Located at the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Merced County has a ton to offer the adventurous type, and what better way would there be to explore the county on a weekend or a well deserved vacation than to do some rock hounding or gold panning?
Rockhounding Merced County, California
The information provided in this article by YesDirt.com is for informational purposes and is subject to change. Laws are updated. Accessibility guidelines and restrictions change. Be sure to confirm the land status and collection rules before you travel to an unfamiliar location or collect any material.
With such a rich mining history all through the gold rush days up until present day, there is no denying that the primary offerings are in the precious minerals category, but there have also been reports of some very cool gemstone finds, including diamonds by one local gold prospector.
Here are five places worth rock hounding in, or close to Merced County, California.
Merced River (Gold)
While the Briceburg area is known as one of the better spots to pan for gold along the Merced River, it is a bit of a drive over into Mariposa, and there are some great places closer to Merced County near Snelling and other locations along the river heading west.
Always check the rules for the area you will be collecting in, but it is a safe bet that the following applies along most, if not the full length, of the river.
Limited prospecting can be done with non-motorized equipment (hand pan).
With so many tributaries along the river, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a nice spot to spend a day enjoying the whispers of the river and trying your hand at finding some gold of your own.
The gold finding may not be as abundant as it once was, but nothing feels greater than landing your first little flake or nugget in the pan.
Diablo Range (Stibnite)
There are a number of places where Stibnite can be found in the Diablo Range, but the more well known area is the Stayton District. Stibnite, otherwise known as antimony, can be a great addition to any rock collection.
The crystal cluster formations that can form on Stibnite are amazing, but even the layer cake-like samples that have been found are quite stunning.
Stibnite can be found in limestone deposits (often thought to be deposited by hot springs) and also forms around granite and gneiss deposits.
There are many hiking trails in the mountains and it is advisable to research and plan where you want to explore ahead of time so that you can pack accordingly.
For an authentic Gold Rush experience and fun outing, head on over to Jamestown and visit the Gold Prospecting Adventures crew.
They have been honing the craft of gold panning and prospecting for forty years and present the gold rush history of the area in period costumes while doing it.
This is a great way to spend a day with friends or family and to learn more about the history of California’s gold rush days.
Yosemite is just a stone’s throw away as well, making Jamestown a perfect holiday destination for exploration and rock hounding activities.
It is a relatively short drive from Merced (roughly an hour to an hour and a half).
The Benitoite Gem mine (Benitoite)
The Benitoite Gem mine is a bit of a drive south of Merced County near Coalinga (following West Side Fwy down to Fresno Coalinga Rd).
This is a paid access site but gives you the chance to find the state gemstone Benitoite and is a fun outing for everyone of all ages.
It’s a great way to wet the appetite of a budding rockhounder and will provide a lasting memory, especially if you walk away with a beautiful gemstone quality piece to add to your collection.
Check the mine’s official website for admission fees and info.
They offer a wide variety of activities, including instruction on how to gem hunt and the staff are super friendly.
Benitoite is said to be one of the rarest gemstones on the planet and it is believed that this is the only place on Earth that it is found.
Pacheco Pass (Aragonite)
Pacheco Pass is a great place to do some exploring to find Aragonite, but make sure you research the area ahead of time and take a map with you.
There are many back roads and trails to wander around, and a couple of parking areas near the San Luis Reservoir.
Cottonwood Creek (along Red Mountain Rd) is one area to explore and is a bit more easily accessed.
Hiking equipment and simple rock collecting tools are recommended.
Aragonite is a kind of calcite that is most commonly found in sedimentary rock and comes in a multitude of colors including red, green, yellow, blue, violet and white.
Blue is the rarest of the colors and most of what has been found has come from China.
Aragonite is round in shape, with clusters of column crystals jutting from its center, and is one of three naturally occurring calcium carbonates that form in the wild.
Finding any sized sample would make a beautiful addition to a mineral collection.
Dials Rock & Fossil Shop
If you are looking for a great gem shop to visit, rather than gem hunting for your own, there is a great shop roughly an hour’s drive east from Merced in Mariposa called Dials Rock & Fossil Shop.
It’s a beautiful heritage town that’s part of the Gold Rush trail and makes for a great weekend getaway or even a day trip.
There are plenty of other great locations to go sightseeing and rock hounding, but these are some of the more notable areas that have come up over the years with solid information as to what can be found in the area.
Be mindful and respectful of private property and state and federal laws while out rock hounding or gold panning and before taking any samples with you from any of these areas.
Some places may require a permit, so check ahead of time whenever you are heading to a new location.
This is mostly in park land areas or protected reserves. Fill in your divots and close the gates behind you if you open them. Know the rules and hound within them!
California Rockhounding Resources
If you like to have a physical book in hand (like when there’s no cell service), here’s a few popular options:
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The desert and mountain region is one of the best places to rockhounding.
We have a trip to go rockhounding near Sacramento planned soon, we’ll let you know how it goes!
Let’s start digging!
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