Cool comfort in California's Gold Country

Dive into a swimming hole on the South Yuba River
Kate Washington

Travel planner: where to stay and eat

I'm paddling about in the South Yuba when two fellow river devotees shoot past. Feet first, they slide between a pair of ancient granite boulders and land below me in a deep pool. The water continues rushing over the rock waterslide, slipping between these Sierra versions of Scylla and Charybdis with ease.

I could do that, I think. And I take the plunge. The water pours me through the chute, and I feel as cool and liquid as it is.

Sure, you could raft down the South Yuba River, but isn't getting as close as possible to the primordial element the best experience of summer? Sometimes you need to jump in where there's no chlorine and no lap-lane marker in the water. South Yuba River State Park ― essentially a chain of swimming holes and trails along this gorgeous stream's scenic canyon ― is the most perfect place I can imagine for it.

The park, a series of unconnected parcels along the water, has several access points offering trails of varying distances and difficulty levels. After a hot, dusty hike (on a warm July day, this takes only a few hundred yards), you can scramble down to the water via side trails and chill out. And yes, I mean chill: Until late summer, the river is head-clearingly refreshing. For pure drama, my favorite spot is the State 49 crossing, where the aquamarine pools look like a modern necklace set in chunky, silvery granite. It's deservedly popular. To get away from crowds, venture a bit upstream from the pedestrian bridge.

For a quieter experience, try Edwards Crossing, which has fewer people and plenty of swimming holes and boulders. Here, you can have that ultimate close-to-the-water experience. Indeed, some swimmers really get as close to the water as possible; several areas are tacitly left to skinny dippers. You might also spot old-timers (or wannabe ones) panning for gold ― a fun way to splash in the shallows.

But, as I found out, the real joy comes in plunging in just a little over your head.

GETTING THERE

South Yuba River State Park meanders along a 20-mile stretch of the river. In the Bridgeport area, you'll find the visitor center, a historic covered bridge, and river access; from State 20, take Pleasant Valley Rd. north about 9 miles. To reach the popular State 49 crossing from Nevada City, proceed north 6 miles on State 49 to the park entrance. To reach Edwards Crossing from State 49, take North Bloomfield Rd. 7½ miles to the bridge; park at pullouts, cross the river on foot, and access via the hiking trail heading downstream. For more information, call 530/432-2546.

The nearby towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City are ideal bases for lodging, dining, and shopping.

WHERE TO STAY

Holbrooke Hotel A historic inn with brick walls and Gold Rush ambience. INFO: From $100; 212 W. Main St., Grass Valley; 530/273-1353.

The National Hotel Elegantly updated rooms in a historic building. INFO: From $76; 211 Broad St., Nevada City; 530/265-4551.

Outside Inn Aptly named, the updated motor lodge emphasizes recreation: The lobby is papered with topo maps, and clerks give advice on hikes, rafting, and more. INFO: From $75; 575 E. Broad St., Nevada City; 530/265-2233.

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WHERE TO EAT

Citronée Bistro and Wine Bar Pick up a picnic lunch for the trail at the market, or visit later for dinner for the soignée "grazing" menu and wine tasting. INFO: Restaurant $$$$, closed Tue; wine and cheese shop closed Mon-Tue; 320 Broad St., Nevada City; 530/265-5697.

Ike's Quarter Cafe Wake up with chicory coffee and frittatas. INFO: $$; closed Tue; 401 Commercial St., Nevada City; 530/265-6138.

New Moon Cafe Fresh fare from a changing menu. INFO: $$$$; closed Mon; 203 York St., Nevada City; 530/265-6399.

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