California is a wonderful paradise for both metal detecting and scenic beauty. Here we explore some of the more exciting metal detecting sites in Northern California.
When I first came to California, it was on Highway 80 crossing from the Nevada border. That state line is near the summit of the Sierra mountains. The terrain ranged from snow-capped mountains to evergreens on the long, hilly descent into the farmlands of the Central Valley. Then, it was on to the San Francisco coast and the Pacific Ocean. In between there were farms, freeways, factories and floodplains all near the same roadway.
Gold was discovered here in 1849, creating a flood of new settlers, and sparking the dreams of adventure-seekers from all points east.
The only downside of California is that it’s a relatively new state. It doesn’t have the centuries of residents dropping earrings and pennies from their pockets that you see in the eastern states. Statehood came to California in 1850, one year after the Gold Rush.
On the other hand, Northern California probably makes up for the treasure trove deficit by featuring an almost ideal climate. People here love to jog, camp, and hike in the great outdoors, again, spreading their junk and jewelry as they glide by.
Legal Considerations for Metal Detecting in California
There’s an oddly depressing feeling the first time you look up from your detector and see a law-enforcement officer approaching. It happened to me. It’s not scary so much as embarrassing, as I was unaware of the local codes that prohibited me from detecting on what turned out to be police property.
No fines or citations, just a red face.
Before you dig anything up, be sure it’s legal to do so. In general, metal detecting is allowed in state parks but you cannot destroy plants in doing so. There are limits too on mineralogical, historic, and archaeological artifacts. You cannot dig up and remove fossils, minerals for commercial use, or remove a WWII firearm.
You cannot dig in Indian burial grounds. There is a complex mixture of regulations obscure enough to confound the most altruistic dirt-fisher. To find out more, check out the Metal Detecting Hobby Talk web site, for national regulations, and California laws.
Generally, it’s OK to search in National Forests and Federal Bureau of Land Management properties, but metal detecting is forbidden at national monuments. In California this includes the Giant Sequoia National Monument and the Fort Ord National Monument.
Read a little bit more about Metal Detecting on BLM land in this article. Can I Metal Detect on BLM Land?
A general rule is not to dig in manicured lawns. Metal detecting is allowed at almost all beaches. Most parks allow you to metal detect in sandy soil, weeded and undeveloped land and wooded areas, as long as you’re not destroying vegetation or wildlife.
We focus here on a few selected sites as samples of good prospecting areas for the metal detecting hobbyist. The fall into three somewhat broad and overlapping categories:
- Trails, and
- Forgotten cities.
Beaches and Trails in California for Metal Detecting
Beach detecting is really fun because it’s easy digging, generally quite productive, and you don’t have to worry about park rangers looking over your shoulder. There’s the added pleasure of sea breezes, open vistas, and relatively large search areas.
1. Seacliff Beach, Aptos, CA – Fun Metal Detecting!
If I could define one place that’s perfect for metal detecting Seacliff is it. A beautiful BUSY beach, convenient parking, lots to see and lots of sand for items to get lost in.
Seacliff Beach also has an RV park which makes it perfect for the traveling detectorist. Find a slot right on the beach and get out early and enjoy! Read more at the state park website. Website: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=543.
Cautions for Metal Detecting at Seacliff:
- Salty sand can play havoc with your ground balance. Be sure to adjust your detector according to the user manual.
- This is not a sun-bathing beach. The weather is cold, as currents come down from Alaska on the west coast. Most beach activity is near the walkway.
- The cliffs are very steep overlooking the beach. Use the stairs and roadways to descend to sea level. People have been killed from cliff collapses. See news story: https://www.wtoc.com/2019/08/03/killed-cliff-collapses-popular-california-beach/.
The good news is that this is a very popular beach and is well attended. There is a huge RV parking lot on the west end that is about half a mile long and campers visit year-round. The beach continues to the east for about another mile and features an old WWI concrete ship that is quickly deteriorating in the surf.
Notes and Tips for Seacliff Beach:
You can avoid the park fee by driving to the corner of State Park Drive and Santa Cruz Avenue, just north of the park.
Next to the parking lot, which begins at that same corner, is a huge open field where you might want to detect also.
At the south-west corner of the parking lot is a very popular wooden staircase down to the beach. This vista point overlooks the shipwreck at the end of the pier. Well worth the walk!
2. Metal Detecting at Baker Beach, San Francisco, California
This is a hugely popular beach and a great place to hunt, as it’s picturesque and close to the city of San Francisco. I’ve been there a few times and it’s usually filled with visitors. Tourists from all over the world tour this area and many choose this beach as their first view of the great Pacific Ocean.
About 400 billion gallons of water flow into and out of SF Bay every day, under the Golden Gate bridge.
Read about the park and plan your visit using the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy webstite – LINK HERE
The tidal action and prevailing winds push all kinds of things onto this beach. (Link: https://sfenvironment.org/article/hydro/tidal-energy.)
Bring a long-handled sand scoop. It’s fine sand and the long handle will save you a lot of deep-knee bends. Read more about digging tools in this article: Metal Detecting Digging Tools a Complete Guide
Adjust your ground balance for the salty water.
It’s cold and windy out there. Currents in the Pacific come down from Alaska. Bring a windbreaker.
3. Stinson Beach, California – Super Popular makes for Great Metal Detecting
Stinson Beach is wildly popular with both tourists and the locals, and has been the playground for Hippies and Flower Children since the 1960s. Janis Joplin had her ashes scattered there in 1970. Just under and hour’s drive from San Francisco, it offers a whopping 2.4 miles of beautiful beach landscape.
Get to Stinson beach early, particularly on hot days. This beach is close to millions of folks and it seems like everyone wants to cool off. As a part of the National Park Service the beach and grounds are well maintained. Be sure to plan your trip before arriving, I’ve found the the Stinson Beach Website is a great resource.
I found some interesting facts on Wikipedia:
“Stinson Beach is about a 35-minute drive from the Golden Gate Bridge on California’s Highway 1. It is near important attractions such as Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, and Mount Tamalpais. It has a long beach, and the cold water produces fog throughout the year.”
It’s a foggy and cool climate with lots to see and do. You can read some local news about the tidepools : https://baynature.org/article/a-tidepool-in-time/.
You need to have the RIGHT kinds of digging equipment for beaches. A METAL DETECTING SCOOP is essential. My most recent favorite is the Hand Held Garrett GAR1600970 (links to AMAZON to check out the prices and reviews)
4. American River – Sweeping for Gold
The American River near Auburn, California is rough-and-tumble country, with steep cliffs, a powerful river, and miles of hiking paths. The terrain is not suited for young children, but it is a great spot to metal detect.
Although the objective is to find coins and jewelry along the trails, there is at least the possibility of hunting for gold. It’s best to have a dedicated gold detector for this. Look for outcroppings of quartz rock in the hills and examine the eroded soil beneath these exposed areas.
With lots of gold history the American River and the town of Auburn can wet you appetite for GOLD.
Don’t forget to stop and “smell the roses” so to speak along these trails. There are no roses to be seen, but the photo opportunities are spectacular. There are some trails that I recommend to metal detect on, the first two with plenty of hiker traffic.
- Black Hole of Calcutta Trail.
- Clementine Trail.
- Quarry Trail.
For families with small children, I would suggest an alternative, such as the many camps that offer amateur gold panning. These sites may be a little more tame, but still offer excellent adventures for the adults.
- Union Flat Campground, keeps the old time gold mining feel alive. Read more at the Recreation.gov website. https://www.recreation.gov/camping/campgrounds/234534
- Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, provide a first hand glimpse at panning for gold. With a metal detector your chances are better searching for gold jewelry. Plan a visit to the park using the States website – https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484
- Malakoff Diggins State Park, learn about what hydraulic mining was in this 3000 acre park nestled in a pine forest. Metal detecting old tailing piles may actually kick-off a tone on your detector. Even more information can be found at https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=494
5. Nevada City – Searching the Cascade Canal Trail
This is a particularly interesting trail. There’s not much chance of finding gold here, but the real treasure is an isolated walk in the woods that transports you into the heart of Mother Nature. It’s a canal that transports water from the mountain areas to the foothills of the Central Valley of California. See the web site link above for some come-hither photographs.
From the web page:
“This popular trail offers an almost level walk along a peaceful canal through a forest with many Douglas firs and dogwoods. At 3200′ elevation, it is a bit higher and cooler than many local trails. There are several places along the route where views open up briefly to more distant scenery.”
It’s in Gold Country, so there’s always a chance of finding some hidden treasure, but don’t count on it. Just to keep your imagination alive, though, here’s a story about finding stolen loot in Gold Country: News Link: https://www.sfgate.com/outdoors/article/Discovery-may-prompt-new-gold-rush-5281400.php.
6. Pioneer Trail at Hwy 20 – Remote Metal Detecting
This is an alternate trail you might want to consider. It’s not fully developed here because its very remote and probably too difficult for most detectorists. It’s located between Nevada City and Emigrant Gap in California, and marks an old wagon-train trail paralleling Highway 20. This trail might be good for relic hunting.
Note that this is a long trail, headed mostly down-hill. Plan accordingly, as the walk up hill will be a lot more strenuous at this high altitude.
The way I’ve planned my trip is to camp at the White Cloud Campground and plan for a full day of hiking the trail scanning along the way. Use a favorite tip of checking closely by benches and natural rest areas.
Forgotten Cities a FAVORITE Metal Detecting Spot
A great way to find the oldest neighborhoods in any city is to get a vintage map. You can find old maps for about any town on internet sites such as Ebay. Compare the old map to a modern one and you’ll have a good comparison to find the oldest parts of you city.
When I first moved to Folsom, California, I was disappointed to see how few coins I was finding. I got an old 1952 map and found out why. Up until that time Folsom was just a couple square miles in area. By the 1990s it had grown, tremendously, mostly to the south, where I was finding coins no earlier than 1980.
In the year 1900, Sacramento, likewise, had a population of only 30,000, confined mostly between A and X Streets, from the Sacramento River to 30th Street. Today it’s population is over half a million, and the oldest areas remain in that small square, with a few city blocks on the west side of the river, now part of West Sacramento. Figure 9 shows a map of the city from 1900, along with an image of one of the many streets with wide, grassy traffic dividers, good for metal detecting.
7. Old Sacramento / West Sacramento for Metal Detcting
There is a tourist section of town called Old Sac. Old Sacramento is a State Historic Park, so digging there is off limits. The surrounding areas, however, provide ample opportunities for metal detecting. See Figure 10.
Pristine lawns add glamour to the tourist area of Old Town Sacrament, but just a quarter mile away are undeveloped parks and walkways along old parts of the Sacramento River.
There are long stretches of waterfront that remain undeveloped and the west shore now has a little-used bicycle path. This area, being so old is ripe for finding relics and silver coins. The tourist center is off limits to detecting, but areas near by are waiting for your search.
8. Benicia – Old is Good for Metal Detecting
Benicia is one of the oldest cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, being just the third city to incorporate in the state of California. It was once the state capital, in 1853. Now it’s one of those communities you drive through while going somewhere else. Still, it has a rich history and dozens of great sites for the metal detector.
This is a good place to search for silver and old coins. There is lots of areas with hilly terrain and untouched nooks and crannies just waiting to be explored. See the list of target sites in Figure 12.
The weather there is often windy, as breezes from the ocean whip through a narrow break in the coastal range of mountains. This is a sleepy little town yet oddly fascinating.
The End – of this article but Keep Using Your Metal Detector
This has been just the briefest of samplings for metal detecting sites for Northern California. There’s plenty more to say, but we need to keep the articles brief for the sake of reader attention span! Ha, ha! But there are plenty of exciting areas to explore, which we hope to present in the future.
In the meantime, you can learn a lot and be inspired by checking out some the Metal Detecting forums and web sites on the internet.
- Treasurenet: http://www.treasurenet.com/forums/forum.php
- Metal Detecting Forum: https://metaldetectingforum.com/index.php
- Metal Detecting Hobby Talk (Calif.) http://www.mdhtalk.org/cf/club.cfm?st=CA
Vince Migliore is a writer and researcher. He has written numerous magazine articles on metal detecting and three books. His latest book is “The Art and Science of Metal Detecting,” available in paperback at Amazon.