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Most locals know the Six Rivers after which we name our schools, businesses and beer refers to Six Rivers National Forest, a long, inland strip of forestland extending over 130 miles south from the Oregon border, itself named after six of the area's rivers, naturally. Ask locals to name them, however, and you might get varied responses. 

Officially, they are: the Eel, Klamath, Mad, Smith, Trinity and Van Duzen rivers. But it's easy to get mixed up. The Eel doesn't flow through the Six Rivers National Forest and the Smith doesn't flow through Humboldt County. And what about the Mattole? Isn't Redwood Creek technically a river?

Our relationships with these rivers are complex. We revere them, ignore them and fight over them, often all at once. They make our lives possible and they take lives away. Fortunately, with caution and respect, it is possible for locals and visitors alike to trancend the confusion and almost feel how we belong to them by diving in.

The views on the Eel River at Rockefeller Loop. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photographs by Connor Bennett
  • The views on the Eel River at Rockefeller Loop.


1 - The Eel

Heading into Humboldt from the south, U.S. Highway 101 hugs the South Fork Eel River for 34 miles. The waters in this tributary of the Eel River may be calm and inviting as early as late spring. There are countless spots visible from the highway (or its parallel scenic alternative, the Avenue of the Giants) to pull over and take a dip. 

The last few miles of the South Fork before its intersection with the Eel proper are especially generous with swimming spots. The eastern bank of the river is best accessed via Rockefeller Loop. From there, a short walk through the serene Rockefeller Grove presents a few opportunities to head toward the river. The trail passes through a cut in an enormous fallen redwood and the swimming hole features another partially submerged one — perfect for hopping off, or even swimming under.

North of the confluence of the Eel River and its South Fork, the Eel is wide and swimming is often not an option until mid-summer. The window of time before algae becomes a concern is brief some years. But visitor center and lodging staff can let you know if the timing is right and provide directions to many options, including near Shively, Scotia and Fortuna.

click to enlarge Cooling off in the Klamath River at Sandy Bar Ranch. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photographs by Connor Bennett
  • Cooling off in the Klamath River at Sandy Bar Ranch.


2 - The Klamath

One of the largest rivers in California, the Klamath flows into Humboldt County from the north. After joining with the Trinity River at Weitchpec, it reverses direction and heads back across the northern county border before meeting the ocean. This stretch of the Klamath downriver from Weitchpec is Yurok land, where communities have been devastated by water quality issues stemming from damming and water diversions. With the imminent removal of four dams on the upper Klamath, locals are hopeful the river's health will rebound, with the added bonus of more safe swimming days.

When conditions are clear, take advantage. But guests staying at nearby Sandy Bar Ranch in Orleans, just 15 miles upriver from Weitchpec, are not limited to swimming. A shade canopy by the river is a perfect spot to relax and take in the view, there are goats on the ranch to say hello to and it's only a short walk to Prospect Trail for a tour of old mining flumes and ponds. And if nothing but a dip will do, the nearby Salmon River is an excellent alternative.

A picnic and a plunge in the Mad River at the fish hatchery. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photographs by Connor Bennett
  • A picnic and a plunge in the Mad River at the fish hatchery.

3 - The Mad

Short on time? Sample a local restaurant without sacrificing the sunny day by getting takeout to enjoy by the river. Swimming spots in Blue Lake are close enough to restaurants in Arcata and McKinleyville that your food will still be warm when you reach the water. In Blue Lake itself, Mad River Brewery is a tempting place to fill the cooler.

Picnickers can find swimming spots right off Hatchery Road and its bridge over the Mad River. Or try parking at the Fish Hatchery, walking around the tanks and taking one of the trails heading east toward the river. For more privacy, find the trail heading south at the very end of the parking lot and follow it to the river embankment, where water becomes shallow enough in summer to wade across to the other side. Swimming holes and picnic spots extend upstream hundreds of yards. 

The clear waters of the Smith River. - PHOTOGRAPH BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photograph by Connor Bennett
  • The clear waters of the Smith River.

4 - The Smith

It doesn't flow through Humboldt, but a trip north to the emerald waters of the Smith is worth it. This relatively unspoiled river has no dams and is renowned as one of the cleanest in California. The water is colder here than down south and stunningly clear as a result.

Swimmers can find Sandy Beach River Access 1 mile west of Patrick Creek Campground — stop in the visitor center for pamphlets with directions to other spots. The best sites in the campground provide guests with babbling waters to lull them to sleep and an intimate view of the river to wake up to. For those who prefer the comfort of a mattress (or maybe just a drink at the bar) Patrick Creek Historic Lodge is right up the road.

click to enlarge Easy-to-reach Kimtu Beach on the Trinity River. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photographs by Connor Bennett
  • Easy-to-reach Kimtu Beach on the Trinity River.


5 - The Trinity

The Klamath's largest tributary, the Trinity River has always been popular for recreation. Those relaxing on its beaches will likely see rafters passing by in spring. Later in summer, when the waters are less swift — some say no earlier than August — the sweltering inland temperatures make swimming impossible to resist. Remember: More people drown in the Trinity than any other local river, so follow precautions while you bask in its magnificence.

One of the Trinity's most accessible beaches is at Camp Kimtu in Willow Creek. A $2 day-use fee grants entry to a long stretch of riverbank with perfect jumping spots on the opposite side. Ten miles downriver, Tish Tang Campground has shed its rowdy reputation since Hoopa Valley Tribe member Inker McCovey took over in 2017. After handing him the $3 day-use fee, swimmers will find drying off in the sun as peaceful as it is beautiful.

click to enlarge The footbridge at Grizzly Creek Redwood State Park (top left) and exploring the Van Duzen upriver. - PHOTOGRAPHS BY CONNOR BENNETT
  • Photographs by Connor Bennett
  • The footbridge at Grizzly Creek Redwood State Park (top left) and exploring the Van Duzen upriver.

6 - The Van Duzen This tributary of the Eel is the smallest of the six rivers, making it relatively safe to swim early in the summer but also prone to algae late in the season. Instead of wide, flat riverbanks, the Van Duzen offers short beaches and dramatic boulders between its many churning swimming holes.

Paying an $8 day-use fee and crossing a seasonal bridge at Grizzly Creek Redwood State Park brings visitors to one of longer stretches of swimming area. Camping here provides an excellent home base for exploring the river (though the nearby State Route 36 can be noisy at night). Downriver, Swimmer's Delight is popular with families for its shallow entrance and nearby parking. Upriver, steeper hikes down to secluded pools await the more adventurous.

SAFETY FIRST

There are no lifeguards on duty at any of these spots. Carelessness can result in injury or death. To stay safe, follow these rules: 

• Before heading out, always check river levels and flow information with the National Weather Service.

• Avoid swimming into a fast-moving current. If the current seems strong, get out of the water.

• Do not jump into water you have not thoroughly investigated to ensure it is deep enough and free of obstructions. 

• Never swim alone.

• Don't consume alcohol while swimming. Really.

• Young children should wear life jackets.

As the swimming season progresses, blooms of toxic algae — dangerous to humans and fatal to animals — are more common. Always check the HAB Incident Reports Map at www.mywaterquality.ca.gov for reports of algae blooms before picking a spot and stay out of the water if you see algae in, on or near the water.

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Jonathan Webster

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