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Oct. 18, 2021

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Check out ‘wild swimming’ at four Clark County swimming holes

By , Columbian staff writer
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The relatively shallow water near the shores of Cottonwood Beach on the Columbia River offers fun summertime splashing. Even when it's crowded, you can find your spot.
The relatively shallow water near the shores of Cottonwood Beach on the Columbia River offers fun summertime splashing. Even when it's crowded, you can find your spot. (monika spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

There’s a moment at the start of each summer when I fully immerse myself in water at one of my favorite swimming holes. I feel such utter joy that it makes me laugh out loud. It’s a sensation that’s like being embraced and set free all at once.

“Wild swimming” — that is, swimming not in a pool but in any naturally occurring body of water — is a recreational pastime that’s gained international traction over the past several years, spurred by books like “Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain” by Roger Deakin.

In Clark County, it’s mostly known as “swimming.” When the temperature goes up, the swimsuits go on, the water toys come out and everyone heads to the closest lake or river to enjoy a cooling dip. There’s still plenty of time to get in the water before summer fades into fall, whether you’re a first-time wild swimmer or (like me) think of yourself as a mermaid.

If you’re unsure about getting wet in the wild, consider this: Unlike pool swimming, outdoor swimming offers a different experience every time, even in the same place. Maybe I’ll see crawdads and periwinkles (the Northwest vernacular for caddisfly larvae). The next time, I might glimpse trout, creek chub or fry. If I’m lucky, I’ll spy an eagle or osprey soaring overhead. An early fall swim gives me a frog’s-eye view of leaves in their first golden blush. Depending on the time of day, the color of the water changes, with blues and greens melting to a silver sheen as dusk approaches.

When I’m in a river or lake, I feel connected to it. I’m not just swimming in it; I’m a part of it. The water is wide and deep and I can’t see the bottom, which is exhilarating and a little scary, because who knows what might nibble my toes? This thought reminds me that the water is full of living things and I am only one of them.

If you’re ready to swim with the fish, so to speak, remember that you swim at your own risk in any natural body of water. Rivers that seem calm on the surface can still have powerful currents and sharp, slippery rocks. Swimmers can get snagged by underwater debris and unseen logs, and divers can hit rocks. Cold temperatures sap energy quickly and result in hypothermia. Lakes can contain E. coli or blue-green algae blooms, so check before you go. (Water is tested every two weeks and samples take several days to process, so warnings and closures can lag behind actual conditions.) Life jackets are a must for children and a good idea for adults, too. There are no lifeguards and drownings have occurred in nearly every swimmable place in the county. In short, wild swimmers should never underestimate the peril of open water.

With that out of the way, here are the pros and cons of four Clark County swimming holes that have served as the backdrop for generations of happy summer memories. These spots are all crowded on warm weekends, so be prepared for parking issues or trouble finding a prime position by the water. I have my own top-secret spot on the Washougal River that I’ll decline to share here, but maybe you’ll find me one day this summer, floating along with the water striders and letting my troubles drift away on the ripples.

Battle Ground Lake

The lake is stunning, a blue gem set in a green crown of trees. The high point of my summer, aquatically speaking, is when I swim out to the middle of the lake and float on my back, starfish style, gazing up at the dome of sky framed by a scrim of tree-tops. There’s a narrow sandy beach with a large, cordoned-off swimming area and a long dock that’s recently been upgraded. The lake is small enough to feel sheltered but large enough that there’s room for swimmers to spread out. Young smallmouth bass dart through the clear water near the shore and I almost always see eagles.

What’s good: Diving off the dock, swimming out to one of several giant floating logs and just drifting, watching dragonflies and letting fish tickle my feet.

What’s not so good: Even with a day-use fee of $10 per vehicle, weekend crowds are oppressive and there’s fierce competition for lakeside lounging spots.

Details: 18002 N.E. 249th St., Battle Ground; Battle Ground Lake State Park requires a Discover Pass or $10 day-use fee; park in lot and walk to lake.

Cottonwood Beach

We’ve been coming to this mile-long beach on the Columbia River since our daughter was little to play in the sand and splash in shallow water near the shore. It can get quite crowded on summer weekends, but the beach is so large that there’s always room and we often find a shaded place under young cottonwood trees. The wind in the trees is soothing and ospreys nest nearby.

What’s good: The beachy, festive atmosphere and sparkling sand make it easy to spend hours here, reading or basking in the sun. The sand is soft and great for sand castles. Even at its most crowded, there’s space enough to feel comfortable.

What’s not so good: Boats sometimes drop anchor close to shore with aggravatingly loud stereos. Jet Ski traffic and boomboxes can drown out pleasant natural sounds. The current is strong and waves from watercraft can swamp small children.

Details: 3333 Index St., Washougal; free with free parking on site; follow trail to beach.

Moulton Falls

I’ve been hiking here for years but only recently have I discovered the wonders of this swimming hole, formed by a sharp bend in the East Fork Lewis River. The river here is breathtakingly beautiful, a luminous jade green in the deepest places, just under the park’s iconic arched bridge. The water is crystal clear to about 10 feet, so I feel like I’m flying more than swimming.

What’s good: Swimming at Moulton Falls is pure Northwest magic. The pristine water and surrounding woods seem untouched by civilization, a wonderful secret hidden from the world.

What’s not so good: It’s not a secret. Parking is near-impossible. There’s no beach so it can be difficult to access the water from crowded rock ledges. Currents can be strong with slippery rocks.

Details: 27781 N.E. Lucia Falls Road, Yacolt; free with extremely limited parking; follow path along road to river.

Sandy Swimming Hole

When I come here on a cooler, less-crowded weekday, I’m richly rewarded. The Washougal River isn’t wide here, but it’s deep enough for vigorous swimming and waterplay. I love looking at the rocky river bottom, searching for crawdads and trout.

What’s good: Easy access to the river with lots of natural nooks and crannies to explore while swimming. The clear water makes it easy to spot fish and other critters. If the rocky shore is too hard to navigate, grassy areas and shade trees provide picnic spots.

What’s not so good: This swimming hole is crazily crowded on weekends and hot days. The parking lot is tiny, so many people park illegally along Shepherd Road, blocking traffic. There are no crosswalks or sidewalks, making it risky to cross the road when loaded down with swim gear.

Details: 550 N. Shepherd Road, Washougal; free with extremely limited free parking.

Also worth mentioning

Cresap Bay Park on Lake Merwin and Yale Park on Yale Lake offer gorgeous summertime swimming in Cowlitz County. There’s plenty of parking (but it costs $5 on summer weekends), easy water access, shade trees and picnic spots.

Dougan Falls in Skamania County, off Washougal River Road, is a much-loved swimming spot, though water levels are now low.

Paradise Point State Park in north Clark County offers good swimming on the East Fork Lewis River, though noise from Interstate 5, which passes directly overhead, can be deafening. State park fees apply.

Daybreak Regional Park on the East Fork Lewis River near Battle Ground, with shallow water flowing over a rocky riverbed, is fun for inner tubing or splashing around.

Lacamas Lake in Camas is fine for swimming when the water quality is good, but public health last week issued an advisory for elevated levels of blue-green algae. Check the public health website before visiting.

Vancouver Lake Regional Park is big and shady and the sandy shore is great for volleyball or sand castles, though algae blooms make it off limits several times a year. Parking costs $3.

Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park, just five minutes from Vancouver Lake, boasts a long stretch of sandy beach and ample river access, plus trails, play structures and covered picnic areas. Parking costs $3.