A mug of stout beer on a hot summer day isn’t the only thing that’s cold, dark, and refreshing! There’s also the swim-through caverns of Natural Bridges in Calaveras County (aka Gold Country). This two-mile (round-trip) hike rewards with a cooling dip in Coyote Creek, whose currents have carved a swimmable tunnel through the limestone.
The trail to the creek begins in open grassland, wending its way to an oak-canopied ravine. Be forewarned about the rocky path: Sturdy shoes are recommended, tempting though it may be to trek there in your flip-flops. The trail widens as it continues along Coyote Creek Canyon, offering views of the valley beyond. About a mile in, you’ll come to a steep embankment made scalable by wooden stairs. At the bottom is a picnic bench and plenty of wide boulders for sprawling and relaxing. A bit of rock-hopping will take you inside the mouth of the massive limestone cavern, which narrows into the tunnel that leads to the other side. Gaze at the dripping geological formations overhead, then cool off with a swim, or bring a tube for a relaxing float.
Bonus: Just ten minutes up the road, the quaint Gold Rush town of Murphys is home to dozens of wineries and tasting rooms. At Newsome Harlow (403 Main Street, Murphys), you can unwind on the comfy outdoor couches while sipping a sauvignon blanc or zinfandel.
Always check water depth before doing more than dipping your toes. To reach Natural Bridges, take Hwy. 4 east through Stockton to Vallecito. Turn right on Parrotts Ferry Rd. and continue about 3.6 miles. Make a sharp right onto Airola Road (look for the brown sign that reads “Natural Bridges Day Use Area”) and park along the shoulder (no fee) near the restrooms. No dogs at Natural Bridges. Newsome Harlow is dog-friendly!