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Paradise Found: Scenic Swimming Holes of the Blue Ridge

Not all swimming holes are created equal. You can beat the heat in just about any stream in the Southern Appalachians, but there are a handful of pools in our backyard that offer a refreshing dip in style. Deep, clear water, big falls, lush backdrop…finding the right swimming hole can feel a bit like finding paradise. So we scoured the mountains looking for the most awe-inspiring natural pools, the kinds of swimming holes that make you want to live-tweet pictures while you cannonball into the crystal clear blue water. Behold, seven of the most beautiful swimming holes in the Southern Appalachians.

1. Paradise Falls

Wolf Creek, N.C.

Tucked into a tight gorge in Nantahala National Forest, this swimming hole is more than just a pretty waterfall. It’s a mini slot canyon adventure. The waterfall itself is usually just a trickle thanks to the dam upstream, but don’t fret. What makes Paradise Falls so dreamy is the tight slot canyon that surrounds the waterfall. Swim across the clear pool to the entrance of the canyon, then climb a rope up the slick rock to the second level of rock, where the river drops between sheer, gray rock walls. The whole scene is like nothing else in North Carolina.

Logistics: There’s a parking lot at Wolf Creek Lake off NC 281, a quarter-mile from the roadside trailhead. The user-created trail is steep, dropping into and climbing out of a separate gorge before delivering you to the bottom of Paradise Falls. Use extra caution when swimming below or around the falls and don’t go after a heavy rain. The dam at Wolf Creek Lake, above the falls, is often released to keep water levels balanced.

Adventure Nearby: Standup paddle on the tiny, but gorgeous Wolf Creek Lake. Or rock hop downstream looking for more plunge pools and mini canyons on Wolf Creek.

2. Brush Creek Falls

Brush Creek, W.Va.

Brush Creek Falls proves size doesn’t always matter. This waterfall is only 25 feet high, but it spans the entire length of the river, tumbling over a broad sandstone ledge. At normal water levels, the river cruises over the cliff in a series of smaller, lazy cascades giving the effect of multiple waterfalls at one site—think of a tropical grotto, but surrounded by a dense hardwood forest. You’ll find nooks at the base of the falls where you can scramble behind the water. Locals will occasionally jump from the top of the falls. As always, use caution; there have been serious injuries at Brush Creek in recent years.

Logistics: The falls sits inside a tangle of public and privately preserved land that includes the massive Pipestem Resort State Park. The easiest access is through the Nature Conservancy-owned Brush Creek Nature Preserve, which protects a small pocket of land where Brush Creek and the Bluestone River meet. Hit the preserve and head upstream to the falls.

Adventure Nearby: Hike the Bluestone River Gorge to rocky outcroppings with a view on the Canyon Rim Trail at Pipestem Resort State Park.  

3. Cascade Falls

Little Stony Creek, Va.

You’re going to share this 69-foot waterfall near tiny Pembroke, Va. (and not so tiny Blacksburg), but the scene is so stunning, you might not notice the crowd. Little Stony Creek takes a vertical drop over an upper cliff, then shatters into different streams as it cascades over steps of layered rock on its way to a deep, cold pool. The entire scene is flanked by 200-foot rock faces on either side. The Cascades National Scenic Trail follows the river upstream before forking into the Upper and Lower Trails. Both end up at the same spot below the waterfall. The whole lollipop loop is four miles. If you’re looking for a bit more solitude, continue to hike upstream for half a mile to Upper Cascade Falls. It’s not as dramatic, but not as crowded either.

Logistics: Pick up the trail inside the Cascade Falls Recreation Area on Cascade Drive in Pembroke, Va.

Nearby Adventure: The New River offers some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing in the South. Check out the Cliffs of Eggleston section of the New near Pembroke.

4. Yellowstone Falls

Yellowstone Prong, North Carolina

Yellowstone Prong has it all: scenery, wild trout, gin-clear water, and the crowds to prove it. Three waterfalls on Yellowstone are accessible from the popular Graveyard Fields recreation area off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Second Falls gets most of the attention, and rightfully so: it’s gorgeous and makes a great weekday dip when crowds are scarce. But head farther downstream to the much tougher to reach Yellowstone Falls, which isn’t even listed on the map at the Graveyard Fields parking lot. Sketchy, steep “paths” lead to the top of the falls and base of the falls. Both trails require scrambling, sliding, and a bit of praying. Before you reach the top of the falls, you’ll find deep and wide potholes that offer primo swimming opportunities. Yellowstone Prong cuts through a broad mountain valley that’s nearly a mile high in elevation and loses elevation in three dramatic drops. You’re surrounded by a skinny stone gorge thick with colorful “striped” granite. Even though Graveyard Fields is popular, the rock hopping and bushwhacking necessary to get to Yellowstone Falls keep the crowds down.

Logistics: Park at Graveyard Fields at mile marker 418.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow the trail to Second Falls, then ditch the crowds and head downstream.

Nearby Adventure: Run the Art Loeb Trail across Black Balsam, a 6,000-foot-high bald, not far from Yellowstone Prong, to the edge of Shining Rock Wilderness.

5. Laurel Fork Falls

Lake Jocassee, S.C.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat. Well, you’re just gonna need a boat. Laurel Creek drops 80 feet, twisting and turning over massive cliffs into a corner of Lake Jocassee, carving a narrow gorge out of the bedrock on its way down. The waterfall is gorgeous, but it’s the setting and the remote nature of the swimming hole that provide the wow factor here. You’ve got a deep hole for swimming and rocks to climb. The lower half of the falls is surrounded by a rocky grotto peppered with lush green foliage and vibrant moss. Discovering it from the belly of a kayak after a half-day paddle is indescribable. Whether you reach the falls by boat or by boot, there’s an excellent campsite at the top of the waterfall next to Laurel Fork Creek, making this a killer overnight option.

Logistics: Pick up the Foothills Trail at US 178 and hike 8.5 miles before reaching the top of the falls. Then it’s a sketchy scramble down the side of the gorge to the lake and bottom of the falls. The other option is to launch a kayak from Devils Fork State Park and paddle northeast across the lake into the Toxaway arm of Jocassee.

Nearby Adventure: The Foothills Trail cruises along the northwestern edge of Lake Jocassee running along the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment for 77 miles, offering some of the finest backcountry hiking in the South.

6. Cane Creek Falls

Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tenn.

Fall Creek Falls may have top billing at this state park north of Chattanooga, but Cane Creek Falls has its own sense of grandeur. On the eastern edge of the park, Cane Creek drops 85 feet in a single plunge into a broad, rocky pool the size of a football field that’s surrounded by a massive rock amphitheater. Not cool enough? How about the second waterfall, Rockhouse Falls, which drops into the same pool to the left of Cane Creek. Two creeks, two waterfalls, one awesome swimming hole. The swimming at the base of the falls is surreal, and there’s plenty of opportunity for exploring the real estate behind each waterfall.

Logistics: Find the park off Hwy 111 north of Chattanooga. Hike the easy Paw Paw Trail to the ridiculously steep and dangerous Cable Trail (you’re gonna want to use the cable), which drops you to the base of Cane Creek Falls.

Nearby Adventure: The state park has six major waterfalls and 20,000 acres of hiking. You can knock them all out in about 10 miles of hiking.

7. South River Falls

Shenandoah National Park, Va.

At 83 feet, South River isn’t the tallest waterfall in the park (technically, it’s the third tallest), but it’s certainly one of the most stunning. The river enters a gorge laden with juggy, gray cliffs via a single narrow chute. Halfway down its vertical plunge, the falls hits a rock ledge and splits into two waterfalls as it makes its way into the pool below. Don’t expect an Olympic-sized swimming pool at the bottom of the falls. This is more like a soaking tub. Try to hit it after a good rain for the biggest impact.

Logistics: In the central district of the park, follow Skyline Drive to milepost 62.8 and pick up the South River Trail at the South River Picnic Area. Make a 3.3-mile loop by combining the SRT and the South River Fire Road and A.T.

Adventure Nearby: You’re in Shenandoah National Park, so there’s plenty of hiking. For something a little different, tackle the Bearfence Rock Scramble, a 1.2-mile hike/climb that leads to a 360-degree view.

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