With an elevation difference of over 13,000 feet from its highest to lowest points, Mariposa County is a mountain mecca. And where there are mountains, there is water. Lots of water.
For this reason, swimming opportunities abound in Yosemite Mariposa County. Whether it’s a high-country lake within Yosemite National Park or the lower reaches of the Wild & Scenic Merced River as it cuts through historic goldfields, whether it’s a smooth granite chute sliding into a deep swimming hole or even a four-star hotel pool, visitors can seek out a plunge that’s perfectly suited. Here are a few suggestions to get you started on your Yosemite Mariposa swimming tour.
It goes without saying that safety comes first when swimming. Age, ability and water/weather conditions all come into play. Time of year is also important: spring & early summer are when snowmelt fills the rivers, meaning they run fast and cold. Summer and fall, things tend to slow down and warm up. For rivers, a general rule is never to swim in water that is flowing faster than you can walk, and avoid any obstructions such as boulders or fallen trees. Be careful of sharp underwater objects or slippery rocks (aqua shoes are helpful), and of course, never swim above or directly below waterfalls. Mountain water is often very cold, so avoid prolonged exposure causing hypothermia and always use extreme caution when swimming with children. Life-jackets and even wetsuits are often appropriate. Have fun, be safe!
There are numerous locales to swim inside Yosemite National Park, with many factors to consider. Hike and swim away from the crowds? Calm water with a sandy bottom for the kids? Lap swimming in the hotel pool before dinner? All of these experiences have one thing in common — an amphitheater of natural beauty unlike anywhere else on the planet.
One of the first things visitors to Yosemite Valley notice is all the water. Plunging over cliffs, trickling through the rocks, collecting at every turn in the river. It’s why the Valley feels so full of life, and why it’s such a magnificent place to swim.
There are numerous sandy spots to splash and swim along the Merced River as it meanders Yosemite Valley. The time of year and melting snowpack play a key part in the river’s dynamic personality (and size of the beach!) with Housekeeping Camp Beach, Sentinel Beach Picnic Area, Cathedral Beach and the path across from El Capitan Picnic Area all providing beautiful spots to cool off with the family as granite behemoths tower above.
Open to guests of The Ahwahnee, the heated outdoor pool makes for a great dip through most months of the year.
There are three swimming pools in Yosemite Valley. With Glacier Point towering above, the Curry Village pool is the perfect place for a meditative float after a long day on the trail. Yosemite Valley Lodge offers a large, outdoor pool with a view of Yosemite Falls in the distance and dedicated lap swimming times, making this a great option for those who want to get in their water workouts. Both are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day (weather permitting), have lifeguards on duty and are free for overnight guests. Non-guests are welcome for a small day-use fee. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ahwahnee Hotel has hosted heads of state and luxury-seekers alike, and features a circular, heated swimming pool that is open year-round. Swimming permitted for guests only.
The crowds are generally thinner in the high-country — and summer arrives later — so be ready for a cool yet pristine plunge. The following are accessed via Tioga Road, which is open May-October depending on winter snowpack. Check road conditions before you leave.
The Jewel of the High Country, Tenaya Lake.
Called the “Jewel of the High Country,” Tenaya Lake features a sandy beach and warm boulders that attract picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers alike. Surrounded by granite and the 10,306-foot Tenaya Peak, it’s the perfect spot to channel your inner polar bear and immerse yourself in the lake’s azure waters. If you’re feeling ambitious, hike to Cloud’s Rest and by returning to Tenaya Lake for a therapeutic swim after a long day on the trail.
Warmer and sandier than other high-country rivers, the Tuolumne River meanders through Tuolumne Meadows like some prehistoric postcard with unusual granite domes of varying sizes that are a blast to climb. One of the gentlest is Pothole Dome, so gentle in fact that you can scale it from just about any direction. The trail that wraps around Pothole Dome leads to a series of hidden cascades with inviting swimming holes. At 2.5 miles round trip with the only elevation gain being 250 feet (the dome itself), it’s a fun little scramble for kids of all ages. The large turnout with parking/trailhead is located adjacent to Pothole Dome on the western edge of Tuolumne Meadows along Tioga Road.
This flat 1.5 mile round-trip amble leads to a pair of wooden bridges crossing the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. The bridges are built atop the glacially-carved granite and there are a couple nice swimming holes where you can cool off. Use caution when the river is running fast and the wet granite is slippery. This trail is part of the historic Pacific Crest Trail so you might see some dedicated folks passing by on their 2,600-mile journey from the border of Mexico in the south to Canada in the north. Twin Bridges can be reached by parking just west of the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and walking a short distance to the trailhead.
The Wawona section of Yosemite National Park is located about seven miles inside the South Entrance and 25 miles from the bustle of the Valley giving the community its own unique feel. The beautiful water in play here is the South Fork of the Merced River, the largest tributary feeding the main fork.
Not to be confused with Yosemite Valley’s Swinging Bridge, this less-crowded spot features a 1.5-mile round-trip hike to a bouncy yet secure suspension bridge over a gentle cascade of water and granite. There is lots of room to swim here, a rock waterslide upriver, and even some sandy areas for easy wading. Best in summer-fall when water has slowed down, this is a great spot for kids and picnicking. The Wawona Swimming Hole can be reached two ways — from a trailhead at the top of Chilnualna Falls Road for a longer, more scenic route, or the shorter hike mentioned above that embarks from the end of Forest Drive.
The South Fork of the Merced River runs directly through Wawona making it a great place to cool off on a hot summer day.
If you’d like to whip out the pool floaties and chill with the locals, this popular swimming hole can be reached by heading .8 miles up Chilnualna Falls Road from Wawona Road (Highway 41) and parking across from the Community Center/Charter School. Head south (behind the red buildings) on any of the several footpaths to the South Fork of the Merced River where there is a large rock for jumping and plenty of space to lay out your towels. If you’d like to extend your Wawona time, visit the nearby Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and see the Grizzly Giant (estimated to be 2,700 years old) or the famous Tunnel Tree.
One of California’s original mountain resorts, the Wawona Hotel site was first developed in 1856 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The swimming tank — located in a meadow setting — is open seasonally (guests only) and there is a 9-hole alpine golf course adjacent to the property. Note: the Wawona Hotel is closed until spring 2021 for improvements.
With its diverse geography, deep Gold Rush History and room to roam, western Mariposa County has any number of spots to cool off away from the crowds of Yosemite Valley. These destinations are lower elevation and their swimming holes offer a prime opportunity to beat the west county heat.
Approximately 40 miles west of Yosemite Valley and 12 miles northeast of historic Mariposa, the McCabe Flat Campground boasts a large, sandy beach and designated swimming area. The two mile drive from the turnoff at the Briceburg/Merced River Visitor Center along Highway 140 follows the Wild & Scenic Merced River on a dirt road (passenger cars okay) down the canyon to your freshwater destination. The road used to be the old Yosemite Valley Railroad line and there is a put-in/take-out for rafters by the suspension bridge. If you feel like a hike, the Merced River Trail starts from the campground and is 5.5 miles out & back with a few spots to scramble down to the refreshing water. Dogs are allowed on the trail but not allowed on the beach.
The Merced Wild and Scenic River flows through Yosemite Valley and downstream into a beautiful river canyon with swimming, fishing, rafting and other great recreation. Photo: Tony McDaniel
Take a drive along the Merced River, either along Highway 140 or Highway 49, and you’ll find numerous swimming holes to keep cool during a Sierra summer. Numerous pullouts exist along highway that lead down to the river when the calm and cool water make for great fun in the sun. Along Highway 49, the elevation makes the river a bit less accessible, but the Bagby Recreation Area makes for a fun and quiet place to spend some time in the water. It’s also a great spot for kayaking or fishing.
Located along Bean Creek near the historic town of Coulterville, this relaxing jaunt (1.4 miles out & back) leads to one of those old-fashioned swimming holes where Kodak memories are made. The flat, dog-friendly trail passes through both wooded and open stretches, perfect for kids who want to take a dip in one of several pools along the way. Diana Falls is best in spring and early summer when flow is highest, but worth a picnic any ol’ time. Be sure to wear sticky-soled shoes for scrambling on the rocks, and if you still have energy afterward, visit the nearby Northern Mariposa County History Center for local Gold Rush tales or Bower Cave, a limestone grotto the native Miwuk people called “Home of the Evening Star” and where stagecoach visitors back in the day held dances on Saturday nights!
Finding the trailhead to Jackson Hole can be a bit tricky, but the payoff of three granite-carved swimming pools is worth the effort. Along Highway 41 just south of the entrance to the Tenaya Lodge, turn onto Jackson Road/Big Sandy (Road 6S67) leading to the Yosemite Trails Horseback Adventures. Drive approximately two miles until you reach an abandoned fruit orchard and an old driveway. Follow the driveway past the metal gate to an abandoned cabin and you are at the trailhead for Jackson Hole/Lewis Fork Ditch. The mostly-wooded trail provides good cover and travels approximately .5 miles to the lowest pool at Fish Camp Falls. To continue, you must follow a manageable yet unmaintained path creekside up to the next two granite-bowl swimming holes that go by the names of Arrowhead and Skinny Dip respectively. About 2.5 miles round-trip, not ideal for kids but perfect for the adventurous swimmer.
Lake McSwain’s Splash-N-Dash Aqua Park is a family-friendly and unique way to stay cool this summer.
At an elevation of 867 feet, sun-soaked Lake McClure and its little brother Lake McSwain are nestled in the oak-studded Sierra foothills on the western edge of Mariposa County. Just 2.5 hours from the Bay Area, 1.5 hours from Fresno and just a little over 1 hour from Yosemite National Park, Lake McClure and Lake McSwain are full-service family resorts featuring protected swim areas, day-use picnic tables and even a floating obstacle course called the Splash-n-Dash Aqua Park. Camping, fishing and waterskiing are also popular here, and the lower elevation provides a blast of summer heat that makes the water more inviting than ever.
Located just two miles from the park’s South Gate, Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite is a Four-Diamond, all-season resort with LOTS of swimming and other guests-only recreation options. Featuring three outdoor pools (including a kids’ pool and adults-only relaxation pool), and an amazing indoor year-round pool that features underwater music, along with two indoor hot tubs. The lodge also shows poolside Dive-In Movies nightly. The outdoor Bearfoot Bar and four hot tubs (two adults-only) round out Tenaya’s all-inclusive swimming experience.
The best – and easiest – way to take an RV holiday to Yosemite is in Mariposa County. Highway 140 – the low elevation all-weather highway – runs through historic Mariposa County directly from California’s Central Valley to Yosemite National Park.
Whether it’s a smooth granite chute sliding into a deep swimming hole or even a four-star hotel pool, visitors can seek out a plunge that’s perfectly suited.
There are hundreds of vacation rental properties available in Mariposa County. Value, extra space, safety, and an authentic, more personalized experience are some of the advantages.