Escape the Heat This Summer: 4 Northern California Swimming Holes Within an Easy Drive

A good swimming hole can make you feel like Mother Nature’s favorite child. Framed by boulders or sometimes a sandy beach, otherwise raging rivers slow down, take a breather, and invite you to do the same. Splash off a hot rock and feel icy water buzz your skin like electricity, the current massaging your muscles like a whirlpool. Here are some of our favorite cool pools, all driving distance from the Bay Area, with parking and facilities nearby, too. Jump in!

Rainbow Pool 

Tuolumne River, Tuolumne County

Rainbow Pool 

Once a stagecoach toll stop, then a popular resort, this site near Yosemite National Park’s Big Oak Flat entrance gate is now nothing more than a jumble of rocks and a spectacular waterfall-fed swimming hole. Cool down here after a hot day in the park. (Although if you want to avoid the crowds, go in the morning.) Some people call this sweet spot Rainbow Pools, as there is a second, smaller pool at the top of the waterfall, however people have fallen from the rocks there with tragic consequences, so it’s best to stick to the lower pool. 

Access and amenities:

The swimming spot is located just off Highway 120, 15 minutes from Yosemite’s Big Oak Flat entrance gate. It’s $8 per car May–Sept. to park, free other times; vault toilets; open 6 a.m.–8 p.m.  

South Fork of the Eel River 

Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, Mendocino County

The steep path down to this deep swimming hole may seem daunting, especially if you’re properly loaded down with coolers and lawn chairs, but once you’re reclining on the beach, you’ll forget all about the trek. Rocks and ledges on the opposite bank provide launching points for jumpers, although park rules forbid jumping and diving, and experts warn that you should never jump into water if you can’t see the bottom. (Note: Check with the ranger station whether blue-green algae toxins are at dangerous levels.)

Access and amenities:

The swimming hole is located 180 miles north of San Francisco along Highway 101, 1.5 miles north of the town of Leggett. The day use fee per car is $8; open sunrise–sunset; campsites can also be booked at the three campgrounds for $35 a night at ReserveCalifornia

Big Sur River Gorge 

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Monterey County

One of the things that makes the campground at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park so popular is the Big Sur River running right through it, though water levels may be low at certain times of year. To reach the bigger Big Sur River Gorge swimming hole, you need to hike a bit, along with plenty of others looking to cool off on a warm afternoon, but it’s a delightful splashpad to yourself on a warm afternoon.

Access and amenities: Start in the campground or at Day Use Lot 3 and take the Gorge Trail to the river. Then, follow the river upstream, wading to switch sides as necessary, until you come to the shallow swimming hole with walls of granite. $10 per car day use fee; open 8 a.m.–sunset. Campsites, $35 a night, can be booked at ReserveCalifornia

Stanislaus River North Fork 

Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Calaveras County

Stanislaus River North Fork 

Most day trippers never get much past the park entrance, since the North Grove Trail, a pleasant meander through towering Giant sequoias, is right there. Drive past it (you can admire the mighty trees on the way out) deeper into the park, however, to find a picnic area with a path leading to a sandy beach and snowpack-fed swimming spot. Boulders in the river provide a break from the current, depending on the water level. “River levels and current can vary,” says Amber Sprock, a park interpreter.Sometimes there is not much of a beach, depending on the water that year.”

Access and amenities:

From the park entrance, drive 5.5 miles into the park to the River Picnic Area, where a short path leads from the parking lot to the swimming hole. The day use fee is $10 per car; open 6 a.m.–10 p.m. Campsites, $25-$35, can be booked at ReserveCalifornia.

More from Marin:

Carrie Kirby spends a lot of time asking people about something they think about but rarely talk about: money. Her work on personal finance, business and technology has appeared in San Francisco MagazineConsumers DigestWise Bread and more publications. Carrie’s most recent work about her other love, travel, appears in The Best Women’s Travel Writing: Volume 10. She lives on an island (Alameda) with her husband and three kids, and blogs about getting them all where they need to go without owning a car at