There are so many great rivers, lakes, and ponds to escape to in Northern California, but these hidden gems stand out beyond the rest.
Jump from cliffs into waterfall-fed pools. Lie out on boulders to warm up after a cool dunk. Sip (at your own risk!) crystal clear water from mountain runoff. These swimming holes are perfect for a summer day trip or camping excursion.
Upper Falls, McCloud River, Mount Shasta
Known best as an overlook/picnic area along the McCloud River Three Falls Hike, Upper Falls offers a quieter, more sheltered swimming hole compared to its waterfall counterparts downstream at Middle and Lower Falls (see below).
While the waterfall itself isn't all that impressive in terms of height, the falls and pool below sit within a deep basalt rimmed bowl. Given it's depth, the swimming hole is in the shade for part of the day, and with the chilly spring-fed water of the McCloud River, Upper Falls is best enjoyed during the peak summer heat. // For more details, go to mountshastatrailassociation.org.
Middle Falls, McCloud River, Mount Shasta
Located a mile upstream from Lower Falls, Middle Falls is the second in a trio of waterfalls referred to as McCloud Falls, on the Upper McCloud River running southeast of Mount Shasta. Larger than both Lower and Upper Falls in drop and breadth, Middle Falls is an incredibly scenic 40-foot waterfall with a curtain-like appearance.
While less popular than Lower Falls, perhaps because it's slightly less accessible, Middle Falls also provides an inviting pool and swimming hole. The pool is accessed by walking a quarter-mile path from the parking area and overlook down to the river. A bit of scrambling over basalt boulders is required. The spring-fed water of the McCloud River is certainly chilly, but it is inviting and refreshing on hot summer days.
Lower Falls, McCloud River, Mount Shasta
Lower Falls swimming hole area is concentrated around the falls itself, which drops approximately 15 feet into a pool below. The surrounding bedrock is popular for jumping with heights ranging between 10 and 20 feet. A wooden jumping platform has been constructed on the accessible edge of the pool.
D.L. Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe
Lying just north of Emerald Bay State Park, D.L. Bliss State Park is another destination highlight along Lake Tahoe's southwestern shoreline. Together the two state parks boast more than six miles of shore. Named after Duane Leroy Bliss, a timber and mining tycoon of the 19th century, D.L. Bliss welcomes campers, beachgoers, and hikers to this scenic stretch of Tahoe shoreline.
Typically open from May through September, D.L. Bliss caters to summer visitors with the beaches and clear waters of Calawee Cove and Lester Beach. With easy access from both the campground and day use parking area, both beaches are well suited for families and for launching boats.
Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe
Emerald Bay and its namesake state park are tucked into the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe. The long bay's shimmering waters beckon boaters, swimmers and hikers to explore. Adding to the natural beauty, Emerald Bay is surrounded by glacially carved granite peaks that rise steeply from the water's edge. Emerald Bay State Park is well known as the home of Vikingsholm, an impressive historic Scandinavian mansion-turned-museum, and the bay houses the only actual island found in Lake Tahoe.
While Emerald Bay is accessible from May through September, you'll have to work just a bit to access park amenities. Most visitors walk a mile-long trail down to the main beach area at Vikingsholm or boat-in from elsewhere on the lake. The state park can also be reached via the Rubicon Trail from D.L. Bliss State Park, a contiguous park located to the north of Emerald Bay. // For the latest conditions, visit parks.ca.gov.
Meeks Bay Beach, Lake Tahoe
With its white, sandy beach and cobalt waters, Meeks Bay Beach sits right up there with Sugar Pine Point and D.L. Bliss State Parks as one of Tahoe's West Shore standouts. A fine place to spend a warm summer day, horseshoe-shaped Meeks Bay draws campers, swimmers, and beachgoers to enjoy the clear waters and recreational opportunities found in the area.
Located adjacent to Meeks Bay Campground, the day-use beach offers easy access for launching watercraft such as stand-up paddleboards and kayaks. Summer weekends and holidays often bring a crowd, but the broad beach provides plenty of room to find your own lakeside oasis. And if a break from that intense Lake Tahoe summer sun is in order, shaded picnic areas equipped with charcoal grills are located behind the beach.
Richardson Grove State Park Swimming Hole, Humboldt County
Richardson Grove is one of Humboldt County's beloved redwood state parks. During hot summer months, visitors' attention will likely be drawn beyond the shade of the giant redwood trees toward the South Fork of the Eel River, where a stretch of tranquil swimming holes and beaches offers respite from the heat.
Richardson Grove's main swimming hole is located across from a jumping rock with a deep pool below. Jumping options range from 5 to 20 feet in height. Shade is limited, so bring a beach umbrella.
Parking and camping are available. // Check for updates on current conditions at parks.ca.gov.
Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area Swimming Hole, Mendocino County
The emerald waters of the South Fork of the Eel River serpentine through a redwood landscape at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area (SRA) in northern Mendocino County. A beautiful, albeit hot, summertime destination, Standish Hickey is home to an enticing swimming hole that will help alleviate that midday summer heat. The swimming hole has a large pool deep enough for rock jumping and a family-friendly sandy beach. Beyond the main pool, other shallow pools both upstream and downstream offer additional swimming options.
The swimming hole is accessed by driving down into the river canyon from the Standish-Hickey SRA entrance, and parking is at the day-use area adjacent to Redwood Campground. A quarter-mile walk across the river plain and a seasonal footbridge brings you to the swimming hole. Despite the tall redwoods surrounding the river, there is limited shade at the swimming hole, so plan to bring an umbrella.
Parking and camping are available.
// For additional camping options and current conditions, visit parks.ca.gov.
Potem Falls, Mt. Lassen Volcanic Area
Nature couldn't have designed Potem Falls better. A hidden gem of the greater Redding area, Potem Falls offers the perfect respite from Shasta County's scorching summer heat. Potem is a beautiful watershed to experience any time of year, but summer is when Potem is at its best, with a postcard-worthy pool at the base of a sheer 70-foot waterfall.
Those seeking to escape the heat will enjoy swimming out and around the waterfall's veil crashing down into the pool, and the rope swing provides Tarzan-like aerialists with a pendulum toward the pool's center. Perhaps the only downside to Potem Falls is the limited amount of lounging spaces on the surrounding rocks and the sunning real estate fills up pretty quickly.
Lake Anza, Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley
Lake Anza is a man-made, freshwater lake in Tilden Regional Park. Families looking to escape the heat (or fog) make the short trip into the Berkeley Hills for supervised swimming and the sandy beach.
Swimming within the buoyed area is monitored by lifeguards daily in the summer months and on weekends only in fall and spring. The swim facility is closed from November through April.
Runoff from the nearby watershed can boost bacteria levels in the rainy season. It's a good idea to verify water quality before swimming any time of year. The swimming area is expected to open April 29, 2023.
Weekly test results can be found at the East Bay Regional Parks, ebparks.org.
Highway 49 Crossing, South Yuba River
Polished, house-size granite boulders and enticing emerald pools are what you'll find at the Highway 49 Crossing, a scenic and accessible stretch along the South Yuba River.
This popular swimming hole welcomes visitors who want to escape the summer heat in the Sierra foothills. Making four crossings within South Yuba River State Park, Highway 49 explores California's Gold Country and historic mining communities. One can easily imagine miners panning for gold in the rugged river canyon. In fact, you just may see gold panning in action, as it is still practiced in the area by hobbyists and tourists alike.
Oregon Creek Day Use Area, Tahoe National Forest
If you find the Highway 49 Crossing swimming hole a bit too crowded or you're simply looking for a quieter scene, head down the Golden Chain Highway another few miles to the Oregon Creek Day Use Area. Here, a lesser known swimming hole awaits.
The day-use area provides access to the confluence of the Oregon Creek tributary and the Middle Yuba River. Both sides of the creek have shaded, sandy beaches, and slightly upriver you'll find small cascades and inviting granite slabs that are perfect for sun worshippers.
The Oregon Creek Covered Bridge provides walking access between the parking area directly off Highway 49 and the main day-use area parking lot.
For the latest conditions, visit fs.usda.gov.
North Fork Falls, American River, Sierra Nevada
Located on the North Fork of the American River, North Fork Falls is a secluded and picturesque stretch of tributary on the western slope of the Sierra. Here, tucked under the limbs of an evergreen forest, a series of refreshing pools and cascading waterfalls await.
Those in search of a thrilling way to cool off will find cliff jumps ranging in height from 10 to 25 feet, where millennia of winter snowmelt has carved away the granite and left beautiful cascades. A waterfall at the upper pool offers the largest jump; shorter options are available at the lower pool. While the upper pool requires a scramble up rocks to access, the lower pools are family friendly and easily reachable from the trail.
Caution! Be Safe.
Swimming holes and cliff jumping can be extremely dangerous and unpredictable outdoor activities that pose significant risks to health and 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. Make safe decisions.