Panning for gold is hot, back-wrenching, tedious work--a revelation which came as something of a shock to many of the '49ers who trekked West during the California gold rush more than a century ago in search of easy pickings to make their fortune.

The second rude discovery was that not everyone who dipped a pan into California's rushing Sierra Nevada streams, even in the euphoric early days of the gold rush, managed to strike it rich. Carpenter James W. Marshall, the man who found the first traces of glitter at the site of a sawmill he was building, ended up broke, despite his starring role in this fascinating chapter of American history.

What the '49ers learned about panning all those years ago, I found out for myself on a recent two-day drive through California's Gold Rush Country, a fairly compact region east of San Francisco in the Sierra foothills. Nowadays, Gold Country money comes not from sifting the riverbeds but from mining the tourists who flock to the region intent on reliving the romance of the gold era.

Relics of the frontier quest for gold are everywhere: in the crumbling stone walls of a former Wells Fargo office at Chinese Camp or a one-room jail in Volcano; the rusting machinery of abandoned mines outside Jackson; the heaps of upturned earth and stones along many riverbeds, sifted for its gold and dumped in an age that knew nothing of environmental impact statements.

But the principal vestiges of that colorful era are the onetime boom towns scattered about the hills wherever gold was discovered, some all but hidden now down shady country roads. Often well-preserved, they are delightful places to explore, quaint like New England villages, but lively, too, with a fine pub or two and sophisticated shops. That the architecture of these towns appears more Victorian than rustic frontier reflects the Back East upbringing of the '49ers who founded them.

And, of course, visitors can find all the trappings to make the Gold Rush days come alive: stagecoach rides, mine tours, museum exhibits, saloon shows and, if you are willing to work for it, traces of leftover gold.

I want to crowd as many of these Gold Rush adventures into my visit as I can, so I eagerly sign up for a four-hour tour (among many that are offered in the region) with the Roaring Camp Mining Co. of Pine Grove, which promises both a look at an active gold-mining operation and a lesson in the art of panning.

The company name intrigues me. Author Bret Harte, who, like Mark Twain, lived and traveled extensively in the area in the heyday of the gold rush, wrote a story he called "The Luck of Roaring Camp" about an orphaned baby whose birth in a tough mining camp transforms its ruffian inhabitants into gentlemen. Was this the same Roaring Camp? My guide, Errol Rodman, whose family owns the mine, tells me that it certainly could be, based on its strong similarity to the fictional gulch community described by Harte.

Authentic or not, the place certainly sounds like Roaring Camp. Melting snow from an unusually heavy fall last winter has turned the Mokelumne River that flows past the digs into a pounding frenzy of whitewater that echos loudly on the walls of the narrow canyon.

To get to the canyon, I hop into the back of Rodman's flatbed truck for a twisting, bouncing 6-mile descent through pine and oak forests along a primitive road. The morning, like almost every summer day in Gold Country, is sunny and hot under a cloudless sky. But the dry air tempers the heat, and the effect is invigorating. I sniff the clean aroma of manzanita and am glad to be out-of-doors. The view to the frothing river 2,000 feet below is glorious.

Rodman points out the stone foundations of what are believed to have been miners' cabins and the now barely discernible trails that led to neighboring communities such as French Gulch, Slaughterhouse and Clinton Bar. We pass a giant old oak from which someone has dangled a noose, apparently to jolly the tourists. Nevertheless, the tree does look ready-made for a gallows in the days when justice (or injustice) was swift. The sturdy branch that holds the noose reaches out over a chasm. Once the noose was attached, the victim simply was pushed over the side.

At canyon bottom, Rodman leads a quick tour of Roaring Camp, which produces gold for, among other things, jewelry and dental work. On this day, the river is too high to permit mining. When the machinery is operating, shovelfuls of earth are scooped into a long sluice where running water separates any gold from the rocks and silt. This, like panning, is "placer" mining--gathering from placer deposits the nuggets and flakes that have eroded from the original veins and been washed down from the mountains. Hard-rock or "lode" mining came later in California's gold history, and that was big business. It involved tunneling into the mountains to follow a quartz vein, giving the region another name: Mother Lode Country.

Along the river sit 20 rustic cabins rented for a week or two at a time to goldseekers (or fishermen). Several of them have found a quiet eddy on the Mokelumne and are busy at work. One pair is hunched over the water panning, but an older couple, Frank and Joanne from Los Angeles, who plan to stay nine weeks, are taking it easier. They have a miniature sluice box (theirs is lightweight metal but it is patterned after the wooden devices the '49ers devised) into which they are dumping small scoops of sand and gravel. A small motor-operated pump and hose supply their machine with water from the river.

So far, they say, they have not seen much gold, but right now they are only practicing. When the river drops, they know a better place where their prospects should be better. Meanwhile, the day is pleasant, they can splash about in the river to cool off, and they are having fun.

Now it is my turn. Almost before I know it, Rodman has heaped dirt and rocks into a platter-sized, slope-edged pan and hands it to me. (The miners used metal pans; the updated version comes in green or red plastic.) He fills a second one and begins to demonstrate. Dip the pan into the water and keep swirling it with one hand, he instructs. With the other, I break up the chunks of earth and toss out any rocks (checking before I fling that none are nuggets). Gradually, I rid the pan of the water and silt, trusting that any gold, which is heavier than the silt, has sunk to the bottom on the pan.

To work a pan properly takes about 20 minutes. On only the first try, my arms and shoulders ache and I'm ready to relinquish my place in the scorching sun for a shady tree. On a good day, experienced '49ers could wash up to 50 pans, sometimes finding hundreds of dollars worth of gold; more often, they barely eked out a living in an inflationary economy.

My pan is down to a cup of muddy water and a few grains of sand. I see nothing, but Rodman is not so sure. He takes the pan, swirls it a moment more and points out a tiny, shining flake. Indeed, I have found "color," he says, gently sliding the flake out of the pan on the tip of a wet finger and placing it in a slender, inch-long vial as a keepsake--worth, for all the effort, no more than pennies.

I play the good guy tourist and go along with what I suspect is a charade. I think Rodman dropped that flake in my pan so I wouldn't go away disappointed, which is perfectly all right with me. My reward has been aching appreciation for the hardships of the early Californians, and that is enough.

The California gold rush had a profound impact on California and America, uniting the Eastern seaboard with the vast western lands that had recently been won from Mexico. Two figures cited by historian J.S. Holliday in his superb account of the '49ers, "The World Rushed In," tell the story: "In one astonishing year," writes Holliday, California "would be transformed from obscurity to world prominence, from an agricultural frontier that attracted 400 settlers in 1848 to a mining frontier that lured 90,000 impatient men in 1849 . . ."

The early arrivals in Gold Country, those living in California at the time of Marshall's discovery on Jan. 24, 1848, were the lucky ones. For them, the pickings were easy. Fortunes in nuggets and flakes could be obtained in only a matter of weeks from the dozens of rivers and streams that flow down the western slope of the Sierras and though the foothills to California's vast central valley. Rich strikes were reported throughout the region. San Franciscans heading for the hills emptied the city.

The exciting news rapidly made its way back East. And when on Dec. 5 of that year, President James K. Polk confirmed the extraordinary abundance of California's gold in a speech to Congress, the rush was on. But crossing a continent by wagon train took time. The jumping off points were Missouri and Iowa, but the caravans couldn't depart until the spring thaw of 1849. And then it was late fall before many of the '49ers made it to the Pacific after harrowing hardships. (Those who chose to go by ship, hiking across the Isthmus of Panama, encountered similar delays.) By then much of the easy gold was gone.

Money still could be made, and was, but it required hard work. Mining partnerships, using increasingly sophisticated and expensive equipment, began replacing the individual with his pan. The real gold, many realized, was in supplying the newcomers who continued to show up in huge numbers. J. M. Studebaker got his start in Placerville in the 1850s making wheelbarrows for the miners, returning home to Indiana with $8,000 to start a wagon factory that eventually manufactured the Studebaker car. Phillip Armour was a Placerville butcher.

With the influx, camps became communities, some of them quite urbane. European entertainer Lola Montez, once the mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria, danced in the Gold Country in the early 1850s, and even lived there briefly. A replica of her house is open to tourists in the one-time mining community of Grass Valley.

By the mid-'50s, however, the rush had ended. The unlucky had returned home in droves with word that the bonanza for individual adventurers was over. Huge financial investments were now needed to tunnel for the hard-rock gold that remained. Many of the big mining companies that formed continued in operation until World War II, producing millions of dollars in gold over the decades. Nowadays most are closed, too unprofitable to run. But exploration continues, and the U.S. Bureau of Mines reports that in 1981 at least $3 million in gold was extracted from California's hills.

Short though it was, the Gold Rush left a legacy that endures. California continued to draw immigrants, but after the bust they came as settlers, not fortune hunters, lured by the hope for a new start in an exciting land. Writes Holliday: "For an ever-increasing number of Americans, the thirty-first state seemed to offer a robust alternative to their slow, conventional life in the old thirty." It holds true today.

For 310 miles, from Oakhurst in the south (near Yosemite National Park) to Vinton in the north (above Lake Tahoe), California State Highway 49--the "Golden Chain"--winds its way through the length of Gold Country, a route as wonderfully scenic as it is historic. On its way, the two-lane road passes through or near dozens of one-time mining communities, some of them like Chinese Camp and Hornitos little more than ghost towns with crumbling stone walls. But others--Sutter Creek, Volcano, Angels Camp, Jamestown, among them--have blossomed in the tourist trade, the old structures restored as museums and shops. A distinguishing characteristic of many buildings are their multistoried porches, sometimes on all four sides, a means of deflecting the summer heat in the days before air conditioning.

The southern end of the highway is the most remote, passing through open cattle country; the northern end is the most scenic, when the road crosses the high Sierras. The most popular and bustling segment is the central portion that extends from Sonora north to Nevada City. Here are found more of the fine restaurants, country inns, bed-and-breakfast lodgings and a developing wine industry (with tours and samples) that attract the weekend sightseers from the San Francisco Bay area.

Here also are two state parks that commemorate the gold rush: Columbia State Historic Park, a restored mining town outside Sonora, and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, the site on the South Fork of the American River near Coloma, where it all began.

In Columbia, the child in me takes over, and I stride into the two-story brick Wells Fargo Depot to pay my three bucks for a 12-minute stagecoach ride around town with what is mostly an excited group of youngsters. I'll be riding shotgun, up on top next to Larry, the driver, who is holding the reins on a four-horse team. The Concord stage is authentic, built in 1875 and used for many years to carry passengers and mail between several of the nearby foothill towns.

Gold was first discovered in the Columbia area in March of 1850, and in one month 6,000 goldseekers arrived. In later years, the population grew to a peak of 15,000, with 150 businesses to serve them. Before the placer deposits ran out in the 1870s, Columbia produced $87 million in gold, most of it weighed on the set of scales displayed in the Wells Fargo office.

Unlike many early settlements, say park officials, Columbia never succumbed to fire, vandalism and the elements, nor was it ever completely deserted. Established as a park in 1945, it is the best-preserved of any of the Gold Country towns. Today, oak-shaded Main Street, stretching about four blocks, is lined with two- and three-story wood and brick buildings, a mixture of museums and shops.

The stagecoach rumbles down the street, lined with hitching posts, and I easily imagine myself in an earlier century. On the outskirts of town, a masked bandit on horseback halts the coach and demands gold. Is he Black Bart, the Gold Country's notorious robber who held up 28 stagecoaches between 1877 and 1883, and who, when finally caught, turned out to be a San Francisco socialite? Our bandit, like gentlemanly Bart, who never harmed a passenger or a driver, lets us go on when we truthfully plead a lack of gold.

At ride's end, thirsty from my perch in the sun, I climb down and head immediately to the St. Charles Saloon, authentic enough to serve up a cool schooner of beer at its imposingly long bar. My pint-sized fellow passengers settle for a soda.

For most of its length, Highway 49 skirts the high mountain country. But a short detour due east at many points can take the traveler from 2,000 feet to 6,000 feet in elevation or more in a matter of minutes, the temperature cooling every mile of the way. At Angels Camp (famous for Mark Twain's story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"), I turn toward the Sierras and the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, about 20 miles distant.

In the park stand two large groves of giant sequoia trees, the largest living things on earth. The north grove of about 100 trees played a small, but interesting role in the gold rush. In 1852, when a grizzly hunter stumbled into the grove, his was the western world's first recorded glimpse of these magnificent redwood trees, which later were found in groves on the California coast and elsewhere in the Sierras.

The trees, the largest of which measures 30 feet in diameter at the base, were, like the gold, yet one more astonishing feature of California, and the north grove gained immediate world attention. On a gentle, mile-long trail that winds through these mammoths, I discover one casualty of that early popularity.

Like a charred totem, the ravaged snag of a lifeless sequoia still reaches toward the sky. In 1854, a group of speculators stripped the bark from the tree, labeled each piece, shipped the pieces around Cape Horn and reassembled the 116-foot-tall tree as the principal attraction of the Crystal Palace exhibit in New York City. Later it was transferred to London's Crystal Palace. In both places, it created a sensation.

In a topsy-turvy way, I arrive at the site where the gold rush began--now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma--only at the end of my trip. But it doesn't matter. The drive has been an education that, I think, has prepared me for an understanding visit.

In the 1840s, John Sutter was building an agricultural empire for himself in the Sacramento Valley at Sutter's Fort. He needed wood, so he went into partnership with James W. Marshall to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley along the American River. The mill was almost complete when Marshall found his gold.

Hordes scurried to Coloma, and a town of several thousand emerged. From the American, the miners spread out to other streams and canyons north and south as reports of other strikes came. By 1857, however, the placer gold had given out, and Coloma lost its glamor and became a quiet grape-growing town. Still quiet, much of the town is now incorporated into the park.

The gold rush destroyed Sutter's dream of a Sacramento empire, and in 1852 he left California for the East, bankrupt and broken. Marshall fared no better. Unsuccessful at operating the mill, he prospected, did odd jobs and for a time received a state pension. He is buried on a hill in Coloma above the discovery site, a nearby statue attesting to his place in California's history.

Fed by the winter's snow, the American River is racing past as I follow the park's interpretive trail. A replica of Marshall's sawmill sits back from the water next to a weathered cabin used by his workmen. The trail continues a bit farther under shady oaks and then turns abruptly toward the river. On a gravelly bank edging a sheltered backwater, I reach the discovery site. Except for a small sign, it is simply a river bank.

Earlier, a park ranger had told me that practically every inch of the streams and rivers of the Sierras have been worked for gold at one time or another. But two boys, kneeling on a flat rock, are earnestly swirling a pan full of sand in the American. Marshall found gold here; they figure they might, too. The lure of California gold has diminished, but it is far from gone. CAPTION: Illustration, GOLD COUNTRY, By Jeff Dever for The Washington Post; Picture, Panning for gold. Copyright (c) 1980, Rich Turner.