Jumping off the rocks into a cold, clear swimming hold is the essence of summer.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a thing for swimming holes. My criteria are pretty standard: cold, clear, water, big sun-warmed rocks to spread yourself out on, the rushing sound of nearby rapids to soothe your mind.

But there’s one more requirement that makes finding the perfect swimming hole more of a challenge. You see, I don’t want to share my swimming hole with a zillion people. I especially don’t want my peace and quiet interrupted by loud obnoxious folks who pollute the air with blaring boom boxes and put their six-packs in the water for me to trip over.

This summer, with little time and money to make it further afield, my daughters and I spent a fair amount of time and energy in search of the perfect swimming hole, visiting numerous California rivers, including the Yuba, the Merced, the Stanislaus, and my favorite local hangout, the Russian River.
I’m no expert on this subject; for that honor, I nominate the good folks at www.Swimmingholes.org, who’ve authored entire books on the subject and have some great info I haven’t seen available anywhere else. They even have a clickable map that lets you find swimming holes near you.

But I do have a knack for pouring over forest service maps in search of suitable candidates, and begging directions from locals. Here, three pretty amazing swimming hole bonanzas that I recommend checking out.

1. The Yuba River near Downieville
This is one of my favorite areas for swimming holes simply because there are so many. If one’s too crowded, there’s always another to check out. Head up Highway 49 from Nevada City, and start looking to your right once the road begins to follow the river closely. You’ll see a series of forest service campgrounds, including Union Flat and Indian Valley. Just past the campgrounds, the river levels out into a series of boulder-studded pools. You can park right on 49 or you can park in the campground lots and walk up.

2. The Merced River west of Yosemite
Most people visit Yosemite via Highway 120 through Groveland. But another, less-traveled route is via 140, which takes you through the atmospheric wild west-y outpost of Mariposa. Continuing up 140 to the Yosemite entrance, the road follows the Merced River, known to rafters for its spectacular rapids. There are numerous swimming holes along this route which make a perfect place to cool off after braving the crowds in the valley.

3. The Russian River, west on River Road
To get away from the hordes, get out of Guerneville and head west towards the Pacific on River Road. (Though in the case of the Russian River in summer, you’re never going to get away from the crowds entirely.) There are two options we like, depending if you want to share your space with a more alternative crowd or one that’s G-rated and family-friendly. The first out is a hangout frequented by local young folks who don’t mind hiking in. Watch for a wider spot in the road just before you get to the Northwood Golf course and park where you see cars on the left shoulder by a chain-link fence. Follow the path through the woods.

Families will be more comfortable at the beach in the town of Monte Rio; turn left off River Road under the wonderfully retro “Vacation Wonderland” sign, then look for a small sign marking the town beach. Oddly, even though this is a marked public beach, there are rarely many people here and the water is deeper than almost anywhere else on the river.

Two things to keep in mind. First, any swimming hole is going to be more crowded on the weekends than during the week, so if you have a chance to play hooky on a Tuesday, take it. Secondly, water levels get lower as the summer winds down into fall. However, this year many rivers have more water in them than usual because of the heavy late rains, so swimming holes that are normally dried up by late summer may still be swimmable through September. It pays to check!