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Upper Natural Bridge Trail and Swimming Hole

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Location : Vallecito, CA.

Parking : Parking lot at trailhead, $8 fee

Trail type : Out and Back

Trail Length : 2.1 miles rt

Elevation Gain : 380 ft

Difficulty : Moderate

Trails traversed : Upper Natural Bridge Trail

Dogs Allowed ? No

Pro Tip : Wear hiking shoes for the trail, water shoes for the swimming hole and bring a raft/tube/floatie

When it comes to physical activity, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range holds many hidden gems of varying degrees of difficulty. One amongst them is the Upper Natural Bridge swimming hole, popular only amongst the locals all year round. This swimming hole is nestled in a limestone tunnel in the Sierra foothills, and offers views of stunning stalactite formations to the adventurous swimmer. Access to this swimming hole is via the Upper Natural Bridge trail off of Parrots Ferry Road in Vallecito, CA. Although a couple of hours drive from the Bay Area, it is totally worth the effort and time.


>> Got a question about Natural Bridge Trail that you need answered quickly? DM me on Instagram @SolaraStills and I’ll be happy to help! I only accept DMs from followers, so hit the follow button before sending.


Parking: The Google Maps location for the parking lot is Natural Bridge trailhead. There are 15-20 parking spaces at the trailhead. I highly recommend visiting early in the day, as the swimming hole can get crowded by midday. Also, the colors of the water and the cavern show best early in the morning, versus at midday. When we arrived at 8.30am on a Sunday, there were only 2 other cars in the parking lot. By the time we left around 11am, the lot was full and cars were waiting for an empty space. Do not park on the roadside, as you will risk the chance of being ticketed. There is an $8 self-registration fee which you can pay via check or cash. There is one restroom at the parking lot, but it was pretty nasty on the day we went.

The Trail: The trail starts at the top of the parking lot, close to the entrance to Parrots Ferry Road. Look for a round metal gate, and start hiking down Upper Natural Bridge Trail. The trail starts at 1,500 ft and descends 300ft steeply into the ravine, for about a mile. The route is very rocky but provides beautiful views of the open canyon along the way. You encounter a fork in the trail a couple of times. Take the right fork at both times. As you reach the end of the mile, you start hearing the gushing of Coyote Creek down below, which feeds into New Melones Lake.

A set of steep steps finally take you down to a surprising natural sight - a dark chasm in the ground opens up for the creek to flow through it. Beads of water run down the entrance of the cave/chasm/tunnel, adding mystery to the scene.

After finding a suitable spot to keep your belongings, it is now time to explore this enchanting cave. Expect the water to be cold, but your body will soon get adjusted to the temperature and your eyes to the darkness. The ceiling of the cavern is covered with bumpy, colorful formations resembling stalactites with water dripping from some of them.

At the other end of the tunnel a halo of light represents the other end.

It is easy to wade around near either entrance of the tunnel, as it starts shallow and gets deep a quarter of the way in.

To explore the tunnel, end to end, you need to be able to swim through the current or use a raft or a tube to float through the cave and gaze at the magical rock formations along the way.

Once you have taken in the mesmerizing beauty of the cavern to your hearts content, it is time to head back up the steep hill back to the parking lot. Although we didnt explore further, we did see folks follow the creek and picnic further away from the cave, where the creek was flowing in full force. It was almost noon and close to a hundred degrees when we trudged our way up the steep incline. It was not easy, but the memories of a beautiful day spent in such enthralling natural wonder took us all the way to the top.


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