Since HI Travel Tales is based in California’s so-called Gold Country, we naively thought that this was the center of the panning for gold world. You know, Sierra Nevada gold rush, gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill, gold miners, ‘49ers, and all that jazz.

Well, how wrong can we be! The World Goldpanning Association held its 40th World Gold Panning Championships Sept. 11-18. 2016, in our very own Gold Country in El Dorado County, and did we learn a thing or two — like that there was even a world championships for gold panning.

Lined up to pan for gold at the World Championships of Gold Panning

Competitors from all over the world at the ready for the start of the semi-finals in the 2016 World Gold Panning Championships held in Placerville, California.

The modern pursuit of panning for gold with regional and national competitions started in Finland, with the first competition held in 1974. When the first world championships for gold panning took place in 1977, there were 10 nations represented. By 1981, these countries had organized the World Goldpanning Association (WGA). And the rest is, as they say, history.

Finding gold in the pan at the World Gold Panning Championships.

Once competitors find those tiny flakes of gold, they have to get them out of the pan and into their vial to score as completed.

Panning for gold enthusiasts all around the world

According to the WGA there are more than 20 countries represented, from South Africa and Australia, to Japan, the Czech Republic and Finland. Click here to see a list of members and contacts for their national gold panning associations. Some of the world’s best (based on speed and accuracy in panning for gold) are from Germany and Finland. This year’s world championships of gold panning numbered nearly 500 participants from 23 countries, with competitors ages 2 to 80+.

We learned there is an entire, quite large sub-culture of recreational and very passionate enthusiasts who pan for gold, competing in various categories, including women, men and teams.

Kids running for their buckets at the World Championships for Gold Panning

This is not just for adults. The World Gold Panning Championships in Placerville in 2016 featured competitions for children too.

“It’s a very close-knit group. Everybody knows everybody,” said Gary Campbell, direct of programming for Sierra Community Access Television, which helped with the bid more than three years ago and set up the World Gold Panning TV network with live streaming and videos.

Children have a lot of fun panning for gold too at the World Gold Panning Championships.

Looking for those flakes of gold in the pan as the seconds tick away.

Strict rules and protocol for competitive panning for gold

Although a hobby for these global panning for gold enthusiasts, you better not go astray of the WGA rules covering 16 pages. HI Travel Tales also learned quickly while video’ing and photographing these fast-moving competitions to stay out of the way of judges as well as gold pans, buckets, sand and water that could go flying at any time. We were told to keep out of the “salting” area where the “Chief Salter” puts the same number of gold flakes in each competition bucket of sand for a particular round – obviously highly confidential information. Competitors only know there will be approximately 5-20 flecks in the sand they receive to sift through depending on the division. And don’t forget the “Chief Scrutineer” who asks each competitor as he or she leaves the arena how many flakes he or she found.

Buckets salted with gold ready for the next round in the World Gold Panning Championships.

Buckets that have been “salted” with gold flakes awaiting the next round of competition.

Winners are determined by a combination of time and accuracy with penalties for each flake that was “salted” into the bucket of sand but not found.

Although there aren’t huge awards at a stake (other than brilliant medals and of course the gold each competitor pans during the competition), at stake is national pride and personal bragging rights. In fast-moving finals (some don’t last much over a minute or two), Campbell said judges (including the “Chief Justice” or head judge) are on the lookout for “hip checking” by competitors.

Panning for gold spans ages, genders and nationalities

HI Travel Tales saw panners with long beards and worn faces reminiscent of what would be the stereotypical panner, and 2-year-old blonde cherub girls, not to mention everything in between.

Pouring sand into the pan at the World Gold Panning Championships

A competitor pours his sand onto his pan so that he can begin the quest for gold.

El Dorado County pulled off a week of championship panning for gold at the 40th World Gold Panning Championships, but also filled a schedule with everything from farm tours, mine tours, whitewater rafting, and wine tasting: For many competitors this is an excuse to see old friends with similar interests and travel to a new area for tourism. Seems the last time a championship with held in the United States was in 1998.

Small girl waving at the camera at the gold panning world championships

See you next year at the World Gold Panning Championships.

Watch a fun 5-minute slide show of adults and kids gold panning.