It’s the perfect outing for a hot day
Cooling off in a natural swimming hole or creek on a hot day is a classic summer experience, bringing joy to adults and kids alike. Next time the forecast is set for scorching, head to one of these nearby swimming holes as a fun alternative to your local pool, splash pad or the beach. Whether you love a swim after a hike or you’re looking for a toddler-friendly beach without sharks (yikes!) read on for all the best swimming holes in the Bay Area.
Best Natural Swimming Holes in Santa Cruz/South Bay/Peninsula
Junction Park: The swimming hole at Junction Park is perfect for families. Steps lead down to the sandy beach, where young children can splash safely in the shallow San Lorenzo River water. Older kids and adults can venture into the middle of the river, where the water gets deeper, and even jump from the smooth granite boulders lining the banks.
The beach is located near a grassy area, perfect for picnics and grilling. There are also public bathrooms within the park. You should be able to find free parking in the residential streets around the park.
13264 Middleton Ave.
Highlands County Park: Ben Lomond’s Highland County Park has trails, tennis courts, a skate park, picnic spots and a play area, which already makes it a great sunny-day family destination. Add in a beautiful waterfall and you’ve got a recipe for a truly memorable summer adventure in the mountains.
The water in this stretch of the San Lorenzo River is shallow, so it’s not suited for swimming, but creates a perfect splash pad for small children. If you didn’t bring a picnic, head to Ben Lomond for lunch at the Tyrolean Inn for delicious German food, or Spanky’s for classic American diner fare.
8500 Highway 9
The Garden of Eden: Take a short hike into the trees, along the train tracks and down to the river for some real forest bathing. The Garden of Eden is an apt name for this unspoiled natural gem, deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Although not the most family-friendly swimming hole—there’s a mile-long hike to get to this spot and it’s popular with 20-somethings who ignore the no alcohol sign—adventurous kids will love discovering this secret forest playground.
Find the swimming hole along at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park on Highway 9, about four miles outside Santa Cruz on the way to Felton. Look for the Ox parking lot, or park on the road (watch out for speeding cars), then grab your gear and go through the green gate. Walk down the fire road, making a right when you get to the train tracks. The trail down to the river is marked with signs banning alcohol and campfires.
Memorial Park: Deep in the mountains, yet not far from the cities of Silicon Valley, Memorial Park is a wonderful spot to get away from it all. Pescadero Creek runs through the heart of Memorial Park, winding past campsites and an outdoor amphitheater.
Although the dam that created a popular swimming hole has been removed (it was preventing endangered coho salmon from making their way to the ocean), this area is a nice spot to paddle. In fact, the dam removal means you can spot the silver-colored fish as you splash around. The old swimming spot can be found by taking the Tan Oak trail from the campground. Look out for the steps that lead down to a gravel and sand beach.
Pescadero, the tiny beach town on Highway 1, is only 20 minutes away. Grab some tasty artichoke garlic bread at Arcangeli’s Market before heading home.
9500 Pescadero Creek Rd.
Best Natural Swimming Holes in the East Bay
Lake Temescal: Originally created as a reservoir for drinking water, Lake Temescal in Oakland’s Temescal Regional Recreation Area is open to swimmers spring through fall. Lifeguards are on duty during popular times. This beautiful lake, surrounded by lush greenery, is ideal for families looking to cool off on a hot day.
There is a grassy picnic area next to the lake, bathrooms, changing rooms, plenty of parking and two playgrounds to keep the kids entertained. The lake is stocked with trout and catfish, making it the perfect spot to learn how to fish.
North Entrance: 6500 Broadway Oakland, CA
South Entrance: 6502 Broadway Terrace Oakland, CA
Online: Lake Temescal
Cull Canyon: Cull Canyon is another man-made swimming hole, created from a reservoir and chlorinated to keep the water clean. The sandy-bottomed lagoon is popular with families, especially on sunny weekends, so pre-register to ensure entry—people are turned away after capacity limits are reached.
Kids who find the water too cold will enjoy building sandcastles on the white-sand beach, while older kids will have a blast jumping off the floating dock into the deeper water. Lifeguards are on duty to ensure everyone stays safe, and non-swimmers remain in the shallow areas. There’s a $4 entry fee for adults 16 and over, while kids pay just $2 each. There’s tons of free parking, but bring a wagon if you’re bringing lots of gear, as it is a bit of a walk from the lot.
18627 Cull Canyon Rd.
Castro Valley, CA
Online: Cull Canyon
Lake Anza: Back open for 2023! Lake Anza is a natural, spring-fed lake located in Tilden Regional Park. In the summer, the sandy beach and freshwater swimming area are popular with families across the East Bay. There is a lifeguard on duty, plus you’ll find bathrooms, changing rooms, picnic areas, and plenty of parking.
This lake is a real urban oasis and although the beach can get crowded in the summer, you’ll be surrounded by forest, maintaining the wilderness vibe.
Lake Anza Road off of Central Park Dr.
Online: Lake Anza
Best Natural Swimming Holes in the North Bay
The Inkwells: Go for a natural swim in the poetically named The Inkwells, a series of deep, inky-black pools. Although unmarked, they’re simple to find. Park on Sir Francis Drake Blvd., close to Shafter Bridge, or in the parking lot at Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area, and hike down the small dirt path to Lagunitas Creek where you’ll see the swimming holes.
The creek is fed with fresh water from nearby Lake Kent and is a popular spot on a sunny day for a refreshing swim in the chilly waters. There are three pools, some deep enough for jumping. The Inkwells are best suited to older kids and teens, due to the steep path down and the deep water.
Bass Lake: If your kids are avid hikers and like the idea of a mid-hike swim, take the beautiful Coast Trail to Bass Lake in Point Reyes. This gorgeous lake can only be reached by hiking 2.5 miles along a trail, which winds through shady forest and past stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The reward at the end is a blue lake with an inviting rope swing.
Like The Inkwells, this hidden gem is amazing but better for older kids who can handle a five-mile hike and swim confidently in cold, open water. If your family is up for an even longer hike, continue along the Coast Trail to the stunning Alamere Falls, a waterfall that cascades directly into the ocean.
Good to Know: When swimming in lakes or creeks, remember many do not have lifeguards and the water could have hidden dangers, so keep a close eye on the kids. Also, some of these spots are deep in the forest where mosquitos like to hang out, so bring bug spray. I also highly recommend bringing water shoes to keep little feet happy when scrambling over rocks.