Deep in the golden brown hills of the Ventana Wilderness lies a necklace of emerald pools, a string of refreshing jewels so crystal clear that the resident trout and crawdads seem to hover in mid-air.
This is the Arroyo Seco River Gorge — one of Monterey County’s secret paradises. There is no trail where the relatively little-known Arroyo Seco drains the east side of the Ventana Mountains. There is only water running and pooling over sand, stone, and granite bedrock. The river is the trail. For ten miles, the Arroyo Seco winds through a steep narrow canyon. To explore it, there is no better route than right down the middle of the river. This means a lot of swimming, a lot of ankle, hip, and chest-deep wading, and a whole lot of scrambling over very slippery stone.
But the miracle of the Arroyo Seco is its Shangri-La aura. Slipping in and out of the cool green pools and basking like otters on the hot white rocks is more than worth the long, steep hike and the occasional bit of pratfall buffoonery across the slick river rock.
The Arroyo Seco does have the feel of a secret place. While the Monterey Peninsula is draped in cold coastal fog, the hidden gorge is bathed in hot summer sun. Taking a day to slowly swim and clamber up the river is like stumbling into Eden.
The easiest way to approach the Arroyo Seco is from the campground at its lower pools. These deep, warm cauldrons of green water are the last bodies of water before the river disappears into the broad wash of sand and gravel of the flat floor of the Salinas Plain below.
As they are the easiest pools to reach, they are also the most crowded. On weekends, these lower pools are filled with children and adults leaping off the granite rocks, splashing and wading and floating on brightly colored pool toys. But with a little work, anyone can find his own secret piece of paradise. A trail leaves the campground and winds along the cliff ’s edge high above the Arroyo Seco gorge.
From above, these pools look as if they were dropped into the sharp, steep canyon directly from the Emerald City of Oz. The contrast between the brown chaparral brush, skeleton-white yucca and yellow grass of the gorge’s walls and the deep, rich green of the water is mesmerizing.
A mile or so above the campground, the trail runs along the edge of the cliff, looking down to the verdant water far below. Some of these trails are daunting and look suitable only for the hoofed or the crazy. But a few of these lower trails are easily managed and the rewards of the strenuous descent are private pools to bask in.
Continue up this trail far enough and you will reach Horse Bridge. Here lies the easiest entry point to the gorge. From the bridge, the gorge’s walls grow high and steep, its waters a deep moss-green.
Around every bend in the river lies discovery, and swimming upriver is like entering an aquamarine kingdom.
In these deeper pools, fat rainbow trout swim in water so clear, their iridescent flanks seem to hover three feet off the ground. Five and six-inch crawfish litter the rocky floor of the ponds, brandishing their claws at your toes as you pass. Large turtles sun themselves on rocks. A large snake with white and black rings swims by as you wade chest-deep.
Birds and insects rattle and chatter along the sides of the gorge, the sound of your breathing accompanies the sound of rushing water over stone, and around these things there is a wonderful silhouette of silence.
This section of the Arroyo Seco serves up ever more spectacular granite bedrock formations and pools, each new section outdoing the last. Increasingly vertical walls and deep pools require longer stretches of swimming. Every so often you come across other gorge swimmers – the foolhardy and the brave leap off the granite turrets of the gorge above and land with a splash and a gasp from floating onlookers.
After a few miles of swimming and basking you hear the sound of rushing water. You’ve reached the keystone of the gorge — a thin slit in the granite where water rushes down a natural waterslide before pouring ten feet into a dark pool.
For the adventurous, a climbing rope has been tied beside this waterfall. One can climb hand over hand up the sluice of raging water and emerge into the upper half of the Arroyo Seco, a further series of ever-smaller pools that will eventually lead back up toward the Escondido Campground and then the Fort Hunter-Liggett area. From here the way is solitary and more dangerous — the going is trickier, the footing less sure, the distance to help much farther.
For today, we decide just to turn around and slide back down the sluice of water — to launch ourselves off this natural waterslide, through the air and into the cold current of the deep green pool below. Funneled through a narrow slot in the granite canyon, the entire river cascades down a number of sharp drops before draining with a roar into some unseen pool below. Easing ourselves into sitting positions, we let go and take off like a shot, careening wildly downwards until the sluice spits us back out into the calm, lazy waters of the lower Arroyo Seco.