8 of the Best Lakes and Swimming Holes in the Bay Area
Don’t get us wrong, we love the Pacific for its dramatic beauty, but the rough surf and frigid ocean temps aren’t exactly swimmer-friendly. So we found eight spots within driving distance of the city where the weather is hot and the water is perfect for cooling off. From popular dips just a short hike from the road to secluded swims that require more of a trek into the wilderness, we’ve got options for every kind of summer adventure. Here are the best lakes and swimming holes in the Bay Area.
1. OLD HIGHWAY 49 BRIDGE, NEVADA CITY
If it’s summer, it’s time for a day cooling off in one of the many swimming holes along the crystal-clear Yuba River. This is a very popular day trip to beat the heat, so go early in the morning to score a parking spot in the small lot or along Highway 49. Take a moment to marvel at the historic cement arch bridge that dates back to 1921 before setting off on the main trail towards Hoyt’s Crossing. Make the steep descent down any of the many spur trails to large, sculpted granite boulders and a seemingly endless number of calm pools along the river.
South Yuba River Bridge parking off Highway 49, follow trail past parking lot at north end of bridge towards Hoyt’s Crossing; southyubariverstatepark.org
2. GARDEN OF EDEN, SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
Picture a sunny swimming hole along the San Lorenzo River in Henry Cowell State Park surrounded by redwoods and Douglas fir trees. Boulders frame two deep but relatively calm pools and a small sandy beach presents the perfect picnic spot. It’s no wonder this gem in the Santa Cruz Mountains is called Garden of Eden. But it’s no secret to locals and visitors. So grab a towel and inner tube, get there early and spend the day floating on the water.
Day use parking off Highway 9 in Felton, hike Pipeline Road and then Ox Fire next to railroad tracks; head down towards the river after about one mile; parks.ca.gov
3. THE POTHOLES, KIRKWOOD
Don’t get us wrong—Kirkwood’s Silver Lake is a beauty with the stunning Sierras as your backdrop. But across the road, about a one-mile leisurely stroll in, is a local secret called The Potholes. Follow the stream until you find a series of natural granite swimming holes among large, flat boulders perfect for soaking up the sun. It’s a great spot for kids and families (and even dogs!), so expect to see a lot of picnic coolers and pool floaties. There are even natural “water slides” flowing from pothole to pothole of crystal-clear water.
Parking at Kit Carson Lodge off of Highway 88 just before Silver Lake, turn right onto the private road just past the bridge and follow the trail along the stream for one mile; tahoevacationguide.com
4. BASS LAKE, POINT REYES
Protected from the chilly coast in Point Reyes is this idyllic lake bordered by trees and rolling hills. You’ll have to hike about three miles in (watch out for poison oak), but once you get there, you’ll have all afternoon to float on a raft or test out the rope swing at this unofficial swimming spot.
Coast Trail from Palomarin Trailhead at the end of Mesa Road; nps.gov
5. RAINBOW POOLS, GROVELAND
Just off the side of the road before you reach the gate into Yosemite National Park is a treasure that summer travelers have been frequenting since the 1920s. The area used to be a toll road stop, and there was even a lodge up on the cliff with a diving board into the largest of the three pools. It’s popular with locals, so expect crowds, but there’s still plenty of room for everyone to sun themselves on the surrounding rocks.
Highway 120 at the South Fork Tuolumne River bridge; fs.usda.gov
6. LAKE ALOHA, DESOLATION WILDERNESS
The biggest in a system of pristine alpine lakes in the backcountry of Desolation Wilderness, Lake Aloha has crystal clear water that is very cold (blame the surrounding snowmelt). If you’re brave enough, it’s an invigorating mid- to late-summer dip; otherwise, enjoy the view from your perch on a slab on the rocky shore. Be warned: It’s a 6.7-mile hike in, but a water taxi shortens the trip. Day and overnight wilderness permits required.
Echo Lakes Trailhead at Echo Summit; highsierratrails.com
7. CHINA HOLE, HENRY W. COE STATE PARK
If you’re the type who likes long hikes on summer days, then this is the trip for you. From the South Bay’s Henry W. Coe State Park, you’ll start your ten-mile round-trip journey, but the challenging climb through chaparral and creek-side woodlands is worth the mid-hike reward: a secluded swimming hole with a small sandy beach and big, flat boulders for lounging.
China Hole Loop from the Corral Trail Trailhead; coepark.net
8. OREGON CREEK, YUBA RIVER
Talk about secluded. You’ll have to hunt for this swimming hole, but if you can find it, your own private waterfall awaits. There is even a series of mini whirlpools created by the falls. Look for a white road marker with the number 101 on it. Then park by the big dirt hump and walk about a quarter mile down a well-maintained trail to Oregon Creek.
Route 49 just under one mile from the Middle Yuba Bridge; grassvalleychamber.com
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