11 Refreshing Swimming Spots Near San Francisco

Don’t get us wrong—we love the Pacific for its dramatic, natural beauty, but the rough surf and frigid ocean temps aren’t exactly swimmer-friendly. So we found 11 Northern California spots within driving distance of the city where the weather is hot and the water is perfect for cooling off on long summer days. From popular swimming holes only a short hike from the road to secluded lakes that require more of a trek into the wilderness, we’ve got options for every kind of summer adventure.

Editor’s Note: Always check conditions carefully before taking a plunge. Swift currents and changing water levels can make some of these swimming holes dangerous, especially in the spring. Use extra caution before diving or cliff jumping in case of submerged boulders.

12 National Parks Within Driving Distance of San Francisco

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1. Old Highway 49 Bridge, Nevada City (nevada County)

  • Distance from SF: 3 hours
  • Getting There: Old South Yuba River Bridge parking off Highway 49, follow trail past parking lot at north end of bridge towards Hoyt’s Crossing
  • Why We Recommend It: historic bridge, sculpted granite boulders, calm pools

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.

2. Garden Of Eden, Felton (santa Cruz Mountains)

  • Distance from SF: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Getting There: day use parking off Highway 9 in Felton, hike Ox Fire Road next to railroad tracks for about 0.75 miles to swimming hole
  • Why We Recommend It: sandy beach and calm pools surrounded by redwoods

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. While it’s secluded, 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.

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3. Natural Bridges, Vallecito (calaveras County)

  • Distance from SF: 2 hours, 10 minutes
  • Getting There: 1-mile hike from Parrots Ferry Road trailhead off Highway 4
  • Why We Recommend It: Natural cavern that doubles as a swimming hole

New Melones Lake is a go-to Gold Country destination in the summertime for boating, fishing and other fun, but follow the Coyote Creek tributary away from the reservoir to the naturally carved limestone caverns called Natural Bridges for a bolder adventure. The water is very cold, but makes for a uniquely fun swim, wade or raft. Bring sturdy shoes and watch for poison oak—this is not a trail for flip flops.

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4. Bass Lake, Bolinas (point Reyes Seashore)

  • Distance from SF: 1 hour, 20 minutes
  • Getting There: Coast Trail from Palomarin Trailhead at the end of Mesa Road
  • Why We Recommend It: peaceful gem with rope swing

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.

5. Rainbow Pools, Groveland (tuolumne County)

  • Distance from SF: 3 hours, 20 minutes
  • Getting There: Highway 120 at the South Fork Tuolumne River bridge
  • Why We Recommend It: historic spot with a few pools and rocks for sunbathing

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.

6. Standish-hickey State Recreation Area, Leggett (mendocino County)

  • Distance from SF: 2 hours, 50 minutes
  • Getting There: 1/4-mile walk from the Standish-Hickey day-use area adjacent to Redwood Campground
  • Why We Recommend It: Heat, sun and cool emerald waters

A two-mile stretch of the South Fork of the Eel River is just what you need on hot summer days in northern Mendocino County. Here you’ll find deep holes and calm shallow areas of emerald waters surrounded by redwoods perfect for a cool dip. Adrenaline junkies will enjoy cliff jumping, but there’s also a sandy beach for basking in the sun, if R&R is more your speed.

7. China Hole, Henry W. Coe State Park (santa Clara County)

  • Distance from SF: 1 hour, 45 minutes
  • Getting There: China Hole Loop from the Corral Trail Trailhead
  • Why We Recommend It: Peaceful hike + secluded swimmer’s paradise

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 10-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.

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8. Lake Aloha, Desolation Wilderness (el Dorado County)

  • Distance from SF: 3 hours
  • Getting There: Echo Lakes Trailhead at Echo Summit
  • Why We Recommend It: Uniquely stunning Sierra landscape

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.

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9. North Fork American River, Colfax (placer County)

  • Distance from SF: 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • Getting There: From Hwy. 80, take Canyon Rd. to Yankee Jims Rd. to the bridge crossing the river
  • Why We Recommend It: A little Gold Country history with a swimming hole bonus

About seven miles off Highway 80 in Colfax, the North Fork of the American River beckons. This is where you’ll find Yankee Jim’s bridge and swimming hole, named after a miner who found gold a few miles away from this spot in 1850. There’s a series of briskly refreshing pools and cascading waterfalls surrounded by smooth granite and evergreen forest. If you’re the thrill-seeking type, there are cliffs for jumping…and the nearby river rafting is good here too. There are only 12 legal parking spots in pullouts near the bridge, so go very early or enjoy this area mid-week instead.

10. Mad River, Kneeland (humboldt County)

  • Distance from SF: 5 hours
  • Getting There: Blue Lake exit off Hwy. 299 to Hatchery Rd.
  • Why We Recommend It: Feels like Humboldt meets Hawaii

Glistening turquoise waters await at this swimming hole on the Mad River in far Northern California. It’s too far of a trek for a regular weekend getaway but the perfect stop on a longer road trip upstate. After the long trek, you’ll be rewarded with a refreshing pool and rope swing for a playful, carefree afternoon.

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11. Lower Falls, Mccloud River (shasta County)

  • Distance from SF: 4 hours, 30 minutes
  • Getting There: From Lower Falls parking lot, take paved path by kiosk to stone staircase to water’s edge
  • Why We Recommend It: Easy access to a gorgeous waterfall and swimming hole

Shasta-Trinity National Forest is calling this summer. On your next road trip, head up to the McCloud River Trail, where you’ll find three stunningly beautiful waterfalls—each with its own swimming hole—as the trail winds its way through a canyon of basalt lava rock. We like Lower Falls for its easy access and wooden platform for jumping, but Middle and Upper Falls are just a short hike away.

allison mccarthy

San Francisco Editor

Allison McCarthy is a writer and editor with 15 years of experience in the industry. She's currently the San Francisco editor at PureWow, where she covers the best of what's...