Hole lotta fun
Area swim spots quench summer heat
In the midst of a long, hot Chico summer, two little words can wipe the sweat off your brow and the frown off your face: swimming hole.
Armed with sunscreen and our tips, you’re sure to have a day’s worth of good, clean fun. Read on, McDuff.
Pancho Doll, author of Day Trips with a Splash: The Swimming Holes of California, once frequented Chico and is well-versed in the surrounding swim spots.
A journalist by training, Doll has written similar guides for regions across the United States. He figures he’s visited 800 swimming holes since he adopted his new career eight years ago. San Diego-based Doll charts the location of swimming holes using Global Positioning System technology and digital cartography. Then, he rates and ranks each hole, identifying aspects such as how easy they are to get to, whether they’re kid-friendly and what time of the season will give swimmers the best experience.
"[Look for] a certain remoteness. You don’t want to spend your weekend at a roadside party spot,” Doll advises. Also, seek out an area with “a fat, deep end” and surrounding features such as rock walls that give you that closed-in feel. Anything less is more of a basin or a pool than a true swimming hole.
When he comes upon a new hole, Doll said, “It’s like a spirit of discovery. It comes on you suddenly.”
Ask Chicoans about their favorite swimming holes, and you’ll find they’re reluctant to give up their secret spots. We’re not so guarded, but our directions range from the specific to the general. We recommend you do some exploring on your own.
But first, a short lecture. Who knows why someone would venture into nature only to leave garbage behind? We know you’re not one those types, so when you haul out your own trash, pick up whatever you find left behind as well. Also, try not to add to any erosion problem. Finally, and this applies to kids, too, please don’t pee within 200 feet of open water. Yes, we know the fish do it. But unless you have fins and a tail, take a little walk.
Upper Bidwell Park
The best-known swimming hole in this city-owned park is Bear Hole. It’s where college students bronze their gravity-defying bodies. It’s a popular picnic site and low-key party spot. It’s also a place where people have drowned.
Not to put a damper on your dampening, but safety in swimming holes is a serious must. The water’s depth can be deceptive, as can its power. In the park holes, you’ll be walking on slippery basalt rock, not forgiving sand. People attempting to swim or even just wade across Big Chico Creek near Bear Hole have been swept under. Hours later, would-be rescuers find themselves retrieving a body that’s been held against an underwater rock by the sweeping current. Due to risk to rescuers, some bodies can’t be recovered for months. That creepy image should be enough to warn risk-takers to beware.
“Swim with a buddy. Always be careful with children,” city Parks Director Dennis Beardsley advises. “Water can be incredibly dangerous. Swift enough water below your knees can sweep you off your feet.”
Beardsley said anything above Alligator Hole Day Camp is a place to be extra careful. “Don’t take chances.”
Salmon Hole, another popular sun-and-swim spot, is farther up Upper Park Road. Finally, check out Brown’s Hole, another favorite but more remote, so it’s not as crowded. There’s even a gorgeous waterfall and ocean-like beaches.
Doll likes the Bidwell Park holes but not the fact that they’re often crammed with partying college students.
Whichever swimming hole you choose, the city rules say to leave Bowser at home. Dogs are not allowed at the park swimming holes, although there are plenty of them who have unwittingly become canine criminals. If a ranger catches you and your pup, the fine is $75. Alcohol isn’t allowed either (drinking and swimming are a crummy mix anyway), nor are glass beverage containers. Smoking is prohibited after May 1. And the park closes at 11 p.m.
There are two approaches to staking out a swimming spot along the scenic Feather River. One is to drive up Highway 70 toward Quincy until you see a bunch of cars pulled off to the side of the road. Park and make your way down the embankment and piggyback on their fun.
If you’re more of a lone ranger, keep driving until you see a promising spot (look for a wide part of the river that’s fairly still) with no one anywhere around. Pull over and proceed.
We love the Feather River because it’s remote and wild. Trains pass very close to the water, and a wave will often earn you a toot from the conductor.
Watch out for the days—this year tentatively scheduled for the last weekends of June, July, August, September and October—when PG&E releases vast amounts of water down the river. This quickly swells the waters downstream of the town of Belden to a dangerous level and has taken lives in the past.
In his book, Doll usually features “wild waterways” that are not affected by dam releases. But he points out that in areas near Chico, particularly in drier seasons, “you need to go early, because by July it’s going to be filled with pollywogs and moss.”
Spawning from the Feather River off Highway 70 a couple of miles before the town of Storrie, Rock Creek sports one of Doll’s favorite swimming holes. “They are among the best in that part of the state.” He also advocates Little North Fork, also off Highway 70. “That was a sweet spot,” he said. “It was so deep I wouldn’t swim to the bottom of that.”
For youngsters, Doll likes Kimshew Creek, with great spots just 100 yards from the road.
Butte Creek, perhaps more than any other swimming hole territory, is very family-friendly. Particularly near the Honey Run Covered Bridge, the water is easily accessible, and flat rocks and sandy areas along the shore abound. If you like company (the kids will make friends), this is the place for you, but if you’d rather swim solo, keep driving.
Be advised that there’s a fee to park in the bridge lot (it goes to the good cause of keeping up the bridge). Also, much of the land along the creek is private property, so watch for “no trespassing” signs. Police occasionally step up their efforts to ticket motorists who have parked illegally—meaning not completely off the road.
Some areas of Butte Creek have been tabbed as Class-A "nude beaches" in a popular guide published by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Expect company.