It’s no secret that Julian’s hills have gold in them...or at least they did. San Diego’s only gold rush was centered around the area surrounding Julian, and it lasted only about ten years. As the mining industry became unprofitable, people began turning to agriculture for income. All us apple-pie lovers ought to be grateful that the gold fever died off quickly. Over the years, most of the remaining mines have been destroyed by fires, thieves, and graffiti artists. As time goes on, our history is slowly disappearing before our eyes.
With the recent social media revolution increasing the pressure to find rare photographic moments, the Julian area is seeing an increase in lookie-loos attempting gold mine exploration. I highly encourage everyone to learn about Julian’s history, but there are safe ways to do it, and walking into a random gold mine is not one of them.
1. You are trespassing.
Contrary to popular misconception, the majority of mines are NOT on BLM land. The mines are privately owned. You may have a legal right to use the road easement, but the second you step off the easement, you are trespassing. Tweakers and drug dealers often own the land. They use the mines to live in and to make drugs. Trust me when I say, these sketchy people are not afraid to use lethal force to protect their operations. Chances are your body would never be found due to the infinite places it could be hidden.
2. You’ve been fooled.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are not going to get rich during your gold mine expedition in the San Diego backcountry. The profitability in mining these hills for gold ended a century ago. Yes, literally, 100 years ago. Sure, there’s probably still gold deep in the hills, but it would cost more to dig it out than it’s worth. If you do happen to find “gold” in plain sight, one of the locals has tricked you with fool’s gold.
Mining has always been an extremely dangerous occupation. Back in the day, many people died from mining-related causes. Even though the mining operations are shut down, the risk of harm and death is still there. These gold mines have been unmaintained for 100 years.
4. Help is not on the way.
The gold mines are located in remote areas with limited access, no cell service, and an infinite number of places one might come to harm. This makes it almost impossible to help someone if something goes wrong.
5. Risk of collapse
The ground is very unstable. Some of the mines are in a fault zone. That’s a big part of why gold is found here in the first place. The chance of an earthquake causing the unmaintained gold mine to collapse is a risk you shouldn’t be willing to take. And it’s not just earthquakes—the mines are always at risk of collapse. Over the years, some of them have already caved in by nature or force. The wood supporting the tunnels is cracking due to age and increased weight on it. A mine collapse could leave you injured or trapped, with no way out and unable to call for help.
6. Undetonated explosives
The miners used explosives to help them cut through the rock. Still to this day, undetonated explosives lie within the tunnels. Some of them can be found in plain sight, reaffirming that there are probably more you cannot see. The unseen explosives buried by time are even more dangerous to lookie-loos. After the gold rush, some of the mines were forcibly collapsed for safety reasons. 100-year-old dynamite is very very unstable. It can easily be triggered by movement or pressure.
7. Mine shafts
Mines are known for having multiple layers connected by straight vertical shafts. Without knowing the exact mine layout and your whereabouts within it, these shafts can quickly sneak up on you. Shafts increase danger levels for multiple reasons. Due to low lighting levels, one might walk right into one without knowing. Falling debris causes shafts to partially fill in, creating something like a trapdoor. Falling into a shaft can lead to severe injury or death.
Climbing down an “intact” shaft is not a smart idea either. The 100-year-old wood holding it together could crumble beneath your feet, leaving you with no way out.
8. Gas poisoning
You may be able to see a rockfall coming, avoid the dynamite, or find your way out, but what you don’t see could kill you. Airflow is extremely limited to non-existent the farther back into a mine you go. Back in the day, air ventilation systems were installed to help prevent the miners from suffocating. Those systems are no longer in the mines today. Gold mines create the perfect environment for dangerous gasses to build up over time. Carbon monoxide and methane accumulate in lethal amounts.
It is surprisingly easy to get lost within the interweaving, dark, narrow tunnels. There is only one way out. The exit becomes extremely hard to find when you have lost your sense of direction in the middle of a mountain.
The local wildlife has moved into the mines. When I was a kid, we walked down to a nearby gold mine on a friend’s property only to find mountain lion tracks going in. No joke. We were lucky the ground was wet enough for the cat to leave tracks, otherwise, we would have been in a very bad situation. Other animals like bats thrive in the dark cool mine tunnels. Bat habitats are known to be a breeding ground for some of the world’s deadliest viruses, such as Ebola, SARS, Marburg, Nipah, and possibly COVID-19. It is important to point out that they are probably there, even if you don’t see them.
11. Destruction of History
For safety reasons many of the mines were intentionally destroyed when the mining operations shut down. From thieves to graffiti artists and lookie-loos leaving trash our local history is being destroyed right in front of our eyes. If this continues, it is likely that more mines will have to be intentionally destroyed. Please do not be part of this problem.
SAFE ways to explore a gold mine:
The good news is there are some safe ways to explore gold mines and learn about our local history. The Eagle Mining Co. is located on C Street just five blocks off Main Street in Historic Julian. Here you can find lots of mining artifacts and tour the Eagle Mine safely. Explorers are also encouraged to check out the relics of the Stonewall Mine located in the Cuyamaca State Park. The Julian Pioneer Museum on Washington Street is a one-of-a-kind independently run, not-for-profit museum loaded full of local artifacts and information about Julian’s history. I also love all that Julian Mining Company has to offer.