When we decided to spend two weeks in Cloverdale, California, which is the northernmost town in Sonoma County, I created the Cloverdale Swimming Challenge, or CSC. The two rules for the CSC were pretty simple: one, swim in a new location each day for 14 days, though not necessarily a different body of water, and, two, be allowed to change the rules if needed. The only real bending of the rules that was necessary was that upon our arrival on Saturday July 2, our only submersion was in the hot tub at the house we rented, which probably didn’t really count, but we decided to use it as our starting swim anyway.

So, here’s the low down of thirteen (fourteen if you count the hot tub) places to swim within an hour (ish) of Cloverdale, California. (Caveat: I am quite directionally and distance challenged so I tried to add links to everywhere we went. Definitely do your own mapping if you go to any of these spots!)

Day One: As discussed, hot tub under the stars. Quite lovely as the evening got chillier than expected. Yes, we submerged fully so it really was swimming.

Day Two: Yorty Creek, which is part of Lake Sonoma Wildlife Area and can be accessed by car or boat. It’s about 15 minutes from downtown Cloverdale, and yet feels miles away. We went Sunday July 3rd and the main swimming beach was PACKED by the time we arrived at 11 am. All good, though, as the beach offers little shade and we instead found a nice spot under a tree a short walk away on the left bank. From there we swam (duh), rented kayaks and a paddleboard to explore the area, picnicked and spent a full day hanging out. The bottom was either totally muddy or totally rocky near the edge, so getting in and out of the water from where we were planted was slow going. But once in, it was a beautiful and spacious place to swim. Two notes: there is no fresh drinking water available at Yorty Creek, and dogs are not allowed at the main swimming beach.

Day Three: The Russian Rover via the Cloverdale River Park on the Fourth of July was a bit crowded, to say the least. This was our closest-to-home location, and what with bingo at the local celebration in the park and getting ready for fireworks, we didn’t have a ton of time for the CSC this day. That said, we may have chosen the wrong access point because it led us to a very small beach front already packed with people. The water was murky from all the action, pretty shallow, and not all that pleasant to swim in. The best part of this location, though, was the sign in the parking lot that gave us distances to all the other Russian River access points in the vicinity.

Day Four: The Secret Spot in Healdsburg turned out to be not so much secret as private, and was one of our unanimous favorite CSC locations. There’s not really an address, which is what makes this one tricky, but essentially you park where Redwood Drive meets North Finch Mountain Road in Healdsburg. There are only about two - maybe three - legal/safe spots in this weird triangle of pavement where the two roads fork. The rest of Redwood Drive is private parking only – made abundantly clear by the signs at each driveway. But after you park, walk down the road maybe ¼ of a mile to a stairway on the right, and the path leads to a large rocky beach and the Russian River. It was shallow but the current was strong enough to move you along for a nice calm float. The houses along the private road have access down to the river so you may start having fantasies about making the secret spot your own…

Day Five: Lest you think the CSC was limited to natural swimming holes, we spent the fifth day at the Pool at the Coppola Winery. We rented a “cabine,” which in and of itself is not worth it – just a small shower room that locks – but it also comes with four reserved deck chairs, which is the key to a good day. From your assigned chairs you can order food and drink (I highly recommend the vodka, lemonade, champagne slushy) and spend a fully relaxing day next to two pools attached by a fountain feature. The music mix is good, the people watching/listening is great, and there’s wifi so you can stay in touch and work if needed. It’s open 11 – 6, which was just about right for us. Important hint: while the website says the place is sold out through October, new reservations open on Tuesdays so that’s the day to get online and see if you can reserve a cabine. Also, there’s other stuff to do at Coppola – tours, tastings, a nice restaurant. We didn’t do any of that – just the pool.

Day Six: We headed west on Rt 128 from Cloverdale towards Yorkville, Boonville and Philo in an attempt to find the Navarro River at the Philo-Greenwood bridge. After stopping in Boonville for a run through the old fashioned hardware store (where I added a coyote and a rooster to my cookie cutter collection), and an ice cream cone at Paysanne, we very handily missed the turn to the bridge, which meant we just kept going all the way to where the Navarro River ends a narrow spit of sand away from the Pacific. It’s a beautiful drive through Redwoods, and also a true 20 degrees colder – 55 rather than 75 – than inland but in the name of the CSC I jumped into the freezing ocean. Pi swam in the slightly warmer Navarro River, so that counts too.

Day Seven: In need of an easy and close option after the unexpectedly long windy drive to the coast the day before, we opted for the Cloverdale Pool. It cost $3 per person to get in and, while it was nothing too fancy, it was a clean, deep and refreshing YMCA pool. Plus there were about 4 other people there so unlike the Copolla experience, we had plenty of room to play. Free swim is 12 – 5 in the summer.

 Day Eight: A Saturday, so an opportunity for a longer adventure, we decided to head for Johnson’s Beach. Bad idea - turned out to be Ironman weekend in Guerneville so it took forever to get there through super slow traffic, and, after finding parking and walking half a mile to the beach, we learned that dogs and beer are not allowed. What?!?!? Anyway, the ranger recommended we go another five miles up River Road to Monte Rio, where there’s plenty of parking, a large riverfront beach, dogs are allowed (to the right of the bridge), and you can take your own beer. So we did – and it was a great choice. A wide spot on the Russian River, not super deep but plenty of room to play and just hang out.

Day Nine: We rented a pontoon boat (call ahead!) and spent the day exploring Lake Sonoma. While it was a little windy on the main lake, we found little coves to pull into for swimming adventures. It’s a beautiful lake, and a very fun experience, though we wished for more friends, a better picnic and maybe a fishing rod or two. Also of note is the fish hatchery at the visitor’s center – the fish weren’t jumping when we stopped in but still an interesting exhibit on the plight of the Coho and the attempts to save them from extinction.

Day Ten: Again looking for something not too far away, we headed north to Hopland in search of Russian River access at the Hopland Bridge. Alas that was a bum steer – and maybe put us a little too close to land we shouldn’t have been trespassing on – but an inquiry at Real Goods, founded in 1978 for people who want to live off the grid, at the Solar Living Center set us straight. (Note – a trip to the Solar Living Center is worthwhile – a kooky and thought provoking place that’s fun for kids and adults.) There a local woman told us about the swimming holes off Comminsky Station Road, which is a sharp right turn off highway 101 when going south from Hopland to Cloverdale. You hike down a slightly steep path that may or may not be infested with rattlesnakes, and eventually arrive at some little pockets of access to the Russian River. Sadly the shoreline at Comminsky was pretty littered, and some of the people we saw looked like they had set up permanent camp there, but the water was lovely. Deep with a current strong enough to move you along, but not so strong you can’t swim back up against it.

Day Eleven: Having already gone North, South and West, we decided to take our chances on East for the eleventh day of the CSC. Specifically, we headed towards Geyserville to look for the Russian River, which was not as easy as expected. Some of the bridges just don’t have anywhere to pull over safely or, if they do, there’s no clear path to the water. We found our spot, though, at the Healdsburg Bridge. (I don’t actually know if it’s called the Healdsburg Bridge or not - that’s what someone told us but there was no sign. It’s on Rt. 128 between 101 and the Jimtown Store, and there’s space to park at the western end of the bridge on both sides of the road.) You climb down a small but steep path, again accessing a wide rocky beachfront. The best current was directly under the bridge, so you hear the cars going by. Good spot, especially for people with goggles who want to count fish.

Day Twelve: Having figured out where we went wrong on Day Six, we again headed west on the uber windy Rt 128 towards Philo. Just a mile or two past Gowan’s Oak Tree Fruit Stand in Philo, take a left on Greenwood Road towards Elk. (If you pass the Navarro Vineyard you’ve gone too far.) There’s a one lane bridge just a little way down – park on the far side of it. From there find one of the many paths to the Navarro River and claim your spot. There are lovely deep pools, as well as shallow areas full of humongous tadpoles in various stages of growth. There are also some rope swings to be discovered – a kid-friendly one that lets you jump from a rock and a scarier adult one hanging from the bridge. This was a top three in the CSC challenge, especially when you add in a stop at Lauren’s in Boonville for a delicious and simple dinner on the way home. (Of note: we all felt a little burned out on steep paths, rocky shorelines and rivers by this point in the CSC. Not ready to give up, but the “challenge” part was starting to kick in.)

Day Thirteen: Ah, the Healdsburg Pool, open 1 – 4 on weekdays for free swim. There’s a diving board, a small water slide, a lovely lawn and plenty of chairs. Tons of kids, lifeguards, easy and familiar like childhood.

Day Fourteen: Happily, the last day of the CSC was my personal favorite – an ideal ending high point. Back on Day Ten when we learned about Comminsky Station, we also heard about a local favorite swimming spot called The Rock. It was originally called Squaw Rock, and then the name was changed to Frog Woman Rock to be politically correct. Either way, it’s a little hard to miss as you travel North on 101 from Cloverdale to Hopland in Mendocino County. It’s a massive rock formation that looms on the left. To get to it, we took a right turn off the highway just after mile marker 5 into a rock shop, then crossed back across the highway heading south, and pulled over into a large (unmarked) parking area on the right side of the road. (Honestly you can probably pull into any of the roadside areas between Hopland and Cloverdale and find a path to the Russian River canyon.) After climbing (in flip flops though sneakers would’ve been better) down the path we had our choice of wide rocky beaches, and then spent hours diving into the cool pools, floating down the river, and climbing back up across boulders on land. The best (for me) was a short rapids area that was well-enough hidden by trees and around a bend that the first time I swam it felt like a super double dare. Such a blast.

And there you have it, the results of the Cloverdale Swimming Challenge. Piper and I completed it in full. Johnny had one sick day – he missed the ocean – and John opted out a couple of times for the sake of his sanity. I appreciate you, my little family, for indulging my obsession with swimming. Thanks also to Barry Owen, Susan Nelson, Julien Gervreau, Eleanor Ludwig, Evan Markiewicz and Lily Fanguinoveny for their ideas, inspiration and willingness to play along. 

Comment