When a coastline is mentioned, swimming is one of the ideas that pop into your mind, right? Located off the coast of California, Big Sur has been called “one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world”. Nevertheless, it is not one of the places where you just grab your swimsuit and set off for a swimming adventure at the beach.
Can you swim in Big Sur? In Big Sur the shoreline is rough, the waves are heavy, the currents are violent, the waters are cold and some beaches are inaccessible. As such, swimming at the beaches is dangerous and not encouraged. However, Big Sur is home to great swimming holes, where it’s possible to go swimming.
In this article, I will be looking at the best swimming holes in Big Sur and when to swim. Also, I will discuss the areas that you should absolutely keep away from, for your own safety.
Can you Swim in Big Sur?
Big Sur is lined with river canyons that come with good swimming holes. It is also known for beautiful campsites. Read my Complete Guide to Camping in Big Sur.
Now back to swimming. The Big Sur region is defined by the Big Sur River Gorge. This stretch of a rough riverbed is the place where you will find Big Sur’s crystal clear pools that are a delight for swimmers.
There are also big rocks for you to lay on and soak in the sun. The holes are of different sizes and as such everyone can find a good swimming spot.
Let’s see where these spots are.
Where to Swim in Big Sur
To get to the swimming holes, you drive to the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and head to Day Use Lot 3. From there, moving up the road will lead you to the Bixby Creek Bridge. Here you will find hiking trails that take you upstream along the riverbank.
Moving up the river bed, you start seeing the swimming holes. The first ones are shallow and best for newbies. For deeper and more dramatic holes, continue at least a quarter to half a mile from the bridge.
Below, I have highlighted the best swimming holes in Big Sur for you to try out:
Gorge Swimming Hole
The Gorge Swimming Hole is arguably the best swimming spot in Big Sur. The pool is wide, deep, and is surrounded by big boulders. Swimmers usually jump off the big rocks and dive into the pool. Also, there is a small beach where you can sunbathe and rest.
You should be careful though, jumping off the rocks can be quite dangerous. The hole has been filled with sand deposits and is currently shallow. The deepest section is about 8 feet and is near the rock.
Directions: Click here
Salmon Falls Swimming Hole
How would you like to swim beneath a waterfall? Welcome to the Big Sur’s Salmon Falls where the falling water has created one of the most magnificent swimming holes. To get there, you will have to do some rock scrambling and swing off some metal poles.
Getting to the base of the falls may also require walking through the river. The water is cold and there is also a large rock to climb. That said, the rock’s elevation is quite moderate and even children can climb easily.
Note: Salmon Falls is one of the best waterfalls in Big Sur. Limekiln Falls and McWay Falls are the other top rated attractions in the area. However, Salmon is the only Big Sur waterfall with a swimming hole.
Directions: Click here
Esalen Hot Springs
Another must-visit swimming spot in Big Sur is the Esalen Hot Springs, which is a private retreat center. The Esalen Institute runs the hot springs and the surrounding land. Natural hot water is diverted as it flows downwards into stone pools, right above the Pacific Ocean.
If you are booked in the retreat, you can use the pools both day and night. For a day visit, be prepared to pay $35. The management, however, requires you to call ahead and make a reservation.
Directions: Click here
Caution: Sykes Hot Springs is another spot where you can cool off in Big Sur. Unfortunately, the trail leading to these hot springs has been closed due to damage from the 2016 Soberanes fire and the 2017 winter storms.
When to Swim in Big Sur
While the answer to “can you swim in Big Sur” is a definite yes, we have learned, that the best spots are swimming holes along the river valley. What this means is that you have to hike over rocky and sometimes muddy trails. The best time to reach the swimming holes is during summer.
From May through September the area is dry and the trails are passable. These months are spread from late spring, through summer, to early fall. This is a time when the gorge is not overflowing with water.
On the other hand, from October to April, the area usually experiences rains that swell the river. Most of the trails that lead to swimming holes become flooded and inaccessible. Additionally, park management usually closes some of the access trails during winter and fall.
Related: A Complete US National Park List
Where Should you not Swim in Big Sur?
The beaches in Big Sur are beautiful and sandy. They are great for beach strolls, taking photos, and picnics when it is not too windy. When it comes down to swimming though, it is recommended that you keep off the beaches. Why? I have sampled a few of the most popular beaches in Big Sur below, to give you a clearer picture.
The beach has unique purple sand that is a result of manganese garnet, a mineral that is washed down the rocky hillside. It also has sea stacks and caves that make it a great place to explore.
Unfortunately, the ocean currents are too powerful for swimming. It also gets windy and chilly which makes the water very cold. Notably, there are no lifeguards or coast guard ships close enough for rescue, just in case you decide to risk swimming. It’s not recommended to go for a swim!
Despite its beautiful sandy shores, this beach is said to be one of the most dangerous beaches to swim in California. In fact, it has been nicknamed the mortuary beach due to its association with swimmers who ended up drowning while swimming.
The beach is steep with rough shores that make it uncomfortable. What poses great danger, however, are underwater currents/rip currents that can pull you away from the shores. This is referred to as an undertow that moves under the surface of the water and in a different direction from the surface currents. This causes many deaths each year around the world.
Andrew Molera State Park Beach
The beach is usually not crowded thanks to a one-mile walk that is needed to get there. It is perfect for a family beach stroll and is a great place to spot gray whales during the low tide. Nevertheless, swimming at this beach is not recommended.
First of all, getting to the water would require you to pass through dangerous masses of pebbles that can injure you. Secondly, even if you manage to reach the water, you might get hit and “washed” off by huge waves that beat against the shores.
Garrapata State Park Beach
This is a great beach for hikers. Beautiful hiking trails run from the beach to forests of the tallest living trees in the world, the California redwood. The coastline is also lined with attractive coastal vegetation and if you are lucky, you get to see some grey whales.
Like other beaches in the Big Sur, the ocean is too rough for swimming at the Garrapata State Park Beach. The water is also too cold. So, therefore, it’s recommended to stay out of the water!
Did you know that Big Sur Beaches are Rated Among the Most Dangerous in the World?
Strong currents, cold water, and rough shores aside a common everywhere in Big Sur. But something else puts the big Sur beaches in the list of the world’s most dangerous beaches, and that is shark attacks!
Big Sur is part of the red triangle region off the coast of northern California that comprises of Bodega Bay, Farallon Islands, and Big Sur. The red triangle is home to 11% of all recorded great-white shark attacks on humans worldwide.
In the US alone, 40% of attacks have taken place in the region. The reason behind this is the large populations of marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and otters that sharks eat for a living.
According to Shark Stewards, you should avoid the water in areas with high activities of these sea mammals as sharks can mistake swimmers for prey. So, can you swim in Big Sur? Definitely not at the beaches.
Big Sur coastal stretch is a beautiful place to visit and explore. So, can you swim in Big Sur? The only exception is that swimming is restricted to swimming holes along the river bed. It’s definitely not recommended to go swimming in the ocean. While at it, you can have a great time at the beaches walking, taking photos and having amazing picnics.