• Image about Virginia Gold Prospectors
Courtesy Chicken Gold Camp

Looking for an alternative family vacation? Dig up some fun at a slew of public mine sites -- and you might just come away with buried treasure.

Kim Allen-Niesen likes to take her children on adventures that complement their studies. So when her daughter learned about the California gold rush, Allen-Niesen found herself knee-deep in Alpine County’s muddy Woods Creek, digging for gold just the way 49ers did a century and a half ago.

“We used the same tools as the old gold miners, mostly because there’s not been a huge evolution in what you use to pan gold in a creek,” she says. “It’s a very long process to do it correctly. But when you do, it’s amazing how much gold falls to the bottom.”

Make no mistake: Allen-Niesen is not retiring on her findings. But she and her children -- Kyle, then 13, and Kelsey, then 10 -- found about half an ounce of gold, including two nuggets the size of a small fingernail, on the California claim between Columbia and Sonora, in an area known as the Mother Lode, a 100-mile-long vein of gold and quartz in the Sierra Nevada.

For the family, prospecting was a chance to learn about the past, but it was also a fun twist on a standard family trip. “It was just the perfect thing,” Allen-Niesen says. “My son really got into it. The two of us were in the creek bed literally scraping at dirt with our fingers, wallowing in the mud.”

From North Carolina to Colorado, Alaska to Arkansas, public prospecting parks across the United States offer the chance for visitors to dig up their own adventure. In Piedmont, North Carolina, the restored Reed Gold Mine offers tourists the opportunity to explore its underground tunnels and pan for gold. The mine has quite a history behind it. In 1799, farmer John Reed’s son found a 17-pound rock in Cabarrus County, northeast of Charlotte. Three years later, a jeweler identified the rock as gold and bought it for the asking price of $3.50, about one-tenth of one percent its true worth. This discovery was the first documented gold find in the United States. Reed began mining his farm the following year, and before long, other local farmers were joining the rush too. The mine became a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and opened to the public in 1977. Today, more than 400 feet of underground tunnels have been restored, as has an 1895 mill that was used to crush quartz and extract gold. A visitor’s center offers exhibits showcasing the history of mining. Sharon Robinson, the manager of Reed Gold Mine, says that the rising price of gold has caused a renewed interest in the pastime.