This state park comprises a fascinating collection of buildings in a bucolic riverside setting at the site of James Marshall's riot-inducing discovery. Buy your ticket at the museum to display on the dashboard, return to the museum for some background, then explore a replica of Sutter's Mill, mosey round the blacksmith's and Chinese store and even try panning for gold.
Compared to the stampede of gun-toting, hill-blasting, hell-raising settlers that populate tall tales along Hwy 49, the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is a place of tranquility, with two tragic protagonists in John Sutter and James Marshall.
Sutter, who had a fort in Sacramento, partnered with Marshall to build a sawmill on this swift stretch of the American River in 1847. It was Marshall who discovered gold here on January 24, 1848, and though the men tried to keep their findings secret, prospectors from around the world stampeded into town. In one of the ironies of the gold rush, the men who made this discovery died nearly penniless. In another, many of the new immigrants who arrived seeking fortune were indentured, taxed and bamboozled out of anything they found. Meanwhile, as the site museum stresses, the world of the local Native American Nisenan tribespeople was collapsing due to disease and displacement.
In the rare moments when there aren’t a million schoolkids running around, the pastoral park by the river makes for a solemn stroll. A trail leads, via displays on panning and hydraulic mining and past the 1860 Wah Hop Chinese Store, to the spot on the bank of the wide American River where Marshall found gold and started the revolutionary birth of the ‘Golden State.’
On a hill overlooking the park is the James Marshall Monument, where he was buried in 1885, a ward of the state. You can drive the circuit but it’s much better to meander up to the monument on foot, and then continue on the Monroe Ridge Trail for views of the town and the river.
Panning for gold ($7, free with park entrance if you have your own equipment) is popular. From 10am to 4pm in the summer, or by request, you get a quick training session and 45 minutes to pan.