Emerald pools await at Silver Lake Potholes

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The Silver Lake Potholes are often crowded on busy, summer weekends. | Lisa Michelle
The Silver Lake Potholes are often crowded on busy, summer weekends. | Lisa Michelle

Carved deep into polished granite is a chain of emerald pools that cascade sloping rock. These are the Silver Lake Potholes. Along the Silver Fork of the American River, nature offers guests a feng shui of tranquil water slides and swimming holes. A variety of perfectly placed pines and bouquets of wildflowers add the finishing touch to a spectacular landscape. Massive stone slabs stacked like ancient ruins provide a place for pothole people to relax. If communing with water is your thing, there’s no better place to take a dip than in a Sierra swimming hole.

According to geologists, a pothole is a cylindrical pit formed in the rocky channel of a turbulent stream or river. Eddies gouge the bedrock of the river bottom and form isolated whirlpools. If the water is persistent, the whirlpool will dig irregularities into the rock. This allows further erosion and creates what is known as a pothole. As water flows, sand, pebbles and rock are deposited in the hole and scrape the walls and bottom of the enlarging pothole. Over time, this will enlarge the feature. As the pothole grows, larger stones are carried into it and accelerate erosion. These large stones, which are called abraders, can be carried out by the same spiraling water that carried them in or they can settle to the bottom of the pothole where they remain indefinitely. Centuries of erosion have scoured out a dozen Silver Lake Potholes, including one called the bottomless pit.

The Silver Lake Potholes are a popular spot to cool off on a hot, summer day. | Lisa Michelle

In Amador County, water spills from Silver Lake, flows under State Route 88, then becomes the Silver Fork of the American River. A trail meanders about 1 mile through a canopy of conifers and conglomerate rock before dropping into the pothole pools. When temperatures rise and flow from the dam is restricted, water in the potholes warms a bit before rushing out. This is prime time for pothole people.

I dive into the cool river water, swim along the rocky bottom and open my eyes to a sparkling jade paradise. A waterfall rushes down a silver chute as I break the surface. Heavy water pummels my head then shoulders as I wiggle beneath the roaring water. I am officially one of the pothole people.

Summer brings flocks of tourists to the once-secluded potholes. From July through September of 2016 the U.S. Forest Service placed a counter on the two main trails and recorded more than 6,000 pothole people. The potholes are located on Forest Service land, which is open to the public, but the most convenient way to access this section of the river is through El Dorado Irrigation District (EID) property. A few years ago, you could walk the trail from Silver Lake West Campground to the potholes in less than 15 minutes. Now, due to increased popularity, visitors to the potholes are no longer allowed access through or from the campground. Campers, who have paid fees for a site, are required to exit the campground and either walk or drive about 800 yards southwest on State Route 88 to access the trail.

Currently, EID is in negotiations to create a trailhead on Forest Service property. North of the campground, a deteriorating cattle corral marks a level area that the district believes would work well for trailhead parking and easy access to the potholes.

“The hike from the corrals to the potholes is about 15 to 20 minutes,” says Carl Certiberi, an EID senior park ranger, who spends most of his time in the area. “I’ve been here for six years and the amount of garbage and visitors has definitely increased.”

Visitors to the potholes need to pack out garbage to preserve the pristine area of the Sierra Nevada. | Courtesy EID

Certiberi deals with the influx of pothole people and says that during busy weekends, bathrooms become congested with pothole people and campers have had to wait in line sometimes up to 30 minutes.

Carol Ross of Santa Rosa has been camping at Silver Lake West and visiting the potholes for more than 30 years and is disappointed with the district’s elimination of the access from the campground. Ross agrees that the potholes’ popularity has increased, but she hasn’t seen the negative impact.

“I’ve never seen horrible behavior or more garbage. Mostly it’s just families looking to have a nice time,” says Ross as she dunks her feet into a pothole and spooks a crawdad. “I used to skinny dip here, my daughter was married here, this place is very special to me and my family. I feel very threatened by EID limiting access.”

Exploring the primitive potholes is not as complicated as creating a new trailhead. Usually, uncrowded during the week, a visit to the potholes is well worth the 45-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe. Limited parking is available on the west side of the river near the EID access point and at Silver Lake for a fee. The only bathrooms are located at the Silver Lake lot. Parking and walking alongside the highway is not recommended. Access to the potholes is opposite the Silver Lake Dam. | eid.org/recreation/silver-lake