Destinations / Travel

7 of the most underrated swimming spots in California

7 of the most underrated swimming spots in California

When people think of swimming in California, they often think of the big, sprawling beaches around Los Angeles – Santa Monica boulevard and Malibu – swims in Yosemite National Park and perhaps the oceanic Lake Tahoe. While researching our third book, Places We Swim California, we had the great pleasure of exploring a bit further, to seek out the icons but also discover some of the more underrated, lesser-known and off the beaten track locations. What we found was that it was the rivers swims under towering redwood forests, icy mountain lakes and steamy hot springs in the desert that were most memorable. Among the pages of Places We Swim California, we’ve captured the very best cross section of America’s Golden State. And here for RUSSH we’ve selected a clutch of the most beautifully, underrated swims.


1. Devil’s Elbow – Northern California

Devil’s Elbow – Northern California

One of the most northern locations in the book, located just south of the Oregon border near the town of Willow Creek is Devil’s Elbow. The spot is defined by a sudden, sharp river bend that slows down its flow and dredges a deep green pool at the “elbow”. This stretch of the Trinity River is a classic summertime spot enjoyed by locals, and considered the spiritual center of the native Hupa people’s world. It’s pristine and fertile, teaming with redwoods, salmon and blackberries, and is a place of ceremony and celebration.


2. Potem Falls – Northern California

Potem Falls – Northern California

Potem Falls is a small, semi-secret waterfall and wide plunge pool deep down a winding road in Shasta Country. Narrow at the top, the waterfall fans out as it tumbles 70 feet into the pebble-bottom pool below. A large boulder on the left seems perfectly positioned to swim out to, lie on, or jump off of. Cracks in the sheer rock walls around the falls burst with greenery. The water flows year-round at Potem, and it is immaculately clean and clear – we’re sure you can drink it.


3. Island Lake – Sierra Nevada

Island Lake – Sierra Nevada

Desolation Wilderness, to the southwest of Lake Tahoe, is a playground of forest, granite peaks, and glacially formed valleys and lakes – a microcosm of the entire Sierra Nevada. To get to Island Lake is an easy 3.5 mile walk (one-way), following a long meadow before traversing up into a rock basin. You’ll be stripping off layers as you go. The water here is silky in its stillness. Dive in and swim out to small island and laze of granite daybeds. You’ll feel high up and far away from the rest of the world here.


4. Gualala River Redwood Park – The Bay Area

Gualala River Redwood Park – The Bay Area

"Mendonoma", a section of coast straddling Sonoma and Mendocino Countries, possesses quiet redwood state parks, quaint cliffside communities and very little phone reception (celebrated features to some). A mile inland from the town of Gualala (pronounced “"wa-LAL-la"), you will find the town’s campground, set along Gualala River. The fern-draped timeless of redwood forest takes over as soon as the boom gates swim open. The property has an uncanny aesthetic, like something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. This is Moonlight Kingdom summer camp in all its perfect symmetrical glory. Swim in the river and camp alongside it.


5. Finney’s Hole – Gold Country

Finney’s Hole – Gold Country

Downieville – a remote, former boomtown located at the confluence of the Downie River and the North Fork of the Yuba River – has made a transition from nostalgic mining outpost to vibrant outdoor adventure destination. Activity revolves around the town centre along the river, where clear blue-green water mixes to form a deep pool known as Finney’s Hole. People lie on the sandy beach, swim, and lazily float in garish inflatable tubes. If it’s bigger thrills you are chasing, there are some rock jumps a half mile downstream.


6. Middle Fork Tule River – Central California

Middle Fork Tule River – Central California

Clear, cold snowmelt flows across the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada, creating abundant waterfalls, cascades, and swimming holes along the way. Steep canyons make much of the river inaccessible along this section of the Tule River near Springville, but there are a few classic spots where locals go to escape the summer heat. Plumes of mist pulse across the granite walls and scatter tiny rainbows through the air. Even at the end of summer the water is cold enough to give you an ice cream headache, but dive into the pool and let the force of the waterfall push you backwards to the warm, solar-heated rocks.


7. Tecopa Hot Springs – Southern California

Tecopa Hot Springs – Southern California

The bizarre outpost of Tecopa, in Southern California near Death Valley National Park is a winter destination. In summer, temperatures regularly soar above 50 degrees Celsius, and there’s not a lot else to do here but soak in warm mineralised waters. The large marshy pool on the north end of town is the most notable natural hot spring. Visitors coat themselves in silky clay and often gather around sunrise and sunset to watch the steam rise and the light dance across the sky. It feels ceremonial.


Places We Swim California is written by Australian authors Caroline Clements and Dillon Seitchik-Reardon and published by Hardie Grant. It is available at and in bookstores from 3 April in Australia and 16 April in the US and UK. For more swimming inspiration, follow @placesweswim. And if you find yourself in California sometime soon, check out this list of local haunts in West Hollywood, curated by those in the know.

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