These 12 summer swimming holes in the Blue Ridge are beneath some of the most iconic waterfalls in the South. From roadside quick hits to daylong hiking trips, pack your towel, your suit, and a camera and get to dippin’!
Blue Hole Falls
Accessibility: Moderate / 2.7-mile round-trip hike
The hike to Blue Hole Falls takes visitors past two of Georgia’s most scenic waterfalls, the 50-foot High Shoals Falls and the smaller 20-foot Blue Hole Falls. The rolling trail is lined with moss and fluorescent-green foliage, winding alongside High Shoals Creek. Although this is a popular spot in the summertime, if you can find time to hike out to the falls during the week or early in the day, you’ll likely have the place to yourself.
Elk Mills, Tenn.
Accessibility: Strenuous / 1.4-mile round-trip hike
Situated about four miles downstream of the more-popular Elk River Falls, Compression Falls is an equally stunning waterfall on the Elk River that fewer folks know of. It’s a short hike down to the river, but it’s no walk in the park. Steep and rocky, the most dangerous part about swimming here is the hike in and out. The 30-foot falls are great for the adventurous kind to take the leap off of, and the river-left side of the falls provides just enough of a ledge to slide off of.
Accessibility: Easy / 2.5-mile round-trip hike
Stunning. That’s about the only thing you can think when you see the cathedral-like display at Cummins Falls on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River. Located in the heart of Tennessee’s Cummins Falls State Park, Cummins Falls drops 75 feet and trickles down over a series of stone stair ledges. This is a popular one, so don’t expect to come here and have the place to yourself (although if you get there early enough and don’t mind the cold, you just might be able to get a moment or two of solitude).
BLUE HOLE FALLS
Accessibility: Easy / 0.5-mile round-trip hike
Yep, there’s another Blue Hole Falls—this one in Tennessee. Although not nearly as large in size, this series of four cascades on Holston Mountain exemplifies the most picturesque combination of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and crystal clear water. Just a short hike from the trailhead parking lot, these falls can sometimes receive too much traffic, so remember to practice Leave No Trace principles when visiting (i.e. dispose of waste properly). Blue Hole Falls is the most popular destination for swimmers, but the other falls upstream of this one are just as idyllic.
BAD BRANCH FALLS
Accessibility: Moderate / 2.5-mile round-trip hike
At the heart of Bad Branch Falls State Nature Preserve in Kentucky stands this dramatic 60-foot waterfall, formed by the mighty Bad Branch River. Hikes to and from this waterfall destination can vary in difficulty and length, as the Pine Mountain Trail runs right through the preserve and out along the Pine Mountain ridgeline. Although the pool at the base of the falls isn’t deep enough for a total full-body submersion, you can always slide your way toward the roaring curtain of water for the most extreme shower you’ve ever had in your life.
HARPER CREEK FALLS
Accessibility: Moderate / 3-mile round-trip hike
Nestled in the Wilson Creek Wilderness Area, Harper Creek Falls affords swimming hole enthusiasts two large, deep pools at the bottoms of two very breathtaking drops. The upper falls are typically where adrenaline junkies will take their leap from since the lip of the lower falls are a little more difficult to access. Use caution when wading around here as the slippery rocks around the trail and at the top of the falls have been the source of a number of spills.
Accessibility: Strenuous / 6.6-mile round-trip hike
Lower Falls in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness portion of the Nantahala National Forest is a must-visit for anyone looking to escape the crowds and find a little peace. The hike down to the falls is rocky and steep, involving two over-the-knee creek crossings. Pay special attention to the trail blazes; it’s easy to get turned around. Consider packing your goggles and snorkel, as this is a prime area to explore the diverse life above and below the falls.
Accessibility: Easy / 0.8-mile round-trip hike
Powerful and peaceful, Courthouse Falls in Pisgah National Forest perfectly embodies the nature of rivers. This out-and-back hike takes you to the base of the 40-foot falls and the dense canopy of trees overhead makes this swimming spot one of the best places to cool down on a blistering hot day. The parking lot only fits about six cars, but due to the easy accessibility, this place gets packed on a sunny weekend.
Accessibility: Easy / 0.5-mile round-trip hike
Practically roadside, these river-wide waterfalls are the largest in the New River Gorge and are a must-see for visitors in the area. Great for fishing, paddling, and swimming, Sandstone Falls literally spans the entire breadth of the New River (1,500 feet wide, to be exact) and is pockmarked with small rock islands that are great to explore when the river is low.
Gauley Bridge, W.Va.
Accessibility: Moderate / 5-minute paddle
Why hike when you can paddle? Shed those boots for your bare feet and hop on an inner tube, SUP, kayak, whatever your craft of preference, and paddle out to Kanawha Falls. Formed at the confluence of the New and Gauley Rivers, the waterfalls at Kanawha stretch across the entire width of the river and form small alcoves that are great for exploring in the summertime. Because you need a floating craft of some sort (or really strong swimming skills) to reach the falls, this area is usually pretty tourist-free and you can often have the place to yourself even on a weekend.
LITTLE STONY CREEK FALLS
Accessibility: Moderate / 2.8-mile round-trip hike
The Little Stony National Recreation Trail offers hikers the chance to make a day of exploring this Virginia gem and takes visitors along the 400-foot-deep Little Stony Creek gorge. The trail starts at the most recognized of the three total waterfalls here, the 24-foot Little Stony Creek Falls. It is here where you can chase that rush and jump from the top into the deep pool below. The two smaller falls farther along the trail are also great stops and are visited less frequently than the area’s namesake.
Dingmans Ferry, Penn.
Accessibility: Moderate / 2.3-mile round-trip hike
A tributary of the Delaware River, Adams Creek winds blissfully through Ricketts Glen State Park in northern Pennsylvania, one of the few state parks in the region that can boast over 24 named waterfalls. The hike to Adams Falls is incredibly scenic and relatively short, but visitors can connect to the main falls trail to view even more cascades and pool hop their way farther into the park. Although this spot is at the northernmost stretch of our region, it should definitely be on everyone’s waterfall bucket list.