The swimming hole at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area

On an unseasonably hot day Saturday in late May, I found myself speed-walking down a steep hiking trail in Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, otherwise known as “the gateway to tall trees country.” Little did I realize, this trail led to one of California’s best swimming holes.

While I had a vague idea that there was a swimmable section of the Eel River around here, I had never made the time to find it — until now.

A customer picks up a burger at the Peg House.

Ashley Harrell

My partner Steve was with me, and he had visited the swimming hole once over a decade ago. He had mostly forgotten where the place was, so we had asked a gentleman working at The Peg House for directions. He told us where to go for free parking, but after driving around in confusion for ten minutes, we decided to just drive in through the park entrance across the street.

We paid the $8 day-use fee, parked in one of three campgrounds, and hiked about a half-mile down a steep slope. Hurrying along the trail, I caught the sweet aroma of the wildflowers sprouting on its flanks, the pinks, purples and reds splashed across the landscape. As the trail leveled out, we approached a wide toasty sandbar that gave way to piles of fist-sized rocks.

Wildflowers spotted on the trail on the way to the swimming hole within Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area.

Ashley Harrell

Finally, we saw it, just beyond the rocks: a translucent emerald swimming hole about the size of a ferris wheel, only squished into an oval and turned on its side. And no one was there.

To find this deep, slow-moving stretch of the South Fork of the Eel River unoccupied on a warm weekend felt like striking gold. With its clandestine location behind slabs of granite and towering redwoods, this was the best kind of California dream — no bathing suit required.

“I can’t believe I’ve never been here!” I said, feeling in my bones that it was the perfect swimming hole. “Actually, I can’t believe you’ve never taken me here before.”

Steve shrugged. He had visited nearly 10 years ago during a music festival, and his memory of the place was limited, he admitted. 

A map of Standish-Hickey National Recreation Area.

Ashley Harrell

Campers have been swimming here since 1922, when a lumber pioneer donated 40 acres for a campground in honor of his son, Edward Ritter Hickey. As the Spanish flu swept through in 1918, Hickey created a homemade doctor kit and carried it door-to-door, caring for the ill, until he contracted the disease himself. He died at age 26. In the 50s, the Standish family added 500 more acres to the park. The Save the Redwoods League has since expanded it to more than 1,000.

Over the years, countless road-trippers and overnight campers have skinny-dipped in this water. It was particularly popular, Steve told me, with concertgoers of Hickey Fest, the three-day psychedelic music festival he attended over the summer solstice in 2013. The yearly festival drew a few hundred musicians and fans from the Bay Area, many of whom retreated to the swimming hole all sweaty and boozed up after performances. The daredevil ones climbed the granite and cliff-jumped from as high up as 40 feet, Steve said.

Steve Sparapani enjoys a dip in the swimming hole within Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area.

Ashley Harrell

Now it was our turn to enjoy the pool. But just as we started to disrobe, a father and his young son wandered down the path. At first it seemed they might only be there to look, and we waited quietly. But then they took their shoes and shirts off, dove in and swam the entire length of the pool. They were definitely going to stay all day, and we had lost our chance to get naked.

Of course, we had brought bathing suits along just in case, and we hid behind some granite to put them on. The sun was strong overhead, and the area offers almost no shade. So when we finally leapt into the frigid green water, it was an absolute shock to the system. I swam around for three invigorating minutes, diving down and splashing dramatically to maximize refreshment. Then I clambered out and draped myself over a flat, hot rock to bake.

The combo of an icy swim and a sun-warmed nap tends to leave a person utterly satisfied — and also incredibly lazy. Time seemed to slow down and sweat began to drip into my eyes. 

This slow-moving stretch of the South Fork of the Eel River might just be California’s best swimming hole. 

Ashley Harrell

When the sun was no longer bearable, we gathered our things, climbed back up the steep trail and drove back over to The Peg House for lunch.

That day, the iced tea and BBQ oysters tasted better than ever before. And I will never again drive through this area without a dip in California’s dreamiest swimming hole.

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