One of our area’s most popular summer retreats is Rainbow Pool, about 13 miles east of Groveland along Highway 120 at the bridge crossing the South Fork of the Tuolumne River. This picturesque waterfall, swimming hole and picnic spot have beaconed travelers since stagecoach days.
In 1870 the Big Oak Flat Road Company hired James Lumsden to construct a covered bridge over the South Fork. Prior to this, the river was spanned simply by a few logs felled across the stream courtesy of area resident Johnny Heardin, upstream from the future bridge site.
From 1895 to 1915 John Cox, a former Confederate soldier, collected road tolls for the Big Oak Flat Road Company while living in a cabin he built on the rocks above the picturesque waterfall and natural pool. Cox was a surly fellow, in his 60s, and content with his solitary existence. His food and other needs were supplied by the teamsters that traveled his route. When Tuolumne County purchased the toll road in 1915 John Cox was out of a job and the Big Oak Flat Road became a free route.
In 1924, Mrs. Nellie Bartlett and her brother William (‘Tug’) Wilson leased the site. They added buildings where the covered bridge over the fall once stood and called their resort the Fall Inn. Later they renamed it the Cliff House and it was an inviting scenic hideaway well into the 1930s. Just like its namesake in San Francisco, a person visiting always had a spectacular view of water and sky. Daredevils were known to even jump from the porch or roof of the Cliff House dining room into the water below as seen in the photo.
The resort burned to the ground on July 10, 1939 but was soon rebuilt and expanded to include gas pumps, a picnic area, several cabins and a dance floor for its well-known Saturday night dances. It was at this time the famous Old Mine Cocktail Cavern was constructed by digging a tunnel into the hillside (behind today’s restroom building). The tunnel was eventually filled in for safety reasons by the Forest Service.
As a child growing up at the Cliff House, Dale Wilson Smidt remembered the time in 1947 that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had stopped off to dine after a visit to Yosemite and then decided to spend the night much to the chagrin of her Secret Service detail.
In 1958 the second Cliff House burned and the famous lodge was never rebuilt. Rick and Evelyn Lewellen built a café and 14-unit motel on the site and operated their resort for four years until the motel burned.
After torrential rains during the winter of 1996-97, a massive volume of water came down the South Fork canyon and on Jan. 1, 1997, the historic timber bridge spanning the river since 1931 collapsed. The old masonry abutments were all that remained of the 1931 bridge and as a reminder of the past were carefully incorporated into the new bridge which was completed in April 2000.
Following the Rim Fire in the summer of 2013, the Forest Service worked diligently to make the iconic swimming hole safe for public access again. While the trees surrounding Rainbow Pool did not burn, dead ‘hazard trees’, rocks, mud, and other debris required removal and the restrooms and picnic areas were cleaned and renovated with the help of many volunteers from our community.
Ironically, the natural swimming hole below the waterfall was never called Rainbow Pool until the Forest Service acquired the property. The celebrated resort is long gone but it’s still a great summer getaway for an afternoon picnic or a refreshing swim.