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Jesse Weber | 06.30.2021

When the North Pacific high settle in over the west coast, Californians know to head for the water. Somewhere along the state's nearly 900 miles of coastline would be the obvious place to take a dip, but there are also numerous freshwater swimming holes dotting the interior. Even in some of the most arid regions, flowing water can be found if you know where to look.

Fern-draped waterfalls, alpine lakes, walled-in gorges, sandy beaches, frigid streams, and hot springs--California has it all. Here are some of the best swimming holes in the state.

Southern California

  • Aztec Falls - This is one of the most popular swimming holes near Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, and one look explains why. Clear water flows among rounded sunbathing rocks and tiered cliffs. The relatively short hike makes it the most accessible pool along Deep Creek.
  • Lower Deep Creek Canyon - A long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail through San Bernardino National Forest will reward you with immaculate swimming holes in Lower Deep Creek Canyon. The walk is well worth it for cool water, warm springs, and relative seclusion downstream of the more popular spots.
  • Lake Gregory Regional Park (kid-friendly) - San Bernardino County maintains a fun waterpark and public marina on Lake Gregory. Boating, paddling, hiking, and fishing are other popular activities around the lake.
  • Cleghorn Day Use Area (kid-friendly)- Silverwood Lake is on the northern side of the San Bernardino Mountains. The sandy beach at Cleghorn has lifeguards on duty, a roped-off swimming area, hiking trails, and other amenities like restrooms, showers, picnic areas, and boat launches.
  • ​Silverwood Lake Swim Beach (kid-friendly) - This is another pleasant, sandy beach in Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area. Roped off from power boat traffic and watched over by lifeguards, the beach is a safe place for kids, and plentiful amenities make it comfortable for the whole family.
  • Big Bear Lake West Shore Beach (kid-friendly) - Add to your vacation in Big Bear by jumping in the namesake lake. Numerous coves beckon for exploration by wading or paddling, and expanses of sandy shore are perfect for sunbathing and exercise. On the other side of the large lake, East Public Boat Launch makes another ideal starting point for adventure.
  • Hermit Falls - A variety of cliff jumping opportunities here for those willing to make the short hike from Chantry Flat that involves a few stream crossings and some slight elevation gain. There are two main pools to choose from.
  • Red Rock Pool - This popular swimming hole is close to Santa Barbara on the Ynez River, and as such, the area does receive some pressure. Expect company and the unfortunate assortment of litter and graffiti; if you are here when the river is flowing and the crowds are moderate, however, Red Rock Pool is a gorgeous swimming hole. Boulders, shade, and refreshing water await.
  • Bridge to Nowhere / East Fork San Gabriel River - The East Fork San Gabriel River provides plenty of opportunities to cool off along this potentially hot hike. The route proceeds along a road bed and crosses the river a few times, so be sure to avoid this hike when the flows are high. For those exploring this area in the heat, assorted pools will provide considerable relief.
  • Three Sisters Waterfall- Boulder Creek pushes through this broad valley with diligence and tumbles over several falls just 2 miles from the trailhead. A swim in the pools below the falls is prudent, and there are isolated spots upstream and downstream as well. There are even campsites nearby!
  • Rock Pool Swimming Hole- A popular spot to cool off, Rock Pool is located in Malibu Creek State Park. This pool is surrounded by sheer cliffs and rocks that are perfect platforms for spreading out for the day. A great spot that is easily accessible.
  • Sturtevant Falls- The falls and pool at the end of this hike are almost like dessert; the short hike in is beautiful and warrants a trip out here in its own right. Flowers line the trail in the summer, and you'll have great views from the bridge over Willow Creek. Of course, a dip in the pool below the falls is a must on hot days.

Northern California

  • McCloud River - In the shadow of Mount Shasta flows the McCloud River, fed year round by snow melting from the slopes. Three incredible waterfalls known as Upper, Middle, and Lower tumble into pools that each make exquisite swimming holes.
  • Potem Falls -  Located near Redding and Lassen Volcanic National Park, Potem Falls is a picture-perfect pool beneath a sheer 70-foot waterfall tucked within the gentle green hills of Pit River Canyon.
  • ​Hatchet Falls - Another gem of Shasta County, Hatchet Falls (also known as Lion Slide Falls) features cliff jumping and a conveniently fallen tree that makes a staircase to the top.
  • North Fork Falls - Carved granite gorges furrow the hills between Nevada City and Truckee, and North Fork Falls is a lovely product of the erosion that formed this landscape. Waterfalls tumble through a narrow part of the canyon, providing a shady and peaceful retreat from the heat.
  • Emerald Bay (kid-friendly) - This state park promises the best of Lake Tahoe's shoreline, and offers hiking, camping, boating, fishing, and scuba diving in addition to swimming.
  • D.L. Bliss State Park - D.L Bliss State Park is contiguous with Emerald Bay State Park, and the two create an incredible shoreline along Lake Tahoe. Calawee Cove and Lester Beach are must-see, must swim spots for any visitor to this stunning lake.
  • Meeks Bay Beach - This long beach is one of the favorites for Tahoe visitors, and it is easy to see why. Day use amenities include tables and barbecue stands, there is a nearby campground, and of course, Tahoe's inimitable blue waters lazily lap at the white sand.
  • Speedboat Beach - A very popular spot on Lake Tahoe, Speedboat Beach sits just west of the California/Nevada border on Tahoe's north shore. Arrive early, because parking is limited compared to the number of folks that love to come here. But it is easy to understand why they do: quintessential white sand beach, enormous granite boulders, and Tahoe's deep blue waters.
  • Sugar Pine Point State Park - If you are checking out Tahoe's west side, a stop at Sugar Pine Point State Park is a must. The park is part of the estate that surrounded the Ehrman Mansion, and it is now a beautiful public resource in its own right. The water access here is top notch, as well. Again, parking can be in short supply relative to the demand, so arrive early or be prepared for a bit of a walk from your car.
  • Bonsai Rock - Named for the iconic trees that grow seemingly straight from the enormous granite boulder that dominates this cove, Bonsai Rock is a very popular spot for photographers. But this idyllic little cove definitely deserves a spot on the list of Tahoe swimming holes. You may not have the big beach or pier, here, but if you can snag your own boulder, who could ask for more?
  • Donner Memorial State Park - Located on Donner Lake just off of I-80, this easily accessible state park provides a dose of California history as well as some amazing views and recreation opportunities. Water access here is superb, whether you are using the beach, the day use areas, or renting a boat. The robust campground can also be a great base camp for planning a Donner Lake/Lake Tahoe weekend.
  • Volcano Lake Hike - Thanks to a recent acquisition from the Trust for Public Land, this lake is now accessible for the public. Enjoy the short 1.5-mile walk in along Sardine Creek, and know that the climb is the perfect prime for your imminent plunge.
  • Richardson Grove Swimming Hole - Gorgeous pools near the redwoods? Two swimming areas to choose from? Cliff jumping? Yes on all counts. This family-friendly area near Eureka is close to camping and hiking, as well.
  • Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area Swimming Hole -  The South Fork of the Eel River forms a large pool in this state recreation area. Surrounding cliffs serve up plenty of jumping potential for those looking for a little airtime. Nearby Redwood Campground makes for a perfect base camp for a long stay in this ideal spot.
  • Cherry Flat Swimming Hole - Near Trinity Lake on the Stuart Fork, this beautiful swimming hole is filled with clear, cool water from the Trinity National Forest. Private landowners permit access to this little paradise, keep that privilege of permission in mind and be respectful as you enjoy this beautiful spot.
  • Lake Anza - A designated swimming area and lifeguards go a long way to making this a great choice for families looking to escape the heat. Located in the East Bay's Tilden Park, this spot naturally receives some pressure, but there is plenty of room to lay out on a hot day.
  • Oregon Creek Day Use Area - Located along the Golden Chain Highway northeast of Sacramento where Oregon Creek joins the Middle Yuba River, this day use area supports some fantastic swimming opportunities. The clear water and sandy riverbanks are sure to put a smile on your face.
  • Highway 49 Crossing - A magical spot along the South Yuba River, this stretch of water offers some of the most picturesque swimming spots around. Granite boulders, sandy banks, and clear water...not to mention the dramatic arch of the Highway 49 bridge. Some crowds are inevitable here, but you can head upstream or downstream for more privacy.
  • Brandy Creek Falls- Located in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area just 1.5 miles from the trailhead, these falls are some of the most beautiful in the area. The pool below and the trees above equate to the perfect formula for solving for hot summer days.
  • Crystal Creek Falls- Another gorgeous falls in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, the easily accessible pool at the base of the Lower Crystal Creek Falls is a must. But don't forget to hike up to check out the Upper Crystal Creek Falls, as well!

Caution! Be Safe

Swimming in swimming holes and cliff jumping can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable outdoor activities that pose significant risks regarding personal safety. Changing water levels, unseen rocks, and river bottoms that have shifted with currents and seasonal weather can turn a well-known jumping area into a serious hazard. Prior to engaging in these activities, extensively scout the current conditions, and understand the risks involved with serious injury and the logistical challenges of evacuation from the water so you can make safe decisions.

Leave No Trace

The Forest Service and other local management agencies are considering closing access to many of these sensitive locations due to excessive trampling of plants, large amounts of garbage, cans and glass bottles, human waste, and toilet paper left behind.  They simply do not have the staff or the funding to attend to these issues. If you want to continue enjoying these areas, pack out all garbage and toilet paper and dispose of it properly, use vault toilets and other restroom facilities when provided, and stay on established paths. Using these areas responsibly will increase the chance that people can continue to enjoy them.

The above list is a good place to start your research on California's swimming holes, but the list of freshwater locales to cool off doesn't end here. Discover more great swimming holes, along with hikes, backpacking trips, and other Outdoor Project adventures in the onX Backcountry GPS app


Thank you so much, will have to go to the ones I've missed.

This year we did 22 of the best waterfall hikes in the L.A. area to see what El Nino did to the water flow!

Here is our video of ALL 22.
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