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Test the waters at some of Northern California’s great swimming holes, recommended by an expert.
When Tim Joyce moved from the Boston area to the Bay Area a couple of years ago, it didn’t take him long to discover the joys of hiking Northern California’s trails, especially those with places to get wet along the way. “Hikes around here can get pretty hot,” says the 44-year-old patent attorney, who lives in Mountain View but hikes all over Northern California and beyond. “With the best hikes, there’s always a good water element.”
For Joyce, a good water element might be a smooth spot in a Sierra river or a deep, black pool beneath some falls. It could be a crystalline lake you’ve got all to yourself or a granite waterslide hopping with rowdy people. By exploring Northern California’s hills and valleys, Joyce has enjoyed swimming holes hidden deep in remote corners of the mountains and many only a few steps off the road.
Best of all, he’s happy to share his knowledge—generosity that’s rarer than one might think. “Sometimes, people are reluctant to say where their favorite swimming hole is,” he says, chuckling about folks who post inaccurate directions on websites, specifically to throw visitors off course.
“They don’t want it to get too popular.” By contrast, Joyce publicizes great swimming holes on his website, swimmingholes.org/ca, and posts some pretty enticing photos and video at swimmingholesofcalifornia.blogspot.com.
He also leads group hikes almost every weekend, and anyone’s welcome to join. “It’s free,” he says. “We split the gas.”
What are some of Joyce’s favorite swimming holes in Northern California? Read about them here, then log on to swimmingholes.org for mind-numbingly detailed directions. Joyce swears they’re accurate.
Along the Cosumnes River near Placerville, Happy Valley is a foothills favorite for Sacramentans and travelers to South Lake Tahoe. With a short, easy walk in—less than half a mile, Joyce says—it’s an ideal site for families. The level of danger is low; not too many towering rocks to lure leaping daredevils. “Kids like to use their goggles and dive for different-colored stones,” Joyce says. Nearby, Twin Bridges is another natural pool that attracts families. Great rock formations and a couple of small rope swings—“little-kid rope swings,” says Joyce—create really fun jumping opportunities.
On the Middle Yuba River, about 17 miles north of Nevada City, Oregon Creek is perfect for a romantic picnic—just spread your blanket on the big slab of rock—or a cool soak in the mini-whirlpools created by the falls. Brave souls can duck beneath the rocks and slip in behind the falls, where airspace and a tub just big enough for two, maybe three, create your own little getaway. These pools are shallow—only about 6 feet deep—and littered with rocks, so Joyce warns strongly that people stay wise. “Diving is a no-no,” he says.
Edwards Crossing Bridge on the South Yuba River lies about eight miles outside Nevada City, and it’s a popular beach site that brings crowds. But about a mile’s walk downstream, Spring Creek joins the Yuba in a delightful cascade of falls, creating a spot unofficially known as Mountain Dog. You might see scenery of all types here, including bare bodies. “It’s a somewhat secluded area,” says Joyce, noting that the falls aren’t easy to see from the trail. “There’s a handy little beach, nice falls to take a cool shower under.”
On the Stanislaus River within the Collierville gold mining district (think Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, near Sonora), the Camp Nine swimming hole is worth the trip, says Joyce. He says it’s a short hike in—less than a mile—not too crowded, and rife with rock formations just right for taking a leap. “It’s all-around a good one,” he says. “It’s got a good jumping area, beaches.” And one more benefit, something that’s too often missing at these natural swimming spots: bathrooms.
Along the San Lorenzo River in Felton, just south of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Garden of Eden can be crowded during the summer. Lured by the relatively short walk in (about a mile), two deep pools and some big rocks, people flock here, especially on sunny days. But Joyce recommends you hike a little ways either up or down the river to find your own private sandy beach. “You might run into some nudity,” he warns. (This is the Santa Cruz Mountains, after all.) The river flow is slow, so it’s soothing to float in an inner tube or inflatable chair.
With a trail entrance just outside the Highway 120 entrance to Yosemite National Park, Carlon Falls stays full—and cold—well into September and October. Joyce recommends visiting Carlon Falls during the hottest summer days, when the snow-chilled Sierra runoff is sure to elicit a refreshed whoop! when you plunge in. The falls themselves, about 15-feet tall, cascade in a thick sheet of white. Expect to hike a couple of miles in along the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, with lots of chances to take a dip en route.
Also known as Hatchet Creek Falls, this Shasta-Trinity National Forest swimming hole, located off Highway 299, sits about a half-mile walk from the parking area. Joyce says it tends to draw a younger crowd—it’s one of the most popular dunking and jumping spots in the area for teenagers. A giant fallen tree creates a climbing structure alongside the falls, which pour overrocks into a deep green pool below. “There’s a nice beach here,” Joyce says, recommending people bring lawn chairs. Or if you don’t feel like hauling anything but a towel, just lie out on the rocks to warm up and boost your vitamin D levels.
Want a pretty lake and a ride on what may be the best rope swing in all of Northern California? If you’re willing to hike a few miles along the Palomarin Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, you might just get lucky. Bass Lake lies about three miles from the trailhead—miles fragrant with eucalyptus trees and beautified by wildflower meadows. “The whole lake [looks] very clean,” says Joyce, “and it’s often pretty secluded.” And that rope swing? “That’s a big-kid rope swing,” Joyce says, laughing. “That rope swings really, really high.” Dangers to look out for at Bass Lake: poison oak and stinging nettles. New this year: a sign informing visitors that the water's good for swimming, but that officials are tracking bacteria levels.
When visiting Northern California swimming holes, few rules apply, but a couple of general guidelines govern the day:
• Pack it in, pack it out.
Don’t leave anything behind—towels, sunglasses, sunscreen, chip bags, soda cans, tissue, etc.
• No relief within 100 yards of the water
Some swimming holes have restrooms; most do not. Use discretion when nature calls and keep the waters clean.
• Abide by the law of the stick
If you throw a stick in the water and can’t get your shoes off in time to chase after it and catch it, then the water’s flowing too fast for safe swimming.
• Look before you leap
Test the water for depth, rocks, temperature and flow before you hurl yourself off a rock into it. People die at swimming holes every year because they jump in without knowing what’s below. Similarly, test out any rope swings to make sure they’re secure before you leap forth with all your weight.
• Don’t dive
• Know your risks
You assume them all. No lifeguards on duty, and the rivers are running fast and cold this year.
Want To Swim With Tim?—Tim Joyce, maintainer of swimmingholes.org/ca and the swimmingholesofcalifornia blog, runs free hike/swim tours almost every weekend. To find out where he’s going, log on to swimminghikes.blogspot.com for a list of excursions. July trips currently planned include a shorty along the Tuolumne River to Preston Falls and a 12-mile expedition to Tenaya Lake and Clouds Rest. To join a group or get on the alert list, e-mail Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org.