swimming holes, rivers and a beach

When embarking on a summer hike, it’s important to remember the necessities. Water. Hat. Sunscreen. The second kind of water.

That’s right: Some folks might absorb UV rays like roast beef under a buffet lamp and wash off the sweat in the shower later. Others take advantage of natural water sources to cool down on the hike itself.

It’s difficult to bask in waterfall spray during California’s parched summers. But opportunities for splashes exist if you know where to look. Here are three great hikes with three different ways to get wet – in a mirror lake, in a paradisaical stream and on the shores of the mighty Pacific.

Visitors hike along the Tennessee Valley Trail, a 1.7-mile path that ends at Tennessee Beach in Mill Valley.
Visitors hike along the Tennessee Valley Trail, a 1.7-mile path that ends at Tennessee Beach in Mill Valley. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Tennessee Valley Trail

You know you’re on a good water hike when there are fish on the trail. More on that in a minute.

The Tennessee Valley Trail in Mill Valley is an easy 3.5 mile in-and-out hike along a wide path popular with families, some resolutely pushing strollers over exposed rock and puddles. Fog racing through the ancient river valley and boulders with 5 o’clock lichen shadows lend the setting an Isla Nublar vibe. It is a land of the dinosaurs, in a way: Tule elk roamed here in the 1800s before hunting and habitat loss drove them locally extinct. (They’ve since been reintroduced at Point Reyes.)

The destination is Tennessee Beach, named after a steamship, the SS Tennessee, that ferried Gold Rush fortune seekers from Panama to San Francisco. In 1853, its captain missed the entrance to the Golden Gate and ran aground here. A couple years later, the Point Bonita Lighthouse was built to prevent another such disaster. When the sand has shifted after storms, you can still see skeletal remnants of the wreck from the beach.

A bobcat walks along the Tennessee Valley Trail searching for prey in Mill Valley in July 2022.
A bobcat walks along the Tennessee Valley Trail searching for prey in Mill Valley in July 2022. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

The walk down is dotted with yellow fennel blossoms and brilliant-purple wild peas. At one point, the trail splits into an upper level with views of the valley and a wetlands path where bunnies rustle among the reeds. It was here on a recent weekend that people started noticing something weird.

“Stop! Put it down!” yelled a mother at her young daughter.

Squished on the trail, threaded among the grass and dangling from cliffs are thousands of silvery anchovies, lending the air the tang of Caesar dressing. Now, “fish rain” has fallen before when waterspouts suck up fish from shallow water. Here the cause-and-effect is ever weirder.

Abnormally cold waters and nutrient upwelling created prolific spawns of baitfish off the coast. Birds, like gulls and pelicans, ate until they literally couldn’t eat anymore. So they just dropped or regurgitated the rest in a stinky fish rain on a swath stretching from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco to Marin. (Consider it unexpected wildlife.)

Spawning events are prime times to look for whales, and Tennessee Beach, with a promontory high above the coast, provides a tactical viewpoint. The bowl-shaped beach has lacunae carved out of the cliff face that make for perfect places to hunker down. It’s here one might slip off one’s shoes and approach the ocean that, due to tiny pebbles, hisses like snakes when the water retreats.

The waves are massive, and there’s a shelf right at the breakers, so it is not a place to swim. But it is extremely refreshing to feel the water rushing over the feet, cooling the body’s circulation, while listening to the Dolby-quality ocean roar and marveling at such a wild place close to the city.

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park

The San Lorenzo River feeds Garden of Eden swimming hole in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, making it popular summertime hangout.
The San Lorenzo River feeds Garden of Eden swimming hole in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, making it popular summertime hangout. (Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

Sometimes a body just wants to chill. The Redwood Grove Loop Trail near the entrance to Henry Cowell is an excellent place to do so, with a unique bathing opportunity afterward.

This particular grove helped inspire the century-old, redwoods-preservation movement in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A 0.8-mile loop runs under several notable specimens of earth’s tallest tree, each with a cool nickname as if they’re all part of a pine-coned posse. There’s the “Giant,” 1,500 years old and 25 stories tall, and the hollow “Fremont” in which General John Fremont supposedly camped while crossing the West.

Look carefully and you’ll catch the “Phantom of the Forest,” one of perhaps a dozen albino redwoods in the park. It lacks chlorophyll and is ghostly white – like a vampire, it sucks nutrients from neighboring roots. There are various theories why albino redwoods exist. Given that some of them have elevated levels of metals, it’s possible they withdraw toxins from the ground to protect other trees.

Look down, and you might find one of the mustard-hued slugs that inch over the forest floor. Other animals that live in the park include coyotes, black-tailed deer, bobcats and steelhead trout.

To say “hi” to that last fellow, head to the Ox Fire Road trailhead a little farther south on Highway 9. Here a path leads down to railroad tracks next to the San Lorenzo River. It’s an active railroad, with slow-moving steam locomotives, so keep alert. About 0.75 miles from the trailhead you’ll arrive at the Garden of Eden.

This swimming hole channels cool water over rocks into an emerald-green bathing area lush with vegetation. It’s popular with tourists and locals, so you might expect to have company, though during off-hours it could just be you and the fish. Resist the temptation to jump from the cliffs, as people have been injured or killed doing so. It’s more pleasant, anyway, to just kick back and enjoy the forest’s splendor.

The Garden of Eden received its name from the propensity of people to hurl their clothing away. It still has a reputation among nudists, though not as much as before. As one person lamented on Reddit: “In the last 10 or so years, I’ve noticed that the youth don’t really get naked like we did in the ’80s and ’90s. Changing culture? Whenever I go to Garden of Eden, it’s always a bunch of fully dressed, high school kids.”

Trione-Annadel State Park

Lake Ilsanjo at Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa is a wonderful swimming lake to cool down in the region's intense summers.
Lake Ilsanjo at Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa is a wonderful swimming lake for cooling down in the region’s intense summers. (California State Parks, all rights reserved)

In certain magical areas of the world, there exist “mirror lakes,” so still they reflect their natural surroundings upside down. Santa Rosa has its own in Lake Ilsanjo. It’s black as obsidian and surrounded with gorgeous trails and stirring wildlife.

Businessman Joe Coney built the lake and stocked it with fish in the 1950s, so he and his buddies could have a fine ol’ time in the woods. Word of its beauty hasn’t trickled far outside Santa Rosa, so hikers often find they have the entire thing to themselves.

Most of Trione-Annadel’s moderately difficult paths lead to this watery heart. The Warren Richardson Trail is a popular route through shady trees and springtime fairy-slipper orchids. The rocky Cobblestone Trail ascends by the old Wymore Quarry, which provided cobblestones for road construction in Sacramento and San Francisco.

A quick and satisfying hike – with just enough calorie-burning to justify a trip to one of Santa Rosa’s craft breweries afterward – starts in the west at the Vietnam Veterans Trail. This Mediterranean-feeling path leads to the Spring Creek Trail, a fern-lined route that provides relief from the heat. It’s popular with runners who hop the mossy rocks and also mountain bikers, who are all over the park in the quest for mellow flow and chunky gnar.

During late afternoons, animals seem to take up appointed stations along the trail. At one point, it’s turkey time with bobble-headed birds marching in line. Next might be the deer show as bucks and does delicately pick their way across the creek. (Try to avoid the mountain-lion encore.)

The trail eventually turns into a dam, where there’s the option of completing a roughly 3.5-mile loop via the Canyon Trail, with magnificent panoramic views of Santa Rosa. But given that temperatures are typically in the mid-80s here during summer, perhaps it’s time for a dip.

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