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6 Wild Swimming Spots in California, Beyond the Coast

6 Wild Swimming Spots in California, Beyond the Coast

The best of California is not its famous cities or coastline. The most authentic version of the state is its freshwater, in its many wild forms. At least, for my family.

My partner Caroline Clements and I write about water and wilderness and have spent much of the last 10 years documenting swimming around the world. Most recently, we returned to California to explore the state more deeply, piling into an old motor home with our toddler, and spending six months traversing the state in search of the best places to swim.

The variety of California’s environments continue to amaze us. Mountain lakes and redwood groves. Granite canyons and emerald pools. Volcanic peaks and thermal springs. The many long, slow river miles that nourish the state. It’s these wild, inland swims that stir us the most.

Below are six freshwater places that exemplify the best of the state. It’s by no means comprehensive but a starting point for your own adventures. Be safe and use good judgment. Drink them in with joy and share them with the people you love. Most importantly, treat them with respect so that others may enjoy them in the future.

Budd Lake embodies the best of Yosemite’s High Sierra, the vast granite sea of high-elevation mountains, meadows and lakes that is bisected by Tioga Road, a continuation of Highway 120. This little blue jewel is nestled in the Cathedral Range, a tiny sub-range of the Sierra Nevada entirely contained within Yosemite National Park. It’s a pocket-size playground of water and stone with endless combinations of backcountry hikes, swims and climbs. While many first-time visitors are rightfully drawn to the spectacular Yosemite Valley, the High Sierra still feels mercifully untouched by the modern world.

This is a backcountry hike, so stop at Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center to pick up a map and discuss the route. It is around five miles round trip to Budd Lake, starting from Cathedral Lakes Trailhead in Tuolumne Meadows. After about a mile, turn left onto an unmaintained backcountry trail used by climbers to reach Cathedral Peak, marked by a signpost with an illustration of a carabiner clip. Follow the rough trail along Budd Creek. As long as you keep following Budd Creek upstream you will get there.

Budd Lake sits in a perfect glacial cirque at the base of Echo Peaks and Cockscomb, two nearby summits. Polished granite slabs form gently sloping beaches into the clear, cold water. It’s easy to spend a whole…

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