Dubbed “America’s best idea” by writer and historian Wallace Stegner, the national park system consists of over 400 parks covering 84 million acres across every state. In honor of this anniversary of public recreation, conservation, and preservation, we have compiled a list of the best swimming holes in National Park units of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. Celebrate the centennial this summer with a swimming hole soak.
Shenandoah National Park
Whiteoak Canyon / Cedar Run
Whiteoak Canyon and Cedar Run are two classic trails that boast some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Shenandoah National Park. Both are accessed from the same parking area, and can be combined via the yellow blazed WOC Fire Road/Horse Trail to create a beautiful (and challenging) loop. Highlights include consecutive waterfalls, a huge natural waterslide on Cedar Run, and jump rocks of various sizes.
Directions: From Charlottesville, drive north on US 29 for 26 miles until you reach SR 231. Head north until you reach SR 670, where you proceed to Syria. Turn right on SR 643/600 and drive to the White Oak Canyon trailhead. It’s a 1.5-mile hike to the pools.
Nearby: Skyline Drive runs 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park, and offers up 75 overlooks.
Overall Run is well known as the tallest waterfall in the park (93 feet), but it also plays host to a couple of great swimming holes about two miles downstream from the celebrated cascade. These pools hold water through the driest months of summer, remain refreshingly chilly, and have smooth rock that is great for some butt-slidin’.
Directions: Follow Va. Route 630 (Thompson Hollow Road) to the National Forest Service parking area on the right near the road’s terminus. Park and walk along the gravel road until you see an obvious trail hooking to the right along some fence posts and a tree blazed blue. Continue on this trail for approximately 0.8 miles into Shenandoah National Park and to the swimming hole.
Nearby: Old Rag and Hawksbill Mountain are two of the most popular and spectacular hikes in the Park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Big Creek is a stunning stream that flows out of the Balsams and into the Pigeon River in the northeast portion of GSMNP. Midnight Hole is a great swimming spot 1.5 miles up from the trailhead. It provides the quintessential Smokies experience: polished rocks, water clear and clean enough to drink, and something to do for horseback riders, anglers, campers, swimmers, and kayakers alike. Head up another 0.5 miles on the riverside trail to check out Mouse Creek Falls as well.
Directions: Take exit 451 off of I-40 near the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Cross the Pigeon River and bear left following this road into the Big Creek area of the park. Follow the road until you reach a picnic and campground area. The trail will be before the parking on the right side.
Nearby: Drive over to Pigeon Forge and Dollywood for a bit of cultural contrast!
Fontana Lake is an 11,700 acre lake that is flanked by spectacular natural surroundings, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. The Appalachian Trail passes over 480-foot Fontana Dam, and anglers, boaters, and swimmers alike can be found enjoying this lake in the summertime. There are many popular spots to access by boat, but two of the most popular land-access swimming holes are Almond Finger Lake and Tsali. Almond Finger Lake is cut off from the main boat traffic of the lake and provides easy access and emerald green water. Tsali is a popular mountain bike trail network with over 40 miles of user friendly singletrack. Bikers often hit the peaceful swimming cove just down the hill to wash the trail dust off.
Directions: Head southwest from Bryson City on RT 19/74, and take a right on RT 28 north when the road goes from four lanes to two. You will see the lake and parking area on the left, but a U-turn will be required since you won’t be able to jump the guardrail. Cross the lake, turn around, and park in the obvious parking area. For Tsali, continue past Almond Finger Lake on RT 28 north for about 2.8 miles to the top of the hill and a sign for Tsali Recreation Area. Turn right onto this road and follow it to the lake.
Nearby: The Nantahala Gorge is a great family-friendly rafting and zipline destination.
The Oconaluftee River has long been considered “sacred waters” by the Cherokee Nation, and it remains an important part of their lives. One of the largest rivers adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Oconaluftee is a great tubing trip. The two miles of river going from Big Cove Bridge back to Cherokee will float you under the Blue Ridge Parkway, through several rapids, and past The Beach, a local swimming hole with a sandbar and rope swing. If you get lucky, you may also see elk drinking from the river.
Directions: Cherokee Rapids (cherokeerapids.com) is located off of Highway 441 in Saunooke Village.
Nearby: Take the opportunity to learn about the Cherokee Nation through the myriad activities available in town.
Off the Blue Ridge Parkway
Skinny Dip Falls
Skinny Dip is an iconic swimming hole close to Brevard, NC, and a perfect place for Parkway drivers to stretch their legs or cool off. The experience starts with a stellar view of Looking Glass Rock from the overlook, followed by some beautiful forest scenes and wildflowers on the half mile hike down to the Yellowstone Prong and swimming hole. While not actually clothing optional as the name suggests, the water is cool and clear, and there are several different cascades and areas to explore. For an added challenge and another swimming spot, hike uphill on the steep Mountains-to-Sea trail to Graveyard Fields.
Directions: The trail to the falls is directly across the Blue Ridge Parkway from Looking Glass Overlook at milepost 417.
NEARBY: Brevard is a great mountain town with stellar mountain biking, craft beer, and fishing.
New River Gorge National River
Glade Creek is a perfect demonstration of the natural beauty of West Virginia. The crystal clear and cold waters of this stream can be accessed via a gentle five mile trail that tracks its entire length. There are a multitude of waterfalls, rapids, and swimming holes, so it’s easy to find your own spot for the afternoon. The lower part of Glade is also a WV Catch & Release trout stream in case you want to bring your fly rod, and there is primitive camping at the confluence of Glade and the New River if you want to stay off the grid for the weekend.
Directions: From Beckley take Route 41 (Johnstown Rd) 10 miles into the New River Gorge. Before crossing the New River to Prince, turn right onto (unpaved) Glade Creek Access Road. Follow for 6 miles to parking area for Glade Creek. Hike upstream.
Nearby: Fayetteville is a water lover’s mountain town with good eats and lodging. Don’t miss Bridge Day: this BASE jumping festival in October is quite the spectacle.
Gauley River National Recreation Area
Summersville Lake Cliffs
Summersville Lake has over 60 miles of shoreline, and the sandstone cliffs that line the lake are perfect for marveling at, deep water solo climbing, or jumping. You really can go as big as you want: 5 to 100 feet is all possible, but we would highly recommend cupping the frank and beans over 35 feet. Several of the popular land access spots are Whippoorwill, Waterfall, and Long Point, but the best approach is procuring a kayak, SUP, or pontoon boat so that you can explore all of these spots, and then stake your picnic claim on a personal island.
Note: the lake drops dramatically during fall drawdown of the Gauley River (mid-September). The same cliff that may have been good to go two weeks before might have nothing but rocks in the landing.
Directions: From Fayetteville, head north on Rt. 19. Whippoorwill Road is on the left just before the Gauley River bridge. For Waterfall, cross the bridge and turn right into a dirt parking area. A half-mile hike on the jeep trail will then lead to the cove and jumping area of Waterfall Cliffs. To reach Long Point, continue north on 19 for a mile and turn left on Long Point Access Road. Follow this through the Summersville Lake recreation area until you reach a gate. Park here and follow the hiking trail for 1.5 miles to the overlook. Most of the boat launch sites are on the southern end of the lake, while the best jumping is on the northern end.
Nearby: Summersville Lake drains into the Gauley River National Recreation Area, a world class whitewater kayaking and rafting destination. For non-paddlers, hike into Pillow Rock, the run’s marquee rapid.
Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
Gentleman’s Hole / Meeting of the Waters
Gentleman’s Hole is a picturesque swimming spot amid mountain laurels, dramatic cliffs, and rock outcrops in the headwaters of the Big South Fork National River. Just downstream of this swimming area is the Meeting of the Waters, where the Clear Fork and White Oak creeks converge to form the South Fork River.
Directions: From Knoxville, take I-75 North to exit 141 for TN 63W. Turn left on US 27S, then right on TN 52W. Bear right on Laurel Dale Cemetery Road, and park at the parking area near the cemetery. The trail is well-marked.
Nearby: Big South Fork has a monthly ranger-led dark sky education and astronomy program!
Obed Wild and Scenic River
Lily Bridge / Nemo Bridge
Lily Bridge and Nemo Bridge are two of the most accessible swimming holes on our hit list, meaning that they are well traveled and perfect for people watching. Nemo has two big rope swings and a huge swimming hole, and both spots are great for teaching youngsters river stewardship through garbage cleanup.
Directions: Nemo-From Wartburg, take Catoosa Rd. southwest about 5 miles. Lilly-From Wartburg, take RT 27 northwest. Turn left on RT 62 southwest, through Lancing and then left on Ridge Road south.
Nearby: The Obed is a well-known climbing destination with routes ranging up to 200 feet.
Little River Canyon National Preserve
Little River Falls / Hippie Hole
The Little River Canyon is one of the cleanest, wildest, and most dramatic waterways in the South. A popular destination for kayakers after heavy rains, the Little also boasts great swimming during summer lows. Two of the most popular spots are Little River Falls and Hippie Hole just upstream. Swimmers are treated to an up close and personal view of the falls and its refreshing mist. Hippie Hole has some great cliff jumps options from the seven to twenty foot range. Note: be very careful of water levels at both spots.
Directions: From Gadsden, take I-59 northeast about 35 miles to Ft. Payne. From here, follow RT 35 east to signs for Little River Canyon and Falls. The base of the falls are easily accessed by a trail out of the parking lot. For Hippie Hole, turn right out of the Falls parking lot to the next gravel pulloff on the right. It’s about a twenty minute hike down to the river.
Nearby: Keep the waterfall tour going. Check out Desoto Falls State Park and Noccalula Falls (but don’t swim at either).