High altitude wild swimming in the Sierra Nevada
Updated: Sep 3, 2021
One of the highlights of our trip through the Eastern Sierra was getting to swim in stunning alpine lakes, rivers and streams. The water was often fairly freezing, so the time spent over the Spring preparing my body for cold water ended up being very beneficial. There's something incredibly peaceful about swimming silently through the water, with mountains rising up all around you.
I managed to do twenty "backcountry" swims while in the Eastern Sierras (bringing my wild swim total up to 53!), and I was proud that Brett joined me for the majority of them. If there's ever a place that would encourage you to start wild swimming, this is it...
1 - Blue Lake (10,400 ft / 3,170m)
When the trees finally parted, revealing this vista, I was stunned. "I think this is the most beautiful place I have ever been," I remember saying to Brett. We changed into our swimsuits and went for our first of many beautiful swims. The green water was cold, but felt refreshing after our morning's hike. With the trees circling our little pool and the mountains in the background, this was definitely one of the most picturesque places we went swimming.
2 - Moonlight Falls (10,960 ft / 3,340 m)
After a slightly stressful morning (that involved leaving the wilderness and driving back to Bishop to pick up a new water filter), we weren't sure we would be able to make it all the way to Moonlight Falls – the very reason we had chosen to hike in this area! The circumstances made it even more special when we finally turned a corner and saw the waterfall from across the valley. To celebrate finishing a long day of hiking, we went for our first skinny dip together – in the plunge pool of Moonlight Falls. Afterwards, we warmed up with tea and a dehydrated camping meal as we watched the sun set over the mountains.
3 - Blue Lake (10,400 ft / 3,170m)
The following day, on our way back down to the Sabrina Lake trailhead, we took an extended lunch break back on the shores of Blue Lake. After we ate, we went for a swim in the main lake. The huge granite peaks surrounding the lake on three sides made the swim especially exhilarating.
4 - Gem Lake (9,070 ft / 2,760 m)
Despite being a dammed lake, the colours of the water were gorgeous. We went for a quick dip with Mitchell before we cooked lunch on the beach.
5 - Thousand Island Lake (9,830 ft / 3,000 m)
I thought Blue Lake was the most dramatic vista we'd see on our trip...but that was before I saw Banner Peak reflected in the mirror-like water of Thousand Island Lake. We went for a swim in the perfectly still water before we had breakfast. I told Brett if he wanted to swim with me, he had to do breast-stroke instead of front crawl (in an attempt to minimise the amount of splashing). He agreed, and we swam to a couple of the lake's many islands (there's definitely not a thousand though...). This was our last proper swim wearing our swim suits...from here on, we were comfortable enough to go skinny dipping.
6 - Stream above Thousand Island Lake (9,930 ft / 3,030 m)
This spot was definitely more of a dip and less of a swim – the water wasn't quite deep enough to get in fully, plus it was absolutely freezing so we didn't want to get our heads wet. But getting into this picturesque stream was too perfect an opportunity to miss.
7 - Tarn above Garnet Lake (9,900 ft / 3,020 m)
The crystal clear blue water in this unnamed tarn looked inviting after scrambling up and down a small talus field. The water ended up being very shallow, so we didn't stay in for too long.
8 - Garnet Lake (9,670 ft / 2,950 m)
We weren't sure we would go swimming in Garnet Lake, but when we found this perfect little cove, we knew we had to get back in the water. From here, Brett led the way to a little island around the corner that we swam to. This was our fourth swim of the day, which made the 23rd of July the day with the most swims on our trip!
9 - Waterfall at Rush Creek (9,860 ft / 3,010 m)
I didn't intend to go for a dip here, but after climbing around on the rocks looking for a good spot to take a picture from, I realised the plunge pool of the upper waterfall was deep enough to get in. A quick, but refreshing dip.
10 - Marie Lakes (10,880 ft / 3,320 m)
Oh boy, this was a cold swim. If you look closely in the picture below, you can see a waterfall coming down off the hillside, with a glacier further up in the background. We were swimming in glacier melt and a lot of my body parts were in pain from the cold. Mitchell found a great rock where we could jump into the water from the shore and Brett convinced me to swim out to an island (can you sense a pattern here?). The water was freezing, but the feeling of absolute remoteness made this swim especially memorable.
11 - Gem Lake (9,070 ft / 2,760 m)
On our way out of the Ansel Adam's Wilderness, we stopped for lunch on the same beach that we'd visited on our way in. Brett blew up Mitchell's inflatable air mattress and we had a great time using it as a pool float in the lake.
12 - Merced River (Yosemite near Nevada Falls) (6,120 ft / 1,870 m)
After hiking up 1,900 feet (580 meters) on the "Mist Trail," we were ready to get in the water. With signs along the whole trail forbidding swimming due to dangerous river conditions, we decided to continue past the top of the trail and followed the John Muir Trail until we found somewhere that the water looked calm and deep enough to swim. We even spotted a snake swimming in the water – I thought it was about to go for Siena, but luckily it wasn't that interested in us.
13 - Merced River (further up) (6,120 ft / 1,870 m)
Another dip in the Merced, this time after lunch. With nobody around, I decided it was safe to go skinny dipping.
14 - Merced River (near Happy Isles) (4,030 ft / 1,230 m)
After finishing our hike, Siena and I jumped back in the water for our final swim of the day.
15 - Merced River (in valley) (3,960 ft / 1,210 m)
We spent the day exploring Yosemite Valley. After visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village, we headed toward the river. We ate our lunch in the shade before Siena and I got in the water to cool off from the heat of the afternoon. Brett napped in the shade while we swam.
16 - Upper Echo Lake (7,420 ft / 2,260 m)
After eating dinner on the shore of the lake, we were ready to go for a dip! The sunset was casting a beautiful golden light over the far side of the lake and the water felt silky smooth to swim through. It was an incredibly peaceful swim, shortened only by the concern we would be hiking in the dark to find our campsite.
17 - Lake Aloha (8,120 ft / 2,470 m)
Another morning swim in a beautifully blue lake. We swam to a couple of the rocky islands before finding one that had a great spot for jumping in. We spent a few minutes jumping and diving into the water before we got cold and swam back to our warm clothes.
18 - American Lake (8,120 ft / 2,470 m)
Unlike Lake Aloha, here we had the whole lake to ourselves. After lunch, we swam to the island you can see in the middle of the photo below. We couldn't find any good spots to jump in, and we were getting worried about the dark clouds coming in, so we didn't stay in for too long.
19 - Lake Aloha (8,120 ft / 2,470 m)
Our final morning. Porridge for breakfast on the shoreline and then another dip in Lake Aloha. We swam back out to the rocks we'd jumped in from the previous morning, for some more diving practice.
20 - Lake of the Woods (8,060 ft / 2,460 m)
Our final swim of the trip. Not the most dramatic scenery, but a refreshing dip nonetheless.
I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to swim in such breathtaking places (none of these photos were edited by the way, they came straight off my iPhone). Getting in the cold water for a dip was a great way to connect with nature, but also with each other. It was also a great way to stay clean – swimming in glacial fed lakes and rivers every day meant we never felt dirty, despite only showering once on our 12-night trip.
Tips for backcountry wild swimming:
Leave no trace. Remember to pack out all of your trash and leave the area exactly how you found it.
Don't swim alone. It's safer – and more fun – to swim with a friend or buddy!
Don't push yourself. Take the time to learn your strength and how your body copes with colder water. We always swam short distances, took breaks on islands and checked in with how we were feeling as we swam.
Bring a quick dry towel and extra layers for warmth. Drying off properly and putting on extra layers as soon as you get out of the water will help make sure you don't get too cold post-swim. I especially appreciated having my wooly hat when my hair was wet.
Start hiking as soon as you can after your swim. Tea will help warm you up, but sitting around waiting for it to brew won't! We usually went for our swims right before we knew we were about to start hiking, as we found this prevented me from sitting around shivering for too long.
Use biodegradable or eco-friendly sunscreen. We wore long sleeve, collared shirts and long pants to minimise the amount of sunscreen we needed to wear. On our faces and hands, we used Badger's reef-friendly sunscreen, which is available to purchase at REI.
Avoid swimming if you have applied bug spray. Bug repellents contain chemicals that can damage aquatic ecosystems, so wash it off 200 feet from the shore if you really want to get in the water. Or better yet, if you know you want to go swimming, just don't apply it.
Wild swimming map (with rough locations of where we swam):
The Backcountry Swimming Hole User's Manual: https://www.backpacker.com/skills/swimming-hole-skills/
How to warm up after a cold swim: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/warming-up-after-drop/
Wild swimming safety resources:
Red Cross: https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety/lake-river-safety.html
Outdoor Swimming Society: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/category/survive/
Outdoor Swimmer: https://outdoorswimmer.com/open-water-safety
Wild Swimming: https://www.wildswimming.co.uk/health-safety/