Who needs a pool? Touring Upper Bidwell’s swimming holes
By Katie Mills
A descriptive tour of the swimming holes in Upper Bidwell park, including descriptions of each location’s physical attributes, age appropriateness and noteworthy qualities.
- Get out of the heat
- Alligator Hole
- Bear Hole
- Diversion Dam
- Salmon Hole
- Brown’s Hole
- People in the park
- About Upper Bidwell
The air is thick and muggy and the sun beats heavily down on your skin. The sun is absorbed into the pavement under your feet then spit back at you from below, but now twice as hot. Your shirt sticks to your back, your forehead is slick and your legs leave wet imprints when you peel them off the leather seats of your car.
Summer days in Chico can be as unbearable as being trapped in a locked sauna, but less than four miles northeast of downtown lies salvation from the city’s concrete inferno in the cool, freshwater swimming holes of Upper Bidwell Park.
Past the Chico Rod and Gun Club and the Bidwell Municipal Golf Course sits Upper Park Road—a bumpy, winding dirt road about five miles from gate to end that offers magnificent views of Upper Bidwell along the way. But to the south of the road, bordered by the Yahi Trail hiking path, are Big Chico Creek, five public swimming holes and escape from the sweltering heat.
Alligator Hole, the closest of Upper Bidwell’s swimming holes, sits on a rocky, shallow area of the river sheltered by trees with slight rapids that lead downstream of the site. You can wade in up to your knees, but this is not the place for dunking your head or jumping in the water.
Its safer, shallow waters and convenient location make Alligator Hole the perfect place to bring young children, who can safely wade along the shallow pebble beach. Even babies too young to wade can enjoy having their feet dipped in the cold creek to cool off.
The soothing sound of water brushing over the rocks adds a calming effect, but the current is exciting enough to entertain the little ones without being dangerous or overbearing. The swimming hole doesn’t offer very much shore to lie down on, but a 15-foot rockless, muddy beach is a nice place to lay out a picnic by the creek if you beat other patrons to the punch.
Being the first swimming hole along the trail, it is the easiest to get to by hiking, driving or mountain biking. The shallow water and peaceful scenery make Alligator Hole a serene place to take a break, wade around and splash some water on your face.
The parking lot of Bear Hole is complete with porta-potties and a call box and is the largest parking lot for all the swimming holes, implying that it is also the most frequented.
The walk down to the swimming hole is short, but steeper than the trail to Alligator Hole. The trail is lined with weathered Lovejoy basalt—the primary type of rock found in the swimming holes of Upper Bidwell—that is surprisingly slippery and smooth. A much easier method of approach is from the direction of Alligator Hole on the Yahi Trail, which borders every swimming hole in the park.
The creek flows more swiftly with a stronger current, though the water is calmer in the deeper pool in the middle of the site. The basalt boulders are smooth and inviting, providing natural surfaces to lay upon if the sun hasn’t already heated the rock to an unbearable degree.
The water is deep enough in the central pool to jump off the lower rocks with a three to five-foot drop. The basalt cliffs that line Bear Hole rise about 30 feet above the water, providing enough rock to admire without feeling enclosed or claustrophobic.
As the Yahi Trail crawls higher along the cliff, it becomes bordered by waist-high cement railings, which make the trail safer while simultaneously creating the impression of a miniature Great Wall of China.
Bear Hole is a great swimming hole for children who are decent swimmers and capable of climbing down the pathway themselves. Like all the sites listed here, it is also well suited for adults and college students alike; just be sure to always swim with a buddy and keep a sharp eye on the kids.
Diversion Dam is not made for swimming, but is still a great place to visit for its unique views. To see the dam itself, take the right-side trail from the site’s parking lot down to a series of cement steps. The climb is a bit steep, so those with a fear of heights are better suited approaching the dam by continuing along the Great Wall-like Yahi Trail up from Bear Hole.
For the adrenaline junkies, check out the left-side trail from the parking lot. Inch to the edge of the 60-foot cliff and witness nature’s own version of the diversion dam—a three-foot-wide gap between two boulders through which water pours with the same velocity as the dam itself.
The dam itself is the only manmade feature of the Upper Bidwell swimming holes—beside the porta-potties.
It is made of cement and stretches along the creek about 25 feet, attached to the basalt cliff on either side. It protrudes about 10 feet out of the water and has a width of about seven feet. The opening in the damn is about five feet wide, though copious amounts of water still manage to gush swiftly through, turned aquamarine by the constant aeration.
It is possible—though not endorsed—to climb down off the Yahi Trail and stand on the dam, inching as close to the rushing water as you are comfortable getting.
The steep, tenuous hike down the basalt cliffs to Salmon Hole is incredibly worth it. There are no railings or cement stairs on this hike down, which would be extremely difficult for children under 10 or anyone with problems walking due to injury or old age. For those capable of a steep climb, however, the journey is challenging enough to be exhilarating and makes it much more exciting when you reach the actual swimming hole.
Salmon Hole is the favorite Upper Bidwell swimming hole of many people, but is most obviously frequented by college students with 30-packs, made evident by the small array of empty beer cans and wine coolers that can be found stuck in roots along the water’s edge.
Water rushes through a labyrinth of basalt boulders into the largest, calmest, deep, rounded pool that measures about 50 feet in diameter. The water continues downstream past a large pebble beach into a subdued, forested area of the creek. The beach is a great place to set up camp, but if you want to lie down, bring a pad of some sort to soften the stony shore.
For more adventurous visitors, the basalt boulders scattered upstream of the larger pool are flat enough to set your belongings on. A short rope swing hangs off a protruding dead tree next to these boulders—a favorite feature of playful college students.
The highest cliffs seen yet border the swimming hole, providing stunning scenery and making it feel as though you’ve reached the origin of erosion for the entire park.
Salmon Hole has the best swimming, the best views and the widest array of places to explore. Because of this, it is rarely empty and can become the most crowded swimming hole in the park, so if it’s serenity you seek, look elsewhere—at least on Saturdays.
The farthest swimming hole from the entrance to the park appropriately exudes the most untouched, natural atmosphere. Like those before it, Brown’s Hole is still reachable by the Yahi Trail, though the hike is about three and a half miles long. Mountain biking novices may struggle on the uneven main road, but the ride is manageable with lots of water and determination.
The parking lot is farther off the main road than the others, but well shaded and equipped with a porta-potty. The path down to the swimming hole isn’t as steep as Salmon Hole’s but is still difficult to hike—it is comprised of loose rocks and winds downhill like nature’s own Lombard Street.
At the bottom of the slope, the path diverges three ways. The two paths to the right lead to smaller, wade-in entrances to the swimming hole that are more sheltered by trees. The path to the left leads to a collection of climbable basalt boulders, which lead upstream toward a natural, multi-tiered waterfall that flows almost as swiftly as Diversion Dam.
The water flows past the boulders through a narrow passageway that opens up into a wider pool scattered with protruding boulders and a fallen dead tree that serves as a bridge to the opposite side of the creek. The basalt cliffs have given way to thick forest and a wide variety of trees surround the pool.
The current here is quicker and the swimming hole is a narrow oval, but there are two large boulders that stand about 8 feet over the water, deep enough to make them decent diving boards—though always jump in feet first and check the depth before leaping.
Brown’s Hole is as far from civilization as Upper Bidwell swimming holes get, which is evident in the abundance of poison oak that lines the trail and the dead deer corpse rotting between two of the most inviting climbing boulders. It’s all a part of nature, though, and the sounds of birds chirping and water crashing down the waterfall make it all worth it.
Upper Bidwell Park is located northeast of Lower Bidwell Park off Manzanita Avenue, just a 10-minute drive from the sizzling pavement of downtown Chico.
The gate to Upper Park Road is open to pedestrians and mountain bikers everyday and to cars from Tuesday to Saturday. The Yahi Trail, which is open to pedestrians only, winds alongside Big Chico Creek from the bottom of the park to the top of Upper Park Road and is rated an easy level of difficulty by bidwellpark.org.
Upper Bidwell Park Watch volunteer Jack Pawledge attended Chico State in 1950 when the school had 1,200 students and has been enjoying the park ever since, he said. He now spends two days a week mountain biking through the park, politely making sure people are following the rules.
“I’ve been on Park Watch for three years, though I used to bike the Bidwell trails almost every day once I retired,” Pawledge said. “When I saw they were looking for volunteers, I thought, ‘I’m here all the time anyway, might as well sign up.’”
The main problems with public misuse of the park that Pawledge faces are people with their dogs off the leash south of Upper Park Road and mountain bikers who aren’t wearing helmets, he said.
“I haven’t had too many problems with people drinking or doing drugs, mainly because I work Sunday and Monday when the gate’s closed and you can’t drive up here,” he said. “Sometimes I see people come in with liquor in their backpacks though, and there’s not much you can do.”
Pawledge enjoys the scenery and wildlife of the park, and spends his volunteer hours riding his mountain bike—helmet on, of course—and reflecting on the beauty of nature, he said.
Chico State student Cody Sevedge visits Upper Bidwell at least once a week to hike the Yahi Trail, go mountain biking on Upper Park Road or, during the summer, visit the swimming holes, he said.
“Though they’re all beautiful, Salmon Hole is my favorite,” Sevedge said. “It’s harder to get to so it feels more secluded and off the main road. The high cliffs are awesome and the water’s deep enough to jump in and swim around, and it’s fun biking there on the main road.”
Public recreation has been a primary use of the park since the original 1,900 acres was donated to the city by Annie Bidwell in 1905, according to the Chico Creek Nature Center. Erosion, soil composition, long and short-term weather changes and the geography of regions upstream are all environmental factors that contribute to each swimming hole’s unique landscape.
John Aull has worked for over four years as a naturalist at the Chico Creek Nature Center, “the gateway and official information center for Bidwell Park,” according to the website.
“We direct all kinds of people with maps, suggest what activities are available and have an interpretive center that studies the natural history of the plants and animals in Upper Park,” Aull said.
As for patrons with physical disabilities, Aull suggests using the paved roads specifically designed to be accessible for someone in a wheel chair, he said. Alligator Hole can be reached with some effort by someone in a wheelchair, but neighboring Hooker Oak Park has more handicap-accessible areas.
“Everybody uses the park, from parents with preschoolers to college-age students and senior citizens. It cuts across demographics.”
Next time you find yourself sick of sweating in the sauna of the city, grab a bike, hiking shoes, a towel or a 30-pack—whichever is your thing—and head up Upper Park Road to cool off in one of the most beautiful areas in Northern California.
Below Bear hole is very dangerous, my dog was swept under a boulder a few days ago, I did get her out, but just barely. I am not sure enough people are aware of the swift waters during the early summer months. Seems like every year a person loses their life in Upper park, there are signs posted and I guess that’s all the city can do, but still tragic.
Recently moved to Chicago from traveling all over rural parts of the world and feeling trapped. Thanks, this is exactly what I needed.
Glad to help! Hope you’re now enjoying Chico as much as we are.
Great article and site! I always forget the names of each hole. I like Brown’s Hole the best, it’s more chill than Bear Hole.
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I really enjoyed your writing style and the descriptions of the swimming holes brought back great memories of my college days. Thanks for a great article.
Thanks Inga! Now three years later, it brings back great memories of my college days too.
As an avid nudist I absolutely love the fact that nude sunbathing is completely legal at Diversion Dam & Salmon Hole!
Nude hiking and swimming and sunbathing are common anywhere in Upper Bidwell Park. When I was a child in the late sixties, early seventies, “Bear Hole,” also referred to as “Bare Hole” was a popular nudist hangout. In fact, the overwhelming majority of users were nude at that time. It is legal and traditional to be nude anywhere in Upper Bidwell Park. The more people who have the courage to use it as such, the more people who will join us. Please join the many of us who believe in and live out social nudity as a lifestyle.
I made a shirt celebrating how awesome these swimming holes are. You can check it out here: http://upperparkclothing.com/shop/t-shirts/upper-park-swimming-holes/
I’ve lived in England since 1976. Prior to this I lived in Chico (1972-76) and between the ages of 14 and 17 spent all summer in the park swimming (particularly at Browns hole with my friend John Finnegan where we used to drink his dad’s beer and watch the college girls!).
Hello, I am trying to find out the history of the concrete damn structures approximately 1/2 mile or more upstream from Salmon Hole. The structures are placed among the large boulders found there. There is one series of damns that looks almost like an over sized fish ladder. The majority of the structures are concrete with some exposed rebar. However at least one is made with native stone mortared in place. It is a pretty difficult spot to get to so I assume few people would have seen it. I can e-mail pictures if you would like.