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14 Stunning Northern California Swimming Holes

14 Stunning Northern California Swimming Holes

Rejuvenate yourself in the glimmering hues of emerald and blue—discover the natural wonders of NorCal lakes, waterfalls, creeks, and more.


6 min read

May 30, 2021

Looking to escape the city heat? Northern California’s swimming holes are your salvation. Rejuvenate yourself in the glimmering hues of emerald and blue—discover the natural wonders of California lakes, waterfalls, creeks, and more. Opportunities to jump off rugged cliffs, sunbathe on granite boulders, or pitch a tent near the gorgeous NorCal wilderness await you. Whatever you end up doing, one thing’s certain—you’re in for an exciting adventure. 

The Best Swimming Holes in Northern California 

Tucked under the limbs of an evergreen forest, a series of refreshing pools and cascading waterfalls await at the North Fork American River.

1. North Fork Falls

North Fork Falls is an isolated tributary in the Sierra, located on the North Fork of the American River. This series of refreshing pools and cascading water is tucked away in an evergreen forest—it's exactly the serene scene you need. Millennia of winter snow melting has carved away the granite and left beautiful cascades for you to swim in. Jump off cliffs ranging from 10 to 25 feet and cool off at this hidden gem—this Golden State waterfall is bound to leave you breathless.

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2. Highway 49 Crossing

Find giant polished granite boulders and enticing emerald pools at the Highway 49 Crossing. This scenic and accessible stretch along the South Yuba River welcomes visitors who want to escape the summer heat; take advantage of priceless photo ops while you’re at it. Highway 49 explores California’s Gold Country through four crossings, taking you through historic mining communities on water. Picture miners hard at work in the rugged canyons and searching for gold after taking a dip in the pools—the area is still actively probed by hobbyists and tourists alike.

Lakes in Northern California for Swimming 

Emerald Bay is Lake Tahoe’s crown jewel—an oasis of shimmering greens, turquoise, and blues against a strikingly beautiful mountain backdrop.

3. Emerald Bay 

Emerald Bay and its namesake state park are located in the southwest corner of iconic Lake Tahoe. The bay’s shimmering waters invites boaters, swimmers, and hikers galore to explore. Emerald Bay is completely surrounded by glacially carved granite peaks that rise steeply from the water’s edge. Swimming at this lake in Northern California is a delight, so make sure you don’t skip it when creating your Lake Tahoe itinerary.

4. Donner Lake 

If you're trying to find the best lakes in Northern California for swimming, look no further than Donner Lake. This eastern Sierra Nevada destination is a great addition to your weekend getaway in Truckee; the scenic wilderness will rejuvenate you. Home to the biggest lake trout in California as well as kokanee salmon, Donner Lake is lovely for fishing and swimming. In winter, ski to your heart’s content here—Donner Lake isn’t called the “Jewel of the Sierra” for nothing.

Lake Almanor has a capacity of 1,308,000 acre-feet and a maximum depth of about 90 feet. It's formed by Canyon Dam, Benner, and Last Chance Creeks.

5. Lake Almanor 

If you’re looking to get away from the crowds and swim in peaceful solitude, head over to Lake Almanor. This tranquil reservoir is Plumas County’s best-kept secret; you’ll find it hidden between the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges. With immaculate vistas and rugged mountainous terrain, Lake Almanor is an adventure waiting to happen.

Not only is this undiscovered gem one of the best lakes to swim in Northern California, but it also boasts superb fishing opportunities. Black bullhead, brook trout, and golden shiner are well-known residents of the reservoir—don’t miss your chance to practice those angler moves.

6. Lake Siskiyou

Formed by the Box Canyon Dam on the Sacramento River, Lake Siskiyou’s crystal-clear water is what comes to mind when thinking about swimming in NorCal. Hydrated by glorious mountain streams, the reservoir is 2.3 miles from Mount Shasta—the ultimate escape from the roaring city buzz. Swim and kayak for miles along the picture-perfect shoreline, fish for lake trout and smallmouth bass, and find primo accommodation in nearby Redding if pitching a tent isn’t your kind of thing.

Secret Swimming Holes in Northern California 

Both sides of the Oregon Creek hold shaded, sandy beaches, and slightly upriver you'll find small cascades and inviting granite slabs.

7. Oregon Creek Day Use Area

Bask in solitude at the Oregon Creek Day Use Area, where a pristine secret swimming hole in Northern California awaits. With access to the confluence of the Oregon Creek tributary and the Middle Yuba River, this area is just the quiet scene you’re looking for. Relax on either side of the creek—both shaded by towering trees—and discover small cascades and granite slabs slightly upriver.

8. Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area Swimming Hole

Is your remedy to mid-summer heat splashing around in emerald waters? Then you’d better head to Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in northern Mendocino. The sparkling streams of the Eel River flow through redwoods, welcoming breathtaking vistas you can swim through. The recreation area is home to an enticing swimming hole that’s deep enough for rock jumping and family-friendly watersports—safe to say, it’s heaven on earth.

Beautiful Swimming Lakes in Northern California 

Bass Lake is renowned for excellent fishing, hiking trails, and warm waters that are perfect for taking a dip.

9. Bass Lake 

Bass Lake is a pine-trimmed reservoir located about a half hour’s drive south of Yosemite National Park. Many think of this NorCal destination as a smaller version of Lake Tahoe. However, the little lake with the big alpine feel is its own element. With an elevation of 3,400 feet, the surface waters become blissfully warm in the summer—making it one of NorCal’s best lakes for swimming.

10. Lake Anza

Named after the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, this Northern California swimming lake boasts fresh water for days. Wildcat Creek provides Lake Anza with most of its recreational waters, which take up a large scenic portion within Tilden Regional Park. This peaceful swimming lake and its surrounding beaches offer plenty of amenities, including changing rooms, a snack bar, restrooms, and large parking areas. 

Whiskeytown Lake’s crystal-clear water is perhaps the most recognized feature of the 42,000-acre Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

11. Whiskeytown Lake

No list of the best swimming lakes in Northern California would be complete without the charming Whiskeytown Lake. Though it's a reservoir, it still has the heart of a natural lake. Drive west from Redding and dip your toes in the warm, crystal-clear waters, enclosed by 36 miles of shoreline. There’s plenty of space for sunbathing, summer reading, and sandy picnics, too—does it get dreamier than this?

Waterfalls in Northern California that You Can Swim Near 

Potem Falls lies in a deep canyon and reaches 45 feet from its base. Don't forget to check out the rope swing when you're there.

12. Potem Falls

There isn’t a place more beautiful than Potem Falls. A hidden gem in the Redding area, this cascading showstopper offers the perfect respite from Shasta County’s scorching summer heat. While this glorious NorCal water hole can be visited year-round, it’s the summer months that are magical. Swim out and around the postcard-worthy waterfall pool and feel like Tarzan as you swing on a rope high above the ground.

13. Hatchet Creek Falls

Want to spice up your getaway to the Shasta Cascade? Head on down to Hatchet Falls—one of the best places to swim in NorCal. Split in half by a fallen tree (used now as a makeshift staircase), this cascading cliff-jumping destination offers dizzying hikes and the splash of a lifetime. While it’s one of those waterfalls you have to hike to, the payoff of this Northern California swimming hole is definitely worthwhile.

As the lowest of the McCloud River Falls' three levels, Lower Falls is surrounded by large rocks, making it ideal for sunbathing.

14. Lower Falls, McCloud River

Spanning more than 70 miles, the picturesque McCloud River never falls short of surprises. Despite offering exceptional vistas of the neighboring Cascade Range, this stunning California river is also known for fishing and swimming. And speaking of, Lower falls—one of the three cascading beauties in the area—offers just the right temperatures for you to dive in. The waterfall drops approximately 15 feet into a warm pool surrounded by flat bedrock. (If that isn’t perfection, we don’t know what is.) 

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