On the far northern end of the state is a dive site popular with divers in both California and southern Oregon. Early Hole is the name of a deep hole on a bend in the Smith River, just a few miles south of the Oregon border on highway 197. In the past, some have also referred to this site as “Wagon Wheel”.
The Smith River is a beautiful river that is formed by the confluence of its Middle and North forks in Del Norte County in the extreme northwest corner of California, near the community of Gasquet. It’s a free-flowing river without any dams, and it runs through rugged, rocky canyons on its way to the ocean at Crescent City. It’s because of this rocky path the the Smith River is often very clear, with visibility up to 50 feet. It can be dived year round, though winter rains can dramatically reduce visibility and make currents too strong to dive in. Due to snowmelt, water temperatures can be in the low 40’s at times, and in the summer the water can reach the low 70’s.
Early Hole and nearby Walker Hole can be found just off Highway 197, about 10 miles east of Crescent City. A map of the site can be found here. If you’re heading starting from the town of Hiouchi, continue 1.5 miles on 199 and turn right onto highway 197. From there, go 3 miles and turn left onto Charlie Drive (there’s a “winding road” sign on the right). Go slow as it turns to dirt, then to river rock. Turn left when you reach a crossroads on the flood plain, then straight to the cliffs. You’re there. You’ll park on the gravel river bank right next to the dive site. A pickup or SUV will help here, but not absolutely necessary.
Alternatively, you can reach the other side of the river from Highway 199 by taking Walker Road.
Diving Early Hole
Once you arrive on the rocky gravel bar, you’ll get a good picture of what the dive is like underwater. As an extension of the shoreline, it has a coarse gravel bottom, with a steep, rugged cliff on the left side as you swim upriver. The depth drops off somewhat gradually from the entry point, with a maximum depth of about 50 feet. Depending on the season, there will be a slight to strong downstream current present.
Once you swim upstream, you’ll come to an area where the river is wider and the current a bit slower. I’ve done one dive here where a school of salmon swam circles around our air bubbles as we sat on the bottom looking up, and this is the deepest part of the dive. A diver can easily enter the water, work their way along the cliff underwater to the pool area, explore, and swim back for a leisurely 20 or 30 minute dive.
There are a few other smaller fish here but not a lot of other life to see underwater.
Why Dive Here
Many Southern Oregon classes go here due to the great visibility and depths to 50 feet. In the winter, it can be one of the only areas available for training, as the ocean becomes too rough to dive and inland lakes freeze over. It’s a nice training location due to the rocky bottom (no problems with silt stirring up), gradual changes in depth, ease of entry, and enough interesting rock formations to see and keep the dive interesting.
More experienced divers might also dive here when ocean conditions bump them, to try out new gear, or just to try something different. Night diving can be interesting here as well, after first diving it in the daytime to become oriented with the site.
The Smith River supports fall-run Chinook salmon, coho salmon, winter-run steelhead trout and coastal cutthroat trout. Smaller numbers of spring-run Chinook and summer-run steelhead may also be here. Other fish in the river include chum salmon, green sturgeon, white sturgeon, Pacific lamprey, brook lamprey, and American shad.
The Smith River is a popular fishing area, so fishing line may be present. In winter months, the water can be in the 40’s so it’s important to wear proper thermal protection. The current is generally predictable, and the deep water of the hole shallows out immediately after, so you won’t likely get pulled downstream.
There are no dive shops here – the closest shop is Pacific Quest Dive Center in Crescent City, about 11 miles away. Other shops are available in the Medford and Grants Pass areas. Bring all the air you need along with your save-a-dive kit.
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Early Hole is a nice dive destination and popular among both dive shops for training and experienced divers looking to refresh their skills or try something different. In winter months, may be one of the only option in the southern Oregon/northern California coastal areas for diving. If you’re in the area check it out, and if you’ve been diving here let us know about your experiences diving here in the comments below!
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Dive site submitted by Earl Foster
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