Big Rock Hole

A swimming hole on the San Lorenzo River in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

by Molly Lautamo

Minutes from the heart of downtown Santa Cruz lies a quiet oasis on the San Lorenzo River, away from the crowds of weekend tourists. The water is cool but not frigid, the sand is soft and warm, and alders, cottonwoods and big leaf maples provide respite from the hot midday sun. Welcome to Big Rock Hole, where locals come when it’s too hot in town (we start wilting at 75 degrees around here) and also when it’s too cold (when the summer fog refuses to burn off).

The hike down to the river is easy enough: Rincon Fire Road is a wide, shaded trail that zigzags down through the redwood forest. The air smells like pine needles and a train whistle blows in the distance. At the bottom of the hill, just past the “No Lifeguard on Duty” sign, a steep sandy path leads down to the riverbank. A fallen tree points out the hard-to-discern path on the opposite bank. Rock-hop to the other side (or wear Chacos and smugly wade on over while the rest of your party flails their arms trying to keep their improper footwear dry) and continue down the footpath.

Quaking aspens, willows and tall dry grasses, a boon for snakes and lizards, line the sandy single-track trail. Bird song and the rustling of leaves breaks the silence; sun-warmed sand holds the promise of a beach. Sure enough, the path opens up to a meadow and a section of river lined with sand. Big Rock Hole lies straight ahead, just beyond the low-hanging cottonwood branches. A largish rock (some might call it a “Big Rock”) juts out from the opposite bank into the still, green waters.

This spot is great for jumping feet-first from rock or rope swing (the bottom is soft and sandy), but if the water’s too stagnant or the stoned college kids too numerous for your taste, continue across the sandy clearing and over the river to another quieter stretch of beach.

Electric blue dragonflies course the flowing waters, songbirds call from the mixed deciduous and evergreen forest and water gurgles over smooth stones. The riparian corridor is lush with greenery (including stinging nettle, so mind those bare legs!). Sun-dappled shade filters through the trees, and for a time the beach is yours.

COME HERE FOR dunking or wading in cool freshwater and lounging on the warm sand with a good book.

WATCH OUT FOR stinging nettle, poison oak, ants on the beach and the occasional nude sunbather. Conversely, if you’re the one sunning your lady or gentleman parts, keep an eye out for park rangers, as your birthday suit is not in the dress code, pardner. (You're actually inside Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.)

YOUR DOG, like your junk, is not supposed to be seen here. People bring pets (we once saw a cat) but it's illegal, and the ticket can be pricey.

DON’T FORGET a water bottle, snacks, sunscreen and water sandals for the two river crossings.

From downtown Santa Cruz, drive north on River Street/Highway 9 for 3 miles; you'll see a large dirt turnout on your right. The lot is usually full of cars on sunny weekends, so it should be easy to spot. Two official metal signs—Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Rincon Parking Lot—confirm you’re in the right place.

Walk through the green metal gate towards the south end of the lot and cross the railroad tracks. Follow Rincon Road down into the woods. A sign at the start of the wide trail states “Steep Trail, No Bridge Crossings at River: To Big Rock Hole.” At the bottom of the hill, the main trail continues to the left. Go right when you see the “Danger: No Lifeguard” sign. The trail is more of a narrow, sandy channel that spits you out onto a small, shaded beach. Look for a fallen tree to your right that juts out halfway across the river. The log points almost directly to the continuation of the path across the water. Rock-hop your way across and continue down the sandy path. After about five or ten minutes you’ll reach a sandy clearing in the full sun surrounded by dry grass and deciduous trees. You’ve made it to Big Rock Hole!

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