The Big Melt Is Here — So Get to These 10 Magnificent California Waterfalls and Swimming Holes, Stat

From Shasta’s “eighth wonder of the world” to clothing-optional natural pools

April 14, 2023 6:00 am
Scenic view of waterfall in forest,Kings Canyon National Park,California,United States,USA
Scenic view of waterfall in forest, Kings Canyon National Park, California, United States, USA
Etsuya Morita / 500px via Getty

The Pineapple Express blasted through California this winter, deluging the state with “bomb cyclones” and “atmospheric rivers.” But for all the dramatic language, the rainstorms brought good news, pulling the state out of a years-long drought, creating a record snowpack in the mountains and extending the Mammoth ski season to July. There’s another silver lining: The state’s waterfalls and swimming holes will be epic this year.  

The Big Melt is coming between now and June. As cold days give way to the warmth of spring, a massive amount of snow will melt. Water is already starting to run downhill, reviving dry creekbeds, creating new rivers and even resurrecting a lost lake (Lake Tulare in the Central Valley).

A host of established swimming holes, hot springs and waterfalls beckon. While most of these spots require a hike, a few you can reach from your car in minutes. (Remember: Flooding danger and strong currents are real, and adventurers should always be cautious. Also: Many locations require a permit to park.) That said, pack the hiking shoes, swim trunks and sunscreen, and check out these 10 spots, from Shasta to San Diego, known for their magnificent waterfalls and swimming holes.  

Burney Falls, Shasta County

President Roosevelt once called Burney Falls the eighth wonder of the world, and this Shasta County stunner, with 129-foot cascades, will not disappoint. Designated as a National Natural Landmark, water from underground springs rush down basalt lava flows into a misty pool. The water is too chilly for swimming, but other recreational activities abound. Paddlers can find calm waters for kayaking and paddle boarding at Lake Britton, and there’s a campground with cabins nearby. It’s a short walk from the campground parking lot to the falls.

Swimmer’s Delight, Humboldt County

You’ll find several top-notch swimming holes among the whitewater rapids of Humboldt’s Six Rivers. There’s the classic pool with a rope swing at Mad River in Kneeland and the tranquil waters of Trinity River at Tish Tang Campground near Willow Creek. But the most popular is Swimmer’s Delight in Carlotta, where people laze on the banks of Van Duzen River around the large natural pool, paddle around on rafts, jump off rocks and dive under the cool water.

Carlon Falls, Yosemite

Often cited as one of the prettiest waterfalls in the country, Carlon Falls will be extra full this year thanks to intense snowmelt. When the weather warms up, the clear waters in the plunge pool invite visitors to wade, splash and slide. The three-mile out-and-back hike is mostly flat except for a steep ascent at the end. Watch for downed trees from winter storms and muddy conditions on the way.

Uvas Canyon County Falls, Santa Cruz Mountains

Uvas Canyon County Park boasts something special: the Waterfall Loop Natural Trail, a fern-cloaked hike that runs a few miles through coastal redwoods. Where else can you see six waterfalls in under an hour? Many of the creeks dry out quickly in most years, but the water will flow in 2023. Keep in mind that this is a county park and can’t rival Yosemite’s waterfalls, for instance. But for an easy, quick, dog-friendly hike, you can’t beat it.

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Roaring Rivers, Kings Canyon National Park

The 100-foot Mist Falls is a bucket-list destination, but with a strenuous nine-mile hike to get there, we’re opting for another majestic waterfall in the Sequoias: Roaring Rivers. Nestled in the Cedar Grove area near Fresno, the waterfall is accessed by a paved road steps from the parking lot, making this the easiest-access spot on our list. Not as tall as some, Roaring Rivers makes up for it with power and thunder. True to its name, the water rushes through a granite chute creating a substantial plunge pool at the bottom.

Seven Falls in Los Padres National Forest

Santa Barbara County had one day of snow and is located too close to the ocean to benefit from snowmelt, but Seven Falls is so spectacular that it deserves a spot on the list. Water flows into seven stone basins in succession, now filled to the brim thanks to the rain. Though there’s no official trail, you can easily find your way to this magical spot with maps. The roadside parking fills up fast, so you might consider taking an Uber to the trailhead.

Santa Paula Punch Bowls (Canyon Falls)

About an hour from Ojai and Ventura, the Punch Bowls are closed due to storm damage, but they’re scheduled to reopen on May 10. It’s worth checking back because you’ll be hard-pressed to find such thrilling water slides. Popular for rock jumping, the waters will be extra deep this year thanks to the rain. With a long, four-mile hike in, you’ll be ready to cool off.

Switzer Falls, Angeles Crest

In most years, Angelenos hike a dry trail to a waterfall that is a touch more than a trickle, with a shallow pool to dip your toes. Not in 2023. Switzer Falls is 20 minutes up the Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada but a world away from the city. Expect multiple stream crossings (knee-high in spring) during the 3.7-mile out-and-back hike and a waterfall with more power than LA hikers have seen in a long time.

Deep Creek Hot Springs, Mojave Desert

A 1.75-mile hike from Bowen Ranch in Apple Valley and a creek crossing do not stop hot spring seekers from soaking in the majestic waters of Deep Creek Hot Springs. The six (clothing-optional) natural pools are full of water right now. Surrounded by lush forest, you might spy eagles, deer in the woods or the endangered southwestern arroyo spotted toad. Just be sure not to drink the water or dunk your head, as the hot springs contain dangerous bacteria.

Cedar Creek Falls, San Diego’s Cleveland National Forest

Usually, the hike to the 80-foot Cedar Creek waterfall is dry, but this year, expect to cross a handful of brand-new rivers thanks to the rain. The waterfall is roaring, and the punch bowl at the base is extra deep — ideal for jumping in. The six-mile out-and-back hike is challenging, but you’ll be rewarded along the way with California poppies and wildflowers galore.

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