Whether you prefer to dive into cool and calm mountain lakes or feel the roaring creeks tumbling over waterfalls on your cheeks, we’ve got you covered on some of the best spots to dip your toes and soak up the sun in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.
Middle Fork River
Buckhannon, W. Va.
Home to elegantly placed river rocks and dreamy little bridges, Audra State Park is a peaceful wonderland of adventure. Alum Creek and Cave Trail, which includes a boardwalk, curves under hanging rock faces as you walk opposite the gorgeous Middle Fork River. The river runs directly through the park and offers a cooldown for swimmers to splash in its almost crystal clear waters. Swimming here can feel as though you are swimming at the edge of a cave.
When you’re not in the water, Audra is perfect for families who enjoy hiking, camping, and picnicking surrounded by thick forests filled with towering trees, as well as opportunities to boat, fish, and geocache. Bring your bike to hit the trails on wheels as well. If you want to head into town, check out Buckhannon for the taste of local cuisine at a number of restaurants. The West Virginia Wildlife Center is also nearby, which hosts some of the state’s most beautiful wildlife.
While you might recognize the Green River as one of the most challenging whitewater spots in the South with the annual race through The Narrows, it also features some excellent sections for a more relaxing day on the water. Below the class V rapids, rope swings line the bank, just waiting for you to grab hold and leap into the water below. If you would rather mosey on down the water, tubing is one of the creek’s main attractions as you float through some small class I and II rapids.
Several outfitters along the water, including Silver Creek Tubing, Green River Cove Tubing, and Wilderness Cove, offer rentals from May to September, so you can squeeze out every bit of summer. Accommodations can be made for large groups, but it is best to schedule in advance.
You can stay overnight when you explore the Green River, with camping available at a number of sites along the water. Or experience the area from above on the Gorge Zipline. Over 1.25 miles, you’ll traverse 11 platforms, descend 1,100 vertical feet, and cross a sky bridge all through an old growth forest on the rim of the Green River Gorge.
You might hear the thundering falls before you actually reach the gorge at Cummins Falls State Park. Home to one of Tennessee’s largest waterfalls, there are several spots to hop in the cool pools below the 75-foot namesake cascade. Come prepared with hiking shoes and a will to wade through water, climb rocks, and cross over slippery terrain.
There are two trails that reach the gorge area, a moderate one-mile path and a more difficult 1.5-mile trek with steep and uneven terrain. Since the trail is somewhat difficult, the park recommends that children under five not attempt the trail, and children 12 and under should be accompanied by an adult. Don’t forget to bring a life jacket or pick one up at the park, and make sure to reserve a Gorge Access Permit ahead of time to access the base of the falls.
The Old Mill Camp and General Store is a worthy stop on your way in or out of the park where you can browse for souvenirs and order a scoop of rich ice cream. Or, if you are looking for something stronger after your swim, Tennessee Legend Distillery is just seven miles from the park, waiting for you to come and grab a drink.
While we don’t know who Betty is, we do know she has some of the smoothest waters in the Augusta area. With easy access to Betty’s Branch through Riverside Park, you’ll find this tributary an idyllic wildlife refuge. Betty’s Branch feeds into the Savannah River so you get to enjoy all the critters that call this habitat home, including hundreds of turtles, otter families, and osprey perched along the water’s edge.
Bring your kayak and paddle out to the Sandbar during periods of low flow for easy access to a quick dip. No boat? No worries. Outdoor Augusta Riverside Kayak Rentals can provide you with rentals, as well as kayak tours.
Betty’s Branch is just a short drive to Evan’s Towne Center Park and the Columbia County Amphitheater. So you might be able to catch a concert, tradeshow, or theatre performance depending on the event schedule. For those looking to get in more miles on the water, the Serene18 Paddle Trail will take you to some of the most scenic spots along the Georgia-South Carolina border.
Riley Moore Falls
Oconee County, S.C.
Right in the heart of Oconee County lies the roaring wall of water that is Riley Moore Falls. Standing at just above 12 feet tall and over 100 feet wide, the beautiful falls are located on the Chauga River, which features some class V rapids and is home to glimmering fish and playful otters. Scramble down the one-mile trail to reach the falls, where you can then walk through a tunnel that emerges in the middle of gushing water. Once the exploration is complete, the water pooling below is quite inviting for summer hikers to take a swim. Brasstown Falls is another nearby option with a calm swimming hole at the base of three consecutive drops.
If you’ve spent enough time on the trail, try the open waters with Lake Hartwell Boat Tours to discover one of South Carolina’s stunning lakes. And, if you’re lucky, on the way home you can catch a concert at the Westminster Music Hall and bask in the sounds of the musicians of the South. More adventuring to be done? There are a number of places to rent paddle boards, kayaks, and other outdoor gear in Westminster. Borrowed Boats, Twenty 8 & West, and Southern Outlaw Adventures offer a range of options to suit your ideal outdoor excursion.
High Knob Lake
Wise County, Va.
For cooler temperatures, High Knob Recreation Area provides welcome relief from the summer heat. Surrounded by Jefferson National Forest, High Knob Lake is one of the main attractions at this high-elevation site. Jump into the four-acre lake or relax on the sandy beach. Just around the corner on Stony Creek, the campground is a quiet spot to rest up, featuring 14 sites and a bathhouse. Bring your fishing rod with you as the lake is also a great spot to try and catch some brook trout.
From the campsite, it’s only a 1.5-mile hike to High Knob Tower. With views of five states on a clear day, keep an eye out for Pine Mountain on the Virginia-Kentucky border, Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, and Roan Mountain on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Little Stony Falls is another hike nearby to a series of waterfalls. With several different routes, ranging from a quick-and-easy one-miler to a challenging 18.7-mile trek, there are stunning views of the deep gorge, rushing water, and surrounding hardwood forest no matter the season.
Casual waders and laid-back tubers will love chilling in Deer Creek, a Maryland Scenic River, at Rocks State Park. The shallow water and picnic areas with grills along the bank make it a family-friendly destination for all ages, while the swimming hole at the base of the 17-foot Kilgore Falls is a shaded spot to cool off. The creek is also stocked with trout in the spring and fall for anglers, while paddlers can take advantage of the high water levels in the spring. From May 1 through Labor Day, you need a permit to visit Kilgore Falls and the Falling Branch area of the park on the weekends and holidays, so be sure to make reservations in advance or plan your visit for a weekday.
Rising 190 feet above the creek, the King and Queen Seat is a spectacular landmark with routes for climbers ranging in difficulty from 4 to 5.12. A miniature rock climbing spot at the Nature Exploration Area is perfect for helping the little ones get started on their skills.
Laurel River Lake
Laurel and Whitley Counties, Ky.
With 200 miles of forest-lined shore and 5,600 acres of refreshing water, Laurel River Lake in Daniel Boone National Forest has options for everyone. Whether you prefer to swim at the beach area, paddle the Goose Management Area, fish for black bass and rainbow trout, or scuba dive the clear waters, you could spend days exploring all the lake has to offer. Four campgrounds, including two boat-in areas, make it easy to stay close to the action.
About 30 minutes from the lake, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is another excellent spot to get out and enjoy the beautiful surroundings with 17 miles of hiking trails and views of the 60-foot waterfall. Book a rainbow mist ride with Sheltowee Trace Adventure Resort for an up-close experience with the falls. A 20.8-mile section of the Sheltowee Trace Trail connects the park and lake for hikers looking for a backcountry escape.
Huntingdon County, Pa.
For unspoiled views of the water, Raystown Lake offers a scenic getaway surrounded by thousands of acres of forest-covered slopes. Two public beaches with picnic tables, grills, and restrooms are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day; plus you can have fun bouncing on the water trampolines at Seven Points. Arnold’s Marine Service will deliver canoe, kayak, and paddleboard rentals to the lake, while Rothrock Outfitters has everything you’ll need for a full day of paddling, fishing, or biking.
Pack your mountain bike and ride the Allegrippis Trails, 36 miles of singletrack arranged in stacked loops so you can choose your route length. A number of state parks, including Trough Creek, Green Furnace, and Whipple Dam, are within an hour drive of the lake for more miles of fun.
Be Mindful of the Water
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a large increase in the number of people exploring the outdoors. Kira King, science education coordinator with the Waterfall Keepers of North Carolina, sees this as a positive trend. Her organization promotes the benefits of exploring the region’s pristine cascades, as well as protecting these natural resources.
“Even when we aren’t able to connect to people the way we’re used to, we can always connect with nature,” she said. “There is a natural energy and healing property of these areas that can help visitors mentally, and even physically, as they utilize natural resources through these difficult times.”
But as larger crowds begin to discover swimming spots and waterfalls in the woods, it’s important to take care of these places so future generations will be able enjoy them. Quell the urge to climb atop waterfalls, so you don’t risk falling on slippery rocks. Moving the rocks that rest above and below the waterfall can disturb the plants and animals who are sensitive to even the slightest environmental change. If you’re planning to get in the water, be conscious of what is on your skin. Choose environmentally-friendly sunscreen and bug spray so as to not harm the species that call the water home.
King also offers a gentle reminder that there is a meditative experience to be had when visiting a waterfall. “Next time you go to a waterfall give yourself at least five extra minutes to sit and engage all five senses,” she said. “Listen to the water falling over rocks, feel the cool spray on your skin, smell and taste the fresh air, see it from top to bottom and focus on the individual drops of water as they tumble down from the top.”
Please check with locations prior to travel to comply with local safety regulations and possible restrictions.
Cover photo: Take a dip in refreshing mountain waters this summer, including Twisting Falls in Tennessee. Photo by Nathaniel Flowers