at park headquarters for our boys. As he left, he cautioned us to return the pans by 5 p.m., when the museum closes. Preposterous advice, we thought, that's nearly two hours away. But with practice we began to improve, and the false promise of large bits of shiny mica--fool's gold--spurred us on. Suddenly it was nearly 5 and we were muddy and hungry, with but a few more specks in our vials.

Back at camp, I began preparing our dinner of grilled steak and potatoes baked in the coals. Bob made a 20-minute dash to the only nearby store--Mother Truckers--which takes its solitary responsibility seriously, stocking everything from suntan lotion to sunflower sprouts. He returned with two essentials we had neglected to pack: insect repellent and red wine.

Sunday morning we woke to blue skies and opted to hike the mile or so down the hill to North Bloomfield. We watched the 20-minute video about hydraulic mining. We wandered through the restored town, peeking in the windows of the pharmacy, the saloon and the general merchandise store filled with bolts of gingham, stacks of folded overalls, saddles and teapots, rope, lanterns and pitchforks. It is all so realistic that our kids wanted to know if we could have lunch there.

Back at camp that evening, just as we finished toasting marshmallows for s'mores, a rustling in the bushes drew our attention to a small doe passing by. We wished on the first few stars and headed to bed, waking later to the sound of owls hooting in harmony and a full moon so bright you could read by it.

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