San Lorenzo River

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Rating: C

If you're in the Bay Area, you won't have to travel far to find the Golden State's version of the Garden of Eden, a creekside skinny-dipping spot located in Henry Cowell Redwoods Stae Park, between Santa Cruz and Fulton. Praised by April visitor Ferrah for being "a beautiful little water hole," the site gets mixed reviews from newcomers. It's "a must when you're here," says Jazmin, who dropped by in September. "Pack some lunch and head out to" it, she suggests. "It's just an incredibly beautiful place," agrees Mike, of Fremont. "A lot of hikers are surprised when they see people nude there, but they shrug it off and keep walking. Some, especially on the weekends, will swim alongside us with their swimsuits on and totally ignore us. Others are uneasy, so if that happens we usually try to find another spot."

"We hiked to the Garden Of Eden, while sipping on a huge bottle of wine on a Friday afternoon," tells Chanel, of Santa Cruz, in a post on Yelp, "and ... we found it rather easily. This place is so gorgeous! A small secluded swimming hole in the middle of the woods. We were the only ones there, so we decided to ditch the bikinis and cross skinny dipping off the bucket list."

"When I thought it couldn't get any better, all the naked people started showing up," Labpuggleechi, of Cupertino, said in another Yelp entry. "Of course, the guys didn't mind the naked women, but the naked man pushed them over the edge. People started yelling and before I knew it, people were fighting."

Park rangers called to the scene are often too late to be of help. "We hate going down there on the trail because by the time we get there the problem we've heard about may be over," a longtime ranger told me. "And you have to watch out for poison oak on the trail."

Plus the path to Eden can be slippery, so be careful as you walk. Eden is one of three clothing-optional swimming holes on the San Lorenzo River. To find these easy-to-miss locales, look for cars pulled over on Highway 9, next to the state park, which bans nudity but seldom sends ranger patrols to the creek. "It's a great area for hikes," says Russ, a regular visitor. "We saw very little litter along any of the trails. There were quite a few small groups of people, including one nude couple, about 50 yards upstream from the main beach at the foot of the trail. But I was told by a woman that there are many more 'nudals,' as she called them, in the summer."

Legal status:

Part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Nudity is not permitted in the park, but rangers seldom patrol this particular area.

How to find it:

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is located between the cities of Santa Cruz, Felton, and Scotts Valley.

From Santa Cruz, drive north on Highway 9 and look for turnouts on the right side of the road. The first, a wide turnout with a tree in the middle, is just north of Santa Cruz. Rincon Fire Trail starts about where the tree is, according to reader Robert Carlsen, of Sacramento. The many forks in the trail all lead to the river, down toward Big Rock Hole and Frisbee Beach; Carlsen says the best area off this turnout can be reached by bearing left until the end of the trail. Farther up the highway, 1.3 miles south of the park entrance, is the second and bigger pullout, called the Ox Trail Turnout, leading to Garden of Eden. Park in the turnout and follow the dirt fire road downhill and across some railroad tracks. Head south, following the tracks, for around .5 miles. Look for a "Pack Your Trash" sign with park rules and hours and then proceed down the Eden Trail. 

Ox Trail, which can be slippery, and Eden Trail both wind down steeply to the creek. "The path continues to the left, where there are several spots for wading and sunbathing," Carlsen says. The main beach is only 75 feet long and 30 feet wide, but fairly sandy. Carlsen's favorite hole is accessible from a trail that starts at the third turnout, a small one on the right side of the road, about 4.5 miles from Highway 1 and just before Felton. A gate marks the start of the path. The trail bends left. When you come to the road again, go right. At the railroad tracks, go right. From here, look for the river down the hill on your left; many paths lead to it. Tells Mike: "Within 10 yards, you can be in the water." 

"When we got to the water, we saw suited families, so we walked upriver until we saw skinny-dippers," says John, a visitor from Monterey. For even more privacy, suggests Mike, "cross the creek on chunks of wood and go over some sand to another leg of the river. That's what we like to do."

For a map showing the Garden of Eden, please go to http://www.fernriver.com/hike.html

The beach:

A trio of small skinny-dipping holes on the San Lorenzo River. The Garden of Eden features some fairly deep pools, especially after winters with heavy rain, scattered among large boulders that are used for sitting and tanning. Says Russ: "They have a rope swing takes you from the tree into the water." No bikes or dogs are allowed. 

The crowd:

Use of these sites tends to ebb and flow, depending on the weather, time of week, and whether word of mouth has helped send new visitors down the trails. You may come across a few other visitors or even one or two groups. Or you may be the only one present. "I usually go with nudist friends," says Russ. "Usually it's just you or your group. But on weekends, we encounter a lot of nonnudists." The holes also draw small numbers of mostly young people, including clad teens and college students. 

Problems:

Slippery and, at times, steep trails; poison oak continues to be a frequent complaint; rowdy youths; threat of ranger patrols (nudity not allowed); parking turnouts may be hard to find so go slow and use your odometer to check for them.

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