Laine Otto, 9, is stoked to be swimming in water that isn't a pool. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

Laine Otto, 9, is stoked to be swimming in water that isn't a pool. Photo by Chip Scheuer.

There’s nothing quite like swimming in the redwoods. It’s more liberating than swimming in a normal pool and less unsettling than treading water in the open ocean. There are no Great Whites in the San Lorenzo River, and the biggest risks are getting poison oak on your way there or maybe stubbing your toe. And even at its chilliest, the water is never as cold as the ocean is around these parts.


Junction Park

The cliff at this popular Boulder Creek swimming hole, located off Highway 9, offers some of the county’s best cannonball opportunities. People of all ages gather here with beach towels and lawn chairs. Some of them swim across to jump off the cliff, which has perches more than 10 feet high, while others bring books and magazines to read in the sun. The mountain spring water stays pretty cool year-round, making it the perfect destination on a hot Santa Cruz Mountains summer day.

Drying off after a recent day in the water, 9-year-old Laine Otto said he had an exciting time leaping off some of the cliff’s lower ledges, even though the frigid water worried him at first. “I was afraid about going in,” says Otto. “When I jumped it was cold, but I thought: ‘Oh my Gosh, I’m in water that isn’t a pool!’”

Alongside the river is a sandy, sunny beach with shaded forested areas on either side. And up the stairs by the parking lot is a grass lawn with a barbecue where reservations can be made at 831.338.4144. Who says there’s nothing to do in the Valley?

Directions: From Santa Cruz drive 11.5 miles up Highway 9 through downtown Boulder Creek. Turn right at Middleton Ave. Drive 250 feet until you come to a sharp right-hand bend in the street and a parking lot. For more information visit


Garden of Eden

It’s a very steep walk down a dirt path to Santa Cruz’s most famous swimming hole, but the descent pays off when swimmers reach the rocky beach deep in the towering forest of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. This scene’s curious river bends, gentle currents and lush redwood curtains overhead make the place deserving of its name. It even kind of looks like a biblical illustration of Adam and Eve’s first home. I have yet to spot the pair myself, but the garden does bring in pre–fig-leaf imitators—this Eden is a favorite hangout spot for local nudists, who risk getting a spendy citation for baring it all.

Aside from weird naked people, there are only two minor reasons not to fall head over heels in love with this place. First of all, the water here isn’t as deep as in other spots on the river. And it isn’t the warmest spot, either, on account of the cliffs and tall trees shielding the sun and the rest of the world, too.

Directions: From Santa Cruz drive 3 miles up Highway 9 and park in the small lot near two metal gates. (If you reach the Toll House Resort, turn around because you’ve gone too far. Or just give up and grab an ale at Monty’s Log Cabin in Felton.) Enter at the more southern gate and follow it downhill, veering right toward the railroad tracks. Turn right at the tracks and follow them until you reach a brown “no campfire” sign, where you’ll turn left. (The spot is also accessible from UC–Santa Cruz if you go through Pogonip, cross Highway 9 and walk north on the railroad tracks.) Descend down the steep trail toward the sounds of the brook. For more information visit


Big Rock Hole

Surrounded by redwood panoramas out of an Ansel Adams photograph, this picturesque island has plenty of space for a picnic. It could also be deemed the “Student Garden of Eden” or the “Fake Garden of Eden” for its popularity and mistaken identity within the UCSC crowd, who confuse it with the other spot. (This one is slightly closer to campus—better for lazy college students.)

Although it appears less breathtaking than the real Eden, Big Rock Hole is all about recreation. A rope swing tied to a tree lets people practice their flips and cannonballs, and a large rock to the left provides a warm place to dry off.

I’ll sometimes see a tequila bottle or can of Natural Ice chilling in the frigid water, waiting for some fraternity boy to drink it—illegal, yes (but so is being buck nekkid). It basically comes with territory. The “Fake Garden of Eden” has more rowdy partiers and fewer nudists than the real one. Tradeoffs abound. Take your pick. 

Directions:  Drive 1 mile up Highway 9 and park at Henry Cowell’s biggest free parking lot, a large dirt turnout on the right. Walk downhill past the gate, cross the railroad tracks and descend down Rincon Fire Road. There will be two river crossings—each involves tiptoeing across river rocks or wading through. Then you’re on the island. Follow the trail until you reach a spot where the water is wide, the river is deep, and people scream “Geronimo!” as they soar into the San Lorenzo. Also accessible from UCSC and Pogonip.


Highlands Park

Behind the soccer field and jungle gym of Ben Lomond’s Highlands Park is a system of trails, a picnic area, and a small waterfall. One of the most accessible soaking spots in the county, Highlands has water not quite deep enough to swim in—it comes to about waist-level, but it’s plenty good for wading and splashing around. People who’ve been here know it’s the perfect place to bring the kids, a dog or a fun-loving date.

Directions: Drive 7 miles up Highway 9 and turn right at the large brown sign with yellow lettering for Highlands Park. If you reach Jaye’s Timberline Resort or Downtown Ben Lomond, you’ve gone too far. (Yes, there’s a dive bar in Ben Lomond. It’s called Henfling’s, but really you should just turn around). For more information visit


Trout Farm Inn

Anyone who recalls the rowdy days of the Trout Farm Inn’s pool and patio should consult the restaurant’s updated rules, listed on its website: no foul language or running at the pool; and no getting “trashed” either. Not even any “droopy pants that show your underwear in the restaurant.”

“It used to be a free-for-all out here,” says Kelly McGuire, who purchased the Zayante Road restaurant last year. “Now it’s much more family friendly.”

McGuire, who calls this “the jewel of the San Lorenzo Valley,” hopes to bring trout fishing back this summer and has announced six upcoming concerts, including Eagles and Jimmy Buffett tribute bands.

Directions: 7701 E. Zayante Road, Felton. From Santa Cruz take Graham Hill Road to Felton and turn right on East Zayante Road. Follow it for 1.4 miles. This quirky joint will be on the left.


SLV Swim Center

Ben Lomond’s shrimp-sized aquatic center offers swim lessons, pool rentals and public swim three mornings a week. During the winter owners Donna and Glenn Smith hang a green-and-white–tented dome over the pool to keep it warm.

Directions: 9085 Highway 9, Ben Lomond. Drive 7.5 miles up Highway 9 and look for it on the right. For more information visit