Our goal is a storied chain of pools on the Little Sur River, a place we’ve only heard tale of, no firsthand reports.
It’s a Friday evening in August and the light is fading as we stride downhill. A half mile in, we have about three miles until we hit the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp. From there, it’s 1.5 miles to our campsite, Jackson Camp.
Hiking in on a dirt road was a sacrifice of sorts – we could have reached the river by way of the more scenic 7.5-mile Little Sur Trail, which starts just south of the river on Old Coast Road. But with a full workday Friday, striking out from Bottchers Gap seemed the choice.
Our approach to the scout camp is marked by a succession of wooden signs engraved with tenets of Boy Scout Law – loyal, helpful, kind – and when we finally reach it, there’s not a scout in sight, just dozens of tents scattered in the trees.
As we climb the trail out of camp, sounds of an outdoor scout assembly – synchronized shouting – carry through the trees. By the time the cries finally fade, night has fallen.
We walk a mile of level trail through dark forest and over a few redwood stumps and come to Fish Camp, an unmarked clearing right on the trail and river. It wasn’t on our map, but the caretaker at Bottchers Gap mentioned it as a nearer option than Jackson. It’s empty and looks welcoming, so after finding a flat sandy spot on the riverbank, we decide to make it our home for two nights.
The whine of mosquitoes awakens us come morning. Foreheads have been feasted upon, but with sight of our surroundings in daylight – small trout darting through shallow waters and redwoods soaring overhead – itches disappear.
It’s a good day for some hiking. We cross the river several times heading upstream, even choosing it over the trail at times. The water is cool but not cold, and when avoiding pools, rarely more than shin-deep. The canopy of redwoods disappears about 2.5 miles in, when the canyon narrows and stone walls rise from the banks, and is supplanted by stately maples, alders and tanoaks.
Shortly after, the payoff presents itself: A large circular pool almost entirely encompassed by stone, with the southern wall stretching at least 75 feet up. A gentle waterfall cuts through the middle, dropping 10 feet into the pool. The water runs 4-6 feet deep, cooled by the shade. It’s a breathtaking spot, but there is more.
A makeshift trail traversing over the northern wall provides a gateway to more pools. We watch Stevenson School summer campers climb across it, surprised the counselors would trust their middle schoolers to make it. But they all do, navigating along a foot-width stretch of loose dirt with a 45-degree slope to the river.
After we run the same gauntlet, the reward is worth it: A succession of gorgeous pools climb up the canyon like stairs. A few are swimmable, but the best is at the end, a large pool – also surrounded by stone – that gets as deep as 15 feet.
The only way upriver from there is by climbing a rope next to the waterfall feeding the pool. I pull myself 10 feet up the steep rock, a little worried about the rope ripping against the rock as I climb.
When I make it to the top, my friends opt out of joining me, and they don’t miss much. The river moves away from the vein of stone that forms the pools, and walking up about a half mile, it’s comparable to a beautiful creek. I love creeks, but not as much as swimming holes.
We enjoy the pools as long as the sun shines and then stroll back to camp.
I awake the next morning – in a tent, this time – to the patter of light rain. I jolt up immediately and begin breaking down the tent, while my earlier-rising friends make oatmeal and coffee. The rain lasts five minutes, and is gone.
We climb out of the forest floor with the smell of plants and wet dirt fresh in the air, and we can almost hear the trees drink, sighing in relief.
The pools of the Little Sur River probably won’t be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but they’re a discovery you won’t find on any map. They are also much like that short rain – a small serving of refreshment for the soul.