I grew up in the Midwest, where the preferred swimming holes were made of concrete and dotted with diving boards. So I had to adjust to swimming outside in Humboldt County. Sure, diving into North Coast rivers and ocean waters qualifies one for "Polar Bear Club" membership, but even when the marine layer has made July feel like December along the coast, there are places warm enough to swim all over the county. Swimming where you may see a salmon or an osprey or an otter, where you can stretch out on warm boulders or sandy beaches, away from crowds ... well, that was not a difficult adjustment.
This list of local swimming holes is hardly complete, and some of the best spots are on private land. Fortunately, there are plenty of public options.
Beginning with the closest to Humboldt Bay, just 7 miles east of Eureka, is Freshwater County Park. Each summer from mid-June to shortly after Labor Day for generations now, Humboldt County Parks has dammed Freshwater Creek to create a pleasant swimming hole that complements the day-use picnic tables and fire rings. There is a $5 per car fee and no dogs permitted. Like all of the swimming holes described here, there is no lifeguard.
Several other county parks feature great summer swimming and allow camping for a fun extended experience. Twelve miles east of Highway 101 on State Route 36, Swimmer's Delight ($5 for day use) and nearby Pamplin Grove (free day use), are two of several locations on the Van Duzen River, tend to escape the coastal chill and have swimming holes with minimal current.
Similarly, A.W. Way County Park ($3 for day use), located about 6 miles east of Petrolia on a bend in the Mattole River, offers warm days and family-friendly wading and swimming. At the other end of the county, 7 miles north of Trinidad, is Big Lagoon County Park ($2 fee), which Mike Orr, County Parks Supervisor, says is overlooked. "People don't realize how pleasant the water in the day use area at Big Lagoon can be," he observes. The lagoon, that is — the nearby ocean is cold and rough with a forbiddingly steep beach. These parks all have restroom facilities and other amenities that can make things a little more convenient, especially for families.
Several of the state parks also offer swimming opportunities. Some 17 miles east of Highway 101 on State Route 36, Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park ($2 fee) remains open for swimming and camping. Richardson Grove State Park ($8 for day use), along the south fork of the Eel River 7 miles south of Garberville on Highway 101, has a wonderful, deep swimming hole. The once premier swimming hole on the South Fork of the Eel, at the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area, is no longer created each summer, but don't despair — there are plenty of others. Try out the swimming spots near Leatherwood Bar (across from Founder's Grove, take the Dyerville Exit from Highway 101, go over the bridge and take a right on the service road), Women's Federation Grove, and the Garden Club Grove, all of which are accessible from the Avenue of the Giants. For even more hidden treasures, Elizabeth Whitley has authored the slim and comprehensive Guide to Natural Swimming Holes in the Eel River Valley and Mad River Wilderness, available at local bookstores.
Richardson Grove and Benbow Lake State Recreation Area Ranger Bernadette Maloney adds a cautionary note about warm, low-flow Humboldt County rivers like the Eel, Mattole, Van Duzen and the Mad in the late summer. Blue-green algae thrives in those conditions and can be particularly dangerous to dogs (who don't think twice about drinking the water). Swimmers are advised to rinse off (and think twice about drinking the water).
For those who don't have the time to venture east on Highway 299 all the way to the Trinity River, there is a popular swimming hole accessible from the south side of the Mad River Bridge in Blue Lake on Hatchery Road from the Mad River Hatchery parking lot.
The Trinity River, including its more docile South Fork, offers many great swimming opportunities. It can get hot early in the day and windy later on, so hang on to those layers. And watch out for poison oak. The Willow Creek Community Services District operates Kimtu Beach, which has shallow water on the south side and deeper areas with jumping rocks on the north. Just north of Willow Creek is the popular Forest Service river access, Big Rock, with picnic tables and toilets. Tish Tang Campground ($6 for day use, 530-625-4284), just 2 miles south of Hoopa, has a half-mile of riverfront and will open Memorial Day weekend.
Bear in mind that the Trinity can be treacherous. Its uneven bed, steep drops, swift current and cold water — hypothermia-cold at times — can quickly humble the strongest swimmers, a combination that all too often results in tragedy. Whitley prudently advises swimmers not to swim alone and not to dive or jump in "until you have personally gone down to determine the depth and underwater conditions" at any swimming hole.
Keep your swimming gear — a suit, beach towel, folding chair, sunscreen, some river shoes and, for exploring, a snorkel and mask — right next to your sweater and jacket, because inland swimming is still an option when the July thermometer is struggling to hit 60 degrees along the foggy coastline. And don't forget the cooler and picnic basket! Happy swimming.