When the sun breaks through the fog and the thermometer climbs above 70, the normally steely waters surrounding San Francisco appear bright and tempting. At the slightest hint of summer weather, eager beachgoers flock to the city’s shores, only to realize that the fog is minutes from cloaking the city in a dismal gray, and—no matter how hot it is—the water is still frigid.
If the thought of plunging into 60-degree seawater in San Francisco Bay or at Ocean Beach doesn’t seem like a particularly summery activity to you, consider heading out of town to a freshwater swimming hole where you can cool off—and not freeze. Though whiling the day away at a swimming hole is a quintessential summer activity, the weather is often temperate enough around the Bay Area to enjoy swimming year round, if you know where to go. Here, six of our favorite Northern California swimming holes.
1. Bass Lake, Point Reyes
From the Palomarin Trailhead in Point Reyes National Seashore, hike along the Coast Trail to reach Bass Lake. The journey is as pleasant as your destination, as the trail winds along the coastal bluffs, offering sweeping views of the ocean along the way. At a little over 2.5 miles, an unmarked dirt trail leads through a clearing, providing easy access to the lake. Shaded by trees, the lakeshore makes for a perfect summer picnic spot.
In the summer, the lake is often crowded with picnickers and swimmers, lounging on inflatable rafts and tubes and launching themselves into the lake from the rope swing. If you are looking for a longer hike, consider hiking another 1.5 miles to see Alamere Falls cascade from the bluffs onto the beach, and stop at Bass Lake to for a refreshing dip on your way back to the trailhead.
2. The Inkwells, West Marin
East of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunitas Creek flows from Kent Lake and fills a series of natural stone pools known as the Inkwells. The small, deep pools are located alongside Sir Francis Drake Boulevard about 15 minutes from Fairfax, making it a convenient place to stop for a quick dip in the creek after a hike or ride before returning to the city. Between swims, lounge in the sun on the large boulders that line the creek. When the water is deep enough, swimmers can jump from the rocks on the far side of the creek into the crisp water of the pools.
3. Big Rock, Santa Cruz
Tucked into the redwoods of Henry Cowell State Park, Big Rock is one of several places to swim in the San Lorenzo River. To reach this swimming hole, start at the Rincon parking lot, and hike about a half mile along the fire road through the redwoods until you reach the river. Make your way across, and pick up the footpath on the other side of the river that leads you to a sandy stretch of beach and this spot’s namesake rock. If the river is deep enough, you can swing in from the rope swing. Cottonwoods and big leaf maples provide shade on hot days, setting the stage for spending hours at this river retreat.
4. Memorial Park, Redwood City
Day visitors and car campers will appreciate a refreshing swim in Pescadero Creek where it runs through Memorial Park, part of the San Mateo County Parks system. The creek is lined with redwoods, and the swimming hole has a sandy beach where you can relax and enjoy the serenity of the park. Memorial Park is just south of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where hikers will enjoy longer trails through redwoods and past waterfalls.
5. Salmon Creek, Big Sur
If your summer adventures have led you south on Highway 1, be sure to take a break from the road at Salmon Creek Falls. Several hours south of San Francisco, the Salmon Creek trail leads to the base of the 120-foot Salmon Creek Falls, under a quarter of a mile from the parking lot. You can swim in the cold pools at the base of the falls and marvel at the towering cascade above.
After the side trail to the falls, the main trail climbs along Salmon Creek for over three miles, threading through oak forests and offering hikers views of the coastline below. Backpackers can camp at Spruce Camp, about two miles in, or Estrella at 3.25 miles, and reward themselves with a swim during their return trip.
6. South Yuba River, Northern Sacramento Valley
Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River four times within South Yuba River State Park, offering several opportunities to swim—conveniently located just off the road. One of the most popular spots, known as the Highway 49 crossing, features polished granite boulders and emerald pools. You can access this spot from the old Highway 49 bridge spanning the canyon, which is now closed to cars. Those in search of a quieter scene can visit pools up or downstream from this popular spot.
A wild and scenic river, the South Yuba River drains the slopes of the western Sierra into the Feather River. In the spring, rushing water from snowmelt makes the current too strong to swim until the water level is lower.
If You Go
Swimming holes, particularly those near the Bay Area, can be packed with crowds during the summer months. Many of these areas are ecologically sensitive, and they’re coveted as spots for serenity and relaxation in a beautiful place. If you are visiting these or any other swimming holes, be sure to pack out your trash, follow all Leave-No-Trace principles, and respect other visitors. There have been many reports of once-beautiful beaches and streams becoming overrun with visitors and polluted with trash and human and dog waste.
In addition, people are frequently injured by jumping from rocks into shallow water. Do your part to preserve these beautiful natural areas and keep yourself and others safe so that everyone can enjoy a refreshing swim. Before visiting lakes, rivers, or swimming holes, be sure to check to see if the area has been affected by harmful algal blooms or wildfires.