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A dip in nature's pool

Southland swimming holes offer cool relief year round.

September 07, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

STANDING on a granite perch, more than 20 feet above a deep turquoise pool in the San Gabriel Mountains, David Seiler musters the courage to jump.

His eyes widen. He takes three deep breaths, shifts his weight forward and leaps from the rocky precipice. For a frozen moment, he hovers in the air -- arms flailing, feet kicking -- before breaking the shimmering surface with a splash.

His four friends, transfixed on a granite cliff on the opposite side of the pool, shout and shriek in delight. Seiler emerges breathless from the cold mountain water, his eyes still wide.

"Oh, man! Oh, man!" he shouts as he spits water and breathes deeply, treading water.

The image of an oak- and alder-shaded swimming hole where shirtless youngsters take daredevil plunges from rocky outcroppings seems antithetical to Southern California's concrete expanse. It's an image more in keeping with farm houses and country roads.

But they are here: chilly pools of shimmering water sharing ZIP Codes with strip malls and eight-lane freeways. They reflect streaking sunlight in woodsy canyons, tempting high school hooky players and office workers looking for a nature romp. They are scattered along the East Fork of the San Gabriel River, secreted along the Sespe Creek in Ventura County and spread throughout the Arroyo Seco in the Angeles National Forest.

So just because the summer is nearly over, don't think that swimming hole season is done. Just consider the late winter storms that kept local streams and creeks overflowing well past spring, and with temps still in the 90s, conditions are perfect for a backcountry dip. Besides, most kids are back in school -- more elbow room at normally crowded swimming holes.

In Southern California, swimming holes range from shallow wading pools, bordered by rocky shores and trees -- ideal for family outings -- to 20-foot deep craters that draw daredevils such as 24-year-old Seiler and his pals. Many swimming holes are fed by underground springs, so the water stays cold even on the hottest days of the year.

"What people don't understand is that most of the swimming holes in Southern California are full year-round," says Chris Shaffer, author of "The Definitive Guide to the Waterfalls of Southern and Central California." "There are really a ton of places to go to."

And most of them follow a similar route. You pound a dusty trail until you hear the sound of distant rushing water. You quicken your pace as you get closer, and then you see the white water crashing over rocks, into a pool that looks like green iced tea. Skin tingles from the spray. You waste no time, strip down and -- Oh, man! Oh, man! -- you jump in. Every muscle in your body constricts and every synapse in your brain misfires. Wading in might have made more sense, but who cares? Minutes later you're mustering up the courage to jump again.

Finding the pools requires some backcountry trekking, often resulting in cuts and scrapes from whipsawing branches and slick boulders, but swimming hole enthusiasts swear it is worth the effort. And if you forgot your swimsuit, no worries. Cool, tree-shaded swimming holes just seem to lower any inhibition.

"For me, it's a de-stresser," says Shaffer, who has been scouting waterfalls and swimming holes for eight years. "It's a getaway from city life."

ON a recent hot afternoon in the San Gabriel Mountains, a shallow pool at the base of Sturtevant Falls is clear and shimmering, reflecting a stream of sunlight cutting through the leaves of alder and oak trees that border the 60-foot falls. A couple in shorts sit on the quiet, rocky shores, soaking their feet in the water.

Suddenly the pool's solitude is broken when two families with several young kids and two dogs bound up the trail. The children -- sweaty and red-faced from the hike -- shed shirts and shoes as they scamper toward the water. The canyon echoes with laughter and shrieks. The kids have splash fights and dunk themselves in the brisk water.

But before you strap on your hiking boots to search for that watery oasis, consider a few words of warning.

If a swimming hole is easily accessible, chances are it's going to be crowded and littered with trash, bottles and even dirty diapers, says Gerald Reponen, assistant recreation officer at the Angeles National Forest River District. The harder to reach, the more pristine the swimming hole, he says.

"People who hike more than a mile and a half to a swimming hole are not bringing kids and a barbecue," he says.

But soiled Pampers may be the least of your worries when jumping into a swimming hole. Mohamed Zuhair, a senior park aide at Malibu Creek State Park, says diving injuries at the park's Rock Pool are a weekly occurrence. Sprained ankles, concussions and dislocated shoulders are common, he says. That's why the park prohibits jumping and diving at the pool.

"You can break your neck because you don't know how deep it is," he says.

But for many the temptation is too much.

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