First person: The best lap swim pools in the East Bay

Aqua Zumba at the Plunge
Richmond Plunge: Photo: City of Richmond

By Dave Margulius

Looking to swim laps in the East Bay? We have some awesome pools here. Here’s my roundup so far, after trying most of the pools in and around Berkeley:

The Richmond Plunge in Richmond, pictured top (hours and info). $5 for a day pass. This is as good as it gets — the cathedral of Bay Area swimming pools. Built in 1926, this community ‘natatorium’ was renovated and reopened in 2010 after several decades of decay. Everything about the place is awesome, and the staff is friendly too. The entire building is original, with great period details. Light streams in through greenhouse-type ceiling windows, and vintage steel and shiplap are everywhere. The pool itself (with its new saline chlorination system) is excellent, and even the locker rooms, while small, are clean and full of character. BYO towel and lock. Located in the historic Point Richmond district. For more info, check out The Plunge’s Wikipedia page, and read what the New York Times said about it. (As a bonus for railfans, the Plunge is adjacent to a historic depot, two rare ‘wig-wag’ train signals, and regular yard activity by BNSF locomotives).

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Hearst North Pool. Photo: Cal Rec

Hearst North Pool on the Cal campus in Berkeley (hours and info). $20 for a day pass, or join Berkeley Rec Sports for $65/month. If Richmond Plunge is the cathedral, this is the Roman amphitheater of Bay Area swimming. Built in the 1920s, and designed by famous architect Julia Morgan, this pool is designed to make you feel like a god. With its rich marble-lined pool and deck, urns, statues, Corinthian columns, and stunning view of the Berkeley Campanile and beyond, Hearst North is a magical place. The lanes are wide and the water is great! This pool is 33 yards long instead of the normal 25… again, larger than life. The swimmers are mostly students — and friendly. Towels provided, but BYO lock. See these great historic photos of the Hearst North pool. Read what Hannah at 40 Pools thought about it. And finally, check out this heartwarming Berkeleyside profile of a longtime Hearst North swimmer and friend of the lifeguards.


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Albany Aquatic Center. Photo: LP Consulting Engineers Inc.

Albany Aquatic Center in Albany (hours and info). $6 for a day pass. Attached to Albany High and located next to a beautiful city park with easy parking, this is one of the nicest municipal pools I’ve ever visited. The locker rooms are small and nothing to write home about, and the indoor pool is just ok, but the outdoor pool is a gem, with clean clear water, fantastic light, and views of the East Bay Hills. The swimmers are mostly local regulars (including some students and teachers, and masters swimmers), and friendly, and it’s never overcrowded. As a bonus, you occasionally get to hear the Albany High School morning announcements over the loudspeaker! BYO towel and lock.

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Spieker pool. Photo: Cal Bears

Spieker Pool on the Cal campus in Berkeley (hours and info). $20 for a day pass, or join Berkeley Rec Sports for $65/month. This is a big outdoor pool with clear cool water and few amenities, located three blocks from the Hearst Pool. Not generally open for morning lap swims, this is a pool for later in the day. Attached to the Cal Recreational Sports Facility which has workout machines, classes, etc. Some towels available, BYO lock. Here’s the 40 Pools review… she thought it was just ok, and I agree, despite hosting so many Olympic swimmers over the years.

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City Club pool. Photo: Berkeley City Club

Berkeley City Club Pool, Berkeley (info). Must be a member (pricey) or hotel guest to swim there. This is another of the big Julia Morgan designed pool-stravaganzas (along with Hearst North, and the San Simeon Hearst Castle Pools). Actually she designed this whole iconic building which was a posh civic club but is now a bit run down. I’ve been inside this indoor pool and the locker room, but haven’t swum here. The locker rooms seem dingy, and the pool area itself a little humid. I imagine the water is warm and chlorinated. But oh, the decorative tile!

El Cerrito pool. Photo: Google Maps

El Cerrito Swim Center, El Cerrito (hours and info) $5 for a day pass. Discovered this one on Thanksgiving, because it was open (a rarity — even the nearby Albany Aquatic Center wasn’t). Huge outdoor pool, friendly staff, basic locker room, BYO towel and lock. Water was clear and cool-ish. Big parking lot, right next to a huge PG&E substation. Otherwise undistinguished. Named after one of the pool’s longtime lifeguards, Emery G. Weed. Also has a “splash park” for kids.

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King Pool. Photo: Berrin Y

Martin Luther King Pool, Berkeley. (hours and info) $6 for a day pass, and you need exact change. Attached to MLK Middle School, this pool will bring you right back to summer day camp. There’s just something about mildewy/scary locker rooms plus fresh air under the pines (Eucalyptus in this case), and an over-chlorinated pool with staff so attentive they’re camp counselor-esque (‘why don’t you share lane three with Bob… Jenny’s about to finish up’). Once you’re in the pool, its actually really nice and gets great morning light. The showers have mystery sensors which make them go on and off randomly. I wouldn’t make this my regular pool (though many locals do), but it’s a fine back-up.

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Berkeley YMCA pool. Photo: YMCA

Berkeley YMCA, Berkeley (hours and info). Must be a member, but you can get one free guest pass, no questions asked, with photo ID. This is a pretty straightforward urban Y indoor pool, with locker rooms perpetually being renovated, and water that’s clean one day and cloudy another (it was good the last time I went). Good camaraderie in the locker room. This pool is located in downtown Berkeley, right near BART, but if you walk a few extra blocks you can swim in one of the nearby (and superior) outdoor Cal pools (Hearst or Spieker), see above. Update: newly renovated sauna in the men’s locker room is pretty nice.

Strawberry Canyon Pool. Photo: Citizen reporter

UC Strawberry Canyon Pool, Berkeley. (hours and info) This Z-shaped outdoor pool is only open in the summer, and you need the Cal Rec day pass or a separate $10 Strawberry Canyon Rec pass. I swam here once many years ago and remembered liking it. It’s up in the hills and I recall some nice views and fresh air. Hannah at 40 Pools did a review, found it welcoming but also said the water was a little warm.

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UC Golden Bears pool. Photo: Cal Bears

UC Golden Bear Pool, Berkeley (hours and info) $10 for a day pass, or join Berkeley Rec Sports for $65/month. Haven’t swum here yet, but it seems to ofter morning and afternoon lap swim on alternating days. It’s at UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus a little south of main campus. Clark Kerr was the president of UC during the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and he tried to steer a middle course between the demands of the students and the demands of newly elected Governor Ronald Reagan. The UC Board of Regents fired Kerr in 1967. But they named a campus for him anyway!

UC Legends Aquatic Center, Berkeley. This is the promised land of East Bay lap pools, an unattainable nirvana. You can’t swim here and neither can I. Unless you happen to be on Cal’s varsity swimming or diving teams. Built at a cost of $18 million (private donations) and opened in November 2016, this pool looks sparkly and beautiful through the fence from Bancroft street. You can see it, hear it, smell it, almost taste it. But they have no plans to offer rec swimming hours… doh! I snuck inside and took this video of the team practicing, but it was too dark and doesn’t do justice to the pool’s stunning allure. Go see for yourself.

Temescal pool. Photo: 40 Pools

Temescal Pool, Oakland (hours and info) $6 lap swim fee. 33-yard salt-water pool. Haven’t been here yet, but Hannah at 40 Pools really liked it. Will add more color after I visit!

Mills College pool. Photo: Mills College

Mills College Trefethen Pool, Oakland (hours and info) $7 day pass. I’ve heard good things about this pool, but haven’t tried it yet… stay tuned.

Know a pool I missed that’s worth checking out? Let me know!