A dip in nature’s pool
STANDING on a granite perch, more than 20 feet above a deep turquoise pool in the San Gabriel Mountains, David Seiler musters the courage to jump.
His eyes widen. He takes three deep breaths, shifts his weight forward and leaps from the rocky precipice. For a frozen moment, he hovers in the air -- arms flailing, feet kicking -- before breaking the shimmering surface with a splash.
His four friends, transfixed on a granite cliff on the opposite side of the pool, shout and shriek in delight. Seiler emerges breathless from the cold mountain water, his eyes still wide.
“Oh, man! Oh, man!” he shouts as he spits water and breathes deeply, treading water.
The image of an oak- and alder-shaded swimming hole where shirtless youngsters take daredevil plunges from rocky outcroppings seems antithetical to Southern California’s concrete expanse. It’s an image more in keeping with farm houses and country roads.
But they are here: chilly pools of shimmering water sharing ZIP Codes with strip malls and eight-lane freeways. They reflect streaking sunlight in woodsy canyons, tempting high school hooky players and office workers looking for a nature romp. They are scattered along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, secreted along the Sespe Creek in Ventura County and spread throughout the Arroyo Seco in the Angeles National Forest.
So just because the summer is nearly over, don’t think that swimming hole season is done. Just consider the late winter storms that kept local streams and creeks overflowing well past spring, and with temps still in the 90s, conditions are perfect for a backcountry dip. Besides, most kids are back in school -- more elbow room at normally crowded swimming holes.
In Southern California, swimming holes range from shallow wading pools, bordered by rocky shores and trees -- ideal for family outings -- to 20-foot deep craters that draw daredevils such as 24-year-old Seiler and his pals. Many swimming holes are fed by underground springs, so the water stays cold even on the hottest days of the year.
“What people don’t understand is that most of the swimming holes in Southern California are full year-round,” says Chris Shaffer, author of “The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California.” “There are really a ton of places to go to.”
And most of them follow a similar route. You pound a dusty trail until you hear the sound of distant rushing water. You quicken your pace as you get closer, and then you see the white water crashing over rocks, into a pool that looks like green iced tea. Skin tingles from the spray. You waste no time, strip down and -- Oh, man! Oh, man! -- you jump in. Every muscle in your body constricts and every synapse in your brain misfires. Wading in might have made more sense, but who cares? Minutes later you’re mustering up the courage to jump again.
Finding the pools requires some backcountry trekking, often resulting in cuts and scrapes from whipsawing branches and slick boulders, but swimming hole enthusiasts swear it is worth the effort. And if you forgot your swimsuit, no worries. Cool, tree-shaded swimming holes just seem to lower any inhibition.
“For me, it’s a de-stresser,” says Shaffer, who has been scouting waterfalls and swimming holes for eight years. “It’s a getaway from city life.”
ON a recent hot afternoon in the San Gabriel Mountains, a shallow pool at the base of Sturtevant Falls is clear and shimmering, reflecting a stream of sunlight cutting through the leaves of alder and oak trees that border the 60-foot falls. A couple in shorts sit on the quiet, rocky shores, soaking their feet in the water.
Suddenly the pool’s solitude is broken when two families with several young kids and two dogs bound up the trail. The children -- sweaty and red-faced from the hike -- shed shirts and shoes as they scamper toward the water. The canyon echoes with laughter and shrieks. The kids have splash fights and dunk themselves in the brisk water.
But before you strap on your hiking boots to search for that watery oasis, consider a few words of warning.
If a swimming hole is easily accessible, chances are it’s going to be crowded and littered with trash, bottles and even dirty diapers, says Gerald Reponen, assistant recreation officer at the Angeles National Forest River District. The harder to reach, the more pristine the swimming hole, he says.
“People who hike more than a mile and a half to a swimming hole are not bringing kids and a barbecue,” he says.
But soiled Pampers may be the least of your worries when jumping into a swimming hole. Mohamed Zuhair, a senior park aide at Malibu Creek State Park, says diving injuries at the park’s Rock Pool are a weekly occurrence. Sprained ankles, concussions and dislocated shoulders are common, he says. That’s why the park prohibits jumping and diving at the pool.
“You can break your neck because you don’t know how deep it is,” he says.
But for many the temptation is too much.
On a recent afternoon, Zuhair wheels his pickup truck along a dusty park road. He comes upon a group of teenagers in shorts and bikinis, laughing and marching in single file. The teens are heading for Rock Pool, an Olympic-sized swimming hole bordered by volcanic rock, pocked with Swiss-cheese holes. The pool was used in the television series “Swiss Family Robinson” and several Tarzan movies.
Zuhair parks the truck and hikes a few minutes before he comes to the swimming hole. About a dozen children, teens and adults are lounging along the shore, swimming in the depths and climbing a giant pyramid-shaped boulder that protrudes from the center of the water.
Zuhair warns two blond boys scaling the boulder that they will be ticketed if they dive or jump.
“Will you really give them a ticket?” asks the boys’ mother, who is sitting on the shore.
Zuhair says the park takes such things seriously. The woman pauses: “Then can you turn your back for a second so they can get off the rock?” she asks.
Zuhair returns to his truck, shaking his head.
ZUHAIR would only roll his eyes and continue to shake his head if he saw what was going on about 40 miles away in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The swimming hole where Seiler performed his 20-foot plunge is at the base of Hermit Falls. The falls are smaller and harder to reach than the nearby Sturtevant Falls, but the swimming hole under Hermit Falls is a deeper pool, cut into smooth granite.
Seiler and his friends stumbled upon the swimming hole while mountain biking through Big Santa Anita Canyon. The sparkling green water was so inviting that everyone in the group stripped down to shorts and T-shirts and jumped in.
The youngsters first plunge into the water from rocks five and then 10 feet above the surface, trying to touch the bottom. When they can’t feel the pool’s floor, Seiler decides to go from 20 feet.
Seiler crawls out of the water after his flailing plunge and rests on the warm granite cliff overlooking the pool. As he puts on his shoes and shirt, he admits that the jump was a bit scary but fun, “a mini adventure,” he says.
Reinvigorated and refreshed, Seiler and his friends get dressed and push their bikes back up the hot, dusty trail.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A hike away, it’s waterfalls and all
Five of Southern California’s most popular swimming holes:
What: A small but deep pool cut into a granite bowl.
Where: From Interstate 210, take Santa Anita Avenue north to the Chantry Flats. Go past the gate and down the paved road into the canyon. Trail signs direct you to Hermit Falls. A large metal pipe on your left marks the swimming hole.
What: A popular pool surrounded by great climbing rocks.
Where: Take Las Virgenes Road exit from U.S. 101 and go south to the entrance of Malibu Creek State Park. From the visitors center follow the marked trail west to the pool.
Santa Paula Canyon (a.k.a. the Punch Bowls)
What: Several swimming holes, capped by a 25-foot waterfall.
Where: From Santa Paula, take California Highway 150 toward Ojai. The trailhead starts across the road from Thomas Aquinas College. Follow the trail along the creek, past Big Cone campground.
What: At least two swimming holes along an easy hike.
Where: From California Highway 33, go about 15 miles past Ojai and turn right on Rose Valley Road. Continue until the road splits left to Lion’s Canyon Campground. Look for the trail that runs west, parallel to the creek. The first swimming hole is about 1.25 miles from the trailhead.
What: A shallow but shaded swimming pool at the end of a scenic hike.
Where: From Interstate 210, take Santa Anita Drive north to Chantry Flats. Follow the paved road past the gate and down to the creek. After crossing a wooden bridge, stay to the left, parallel to the creek and follow the signs.
Other notable pools in the area:
A small swimming hole along the San Gabriel River, beyond the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Cooper Canyon Falls
A frigid pool below a 25-foot fall in the Angeles National Forest, near the Buckhorn Campgrounds.
Eaton Canyon Falls
An easily accessible pool upstream from the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Altadena.
For detailed directions, call the Angeles National Forest at (626) 574-1613.