The swimming hole at Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area

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On a abnormally hot On Saturday in late May, I found myself walking briskly down a steep hiking trail in the Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area, also known as “the gateway to tall tree country.” I had no idea this trail led to one of the best swimming holes in California.

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


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

We paid the $8 day use fee, parked at one of three campgrounds, and hiked about a half mile up a steep incline. As I hurried along the trail, I caught the sweet scent of the wildflowers growing on its sides, the pinks, purples and reds splashing across the landscape. As the trail leveled out, we approached a wide, toasty sandbar that gave way to piles of fist-sized rocks.

Finally, we saw it, just beyond the rocks: a translucent emerald swimming hole the size of a Ferris wheel, only squished into an oval and turned sideways. And nobody was there.

Finding this deep, slow stretch of the South Fork of the Eel River unoccupied on a hot weekend felt like gold. With its clandestine location behind slabs of granite and towering redwoods, it was the best kind of California dream – no swimsuits required.

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

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

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. When the Spanish Flu swept through in 1918, Hickey created a homemade doctor’s kit and carried it door to door, tending to the sick, until he contracted the disease himself. He died at age 26. In the 1950s the Standish family added another 500 acres to the park. The Save the Redwoods League has since expanded it to over 1,000.

Over the years, countless road-tripers and overnight campers have immersed themselves in this water. It was especially popular, Steve told me, with goers at Hickey Fest, the three-day psychedelic music festival he attended on the summer solstice in 2013. The annual festival drew a few hundred musicians and Bay Area fans, many of whom have retired. at the swimming hole all sweaty and drunk after the performances. The daredevils scaled the granite and jumped from a height of 40 feet, Steve said.

Now it was our turn to enjoy the pool. But just as we started to undress, a father and his young son wandered into the path. At first it seemed like they were just there to watch, and we waited quietly. But then they took off their shoes and shirts, dove in, and swam the full length of the pool. They were definitely going to stay all day, and we had lost our chance to undress.

Of course, we brought bathing suits just in case, and hid behind granite to put them on. The sun was strong above our heads and the area offers almost no shade. So when we finally jumped into the freezing green water, it was an absolute shock to the system. I swam for an invigorating three minutes, dipping and splashing spectacularly to maximize the refreshment. Then I climbed up and draped myself over a flat hot stone to bake.

The combination of an icy swim and a nap in the sun tends to leave a person completely satisfied – and also incredibly lazy. Time seemed to slow down and sweat started pouring into my eyes.

When the sun was no longer bearable, we gathered our things, walked up the steep path and returned to The Peg House for lunch.

The iced tea and BBQ oysters that day were better than ever. And I will never cross this area again without diving into the dreamiest swimming hole in California.

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