Secret splash: 10 cool swimming holes in the U.S.

July 26, 2016                 5m read time
Erika Prins


Forget those concrete, chlorine-filled pools—nature's swimming holes are where it's at. These watery havens might not be Olympic sized, but they're perfect spots for a refreshing dip.

Nothing calls for outdoor adventure like warm temperatures and sunny skies. But for those sweltering days when your face begins to melt because it's 100 degrees, and no amount of A/C or rolled-down windows can save you from sweating an entire lake into your seat cushion, Mother Earth gifted us with an au-naturale solution: Swimming holes! From roadside swimming holes, to destination swimming holes, to day-trip swimming holes across the country, get ready to dive in—or, you know, slowly and cautiously work your way in, one toe at a time.

1. Madison Blue Springs - Lee, Florida

Madison Blue Springs - Hidden Swimming Holes Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Madison Blue Springs - Hidden Swimming Holes

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

 

Ever wish you could bathe in a natural pool filled with crisp bottled water (without wasting any plastic, of course)? Yeah, neither have we—that's a weirdly specific fantasy. But now that we’re thinking about it...that sounds delightful! Ten miles east of Madison in northern Florida, Madison Blue Springs State Park shares its waters with the Nestlé bottling plant next door. In a limestone basin surrounded by pines and hardwoods, this bright turquoise spring reaches about 25 feet deep. Swim, kayak, fish and even scuba dive to explore the park's underwater caves in pristine 70-degree spring waters.

2. Blue Hole - Santa Rosa, New Mexico

Blue Hole - Hidden Swimming Holes Granger Meador

Blue Hole - Hidden Swimming Holes

Granger Meador

 

Two hours east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Blue Hole’s modest moniker downplays its haunting beauty. Starkly contrasting the red mesas surrounding it, this striking desert oasis is a shocking sapphire blue with visibility up to 100 feet deep. An underground water system connects it with seven sister lakes, filling them with naturally filtered H20. The depth and water quality draws scuba divers and desert-weary road trippers alike. Whether you're descending into its cool abyss, or hanging out on the craggy outcroppings with water wings and breathing into a paper bag, enjoy clear views down to the bottom where goldfish, carp and koi swim.

3. Wekiwa Springs - Apopka, Florida

Wekiwa Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes Jason Patrick Ross

Wekiwa Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes

Jason Patrick Ross

 

Timucuan Indians once fished and hunted what is now Wekiwa Springs State Park, and the untouched land just 20 minutes from Orlando remains a wild window into the undeveloped Central Florida of yesteryear. Work up a sweat hiking or bicycling the park's 13 miles of trails, then cool your jets in the 72-degree limestone spring pool. Visitors flocked here in the early 1900s, believing its soothing waters possessed healing properties for a variety of ailments. While the remedial powers of this emerald eden have never been scientifically proven, its natural pools continue to be a popular spot for both Floridians and tourists. Rent a canoe to escape the summer crowds and meander down the 16-mile Wekiwa River, adorned on both sides by ancient oak trees. Keep an eye out for deer, bears, turtles, otters, foxes and other creatures that call the riverbanks home.

4. Sliding Rock - Brevard, North Carolina

Sliding Rock - Hidden Swimming Holes Photo credit Nagel Photography & Photog aka eddie penland

Sliding Rock - Hidden Swimming Holes

Photo credit

Nagel Photography & Photog aka eddie penland

 

The 60-foot mountain waterfall in the Pisgah National Forest is your childhood Slip ‘n Slide on steroids. Roughly a 20-minute drive from Brevard, Sliding Rock draws thousands of adventurous tourists and locals who stand in line to take the plunge as an on-duty lifeguard looks on. The cascades follow a much gentler slope than you may be imagining, the slick boulder below forming a natural water slide fueled by 11,000 gallons of water per minute. It all empties into a refreshing swimming hole, where you can chill out and swim (if you can stand the 50-60 degree waters). Get there by driving the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway through the Pisgah National Forest, and stop at nearby Looking Glass Falls for pretty views on your way out.

5. Beaver Falls - Havasupai, Arizona

Beaver Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes Chris Ballance

Beaver Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes

Chris Ballance

 
Basking in this ethereal cathedral makes for a rewarding finale to an adventurous trip.
 

The journey to our next destination isn’t as snappy as the 20-minute drive from Brevard to Sliding Rock, but in this case, getting to Beaver Falls—the most remote of the Havasupai falls—is part of the allure. First, make your way to Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead, a four-hour drive from Flagstaff, Arizona. Next, journey to Supai Village by foot, horse, mule train or helicopter. From there, an eight-mile hike along the Havasupai Canyon leads explorers through a lush respite from the ochre surroundings, past three larger waterfalls, and finally to a dazzling topaz landscape punctuated by travertine rock formations. The falls once loomed 50 feet high, but were destroyed a century ago in a great flood. Today, they're an enchanting set of smaller, watery terraces with blue-green pools in between where fairies and elves bathe when the humans are away...or maybe that’s just our imaginations. Either way, basking in this ethereal cathedral makes for a rewarding finale to an adventurous trip.

6. Jacob’s Well - Wimberley, Texas

Jacob's Well - Hidden Swimming Holes Patrick Lewis

Jacob's Well - Hidden Swimming Holes

Patrick Lewis

 

Jacob's Well provides a refreshing break from the unyielding summer heat for toasty Texans and melting tourists alike. Equally alluring, mysterious and creepy, the natural artesian spring is just 12 feet in diameter, so jumping into it is like jumping into a kiddie pool—a 100-foot-deep kiddie pool, if you will (FYI, jumping into the well from up high is technically forbidden by the Hays County Park Department). It also attracts free divers divers who arrive on the regular to explore its series of underwater caves with dangerously narrow openings. But when temperatures push 100 degrees under the August sun, it doesn't take a daredevil to be allured by this gently rippling spring an hour southwest of Austin—and you certainly don't need diving gear to make the most of an afternoon there. Catch some rays with your toes underwater in the surrounding Cypress Creek while you work up the nerve to dunk.

7. Falling Water Falls - Ben Hur, Arkansas

Falling Water Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes Steve Brigman

Falling Water Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes

Steve Brigman

 

Blink and you'll miss this 10-foot waterfall tucked away in Arkansas’ Ozark National Forest. To get there, drive along Falling Water Creek down Forest Service Road 1205 and pull over at the roadside turnout, where gushing water will be visible from your car. Tucked in a beautiful wooded area, the diminutive but wide falls spill over a rock overhang into a spacious swimming hole, perfect for a summertime swim. Duck under the cascades for a quick shower if you're still smelly from camping last night. The falls are at their mightiest during spring, but are especially picturesque when framed in fall's yellow, red and orange foliage. 

8. Pools of ‘Ohe’o - Hana, Hawaii

Pools of 'Ohe'o - Hidden Swimming Holes Joe Parks

Pools of 'Ohe'o - Hidden Swimming Holes

Joe Parks

 

Tiered like an intricate wedding cake, cascades stream down layers of rocks into these gorgeous blue-green pools. Located in Maui’s ‘Ohe’o Gulch and surrounded by lush rainforest, the Pools of ‘Ohe’o are pretty close to what we imagine Xanadu might look like. Find them on the eastern side of the island about 10 miles south of Hana. This is a popular spot for sweaty hikers and cliff jumpers, but keep in mind that jumping off is officially prohibited here. Pro tip: Arrive in the morning to avoid crowds. For a moment of relative solitude, hike the 1.8-mile Pipiwai Trail. It begins at the pools, meanders through tropical jungles, bamboo forests and arrives at the base of the 400-foot-high Waimoku Falls.

9. Opal Pool - Jawbone Flats, Oregon

Opal Pool - Hidden Swimming Holes Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center

Opal Pool - Hidden Swimming Holes

Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center

 

Less than two hours from Portland lies a dense, old-growth forest speckled with rusting machinery from long-gone logging days. Hike (walk, really) about three miles from the Opal Pool-Cedar Flats trailhead, where you’ll reach the reach the crystal-clear Opal Pool just beyond the depression-era mining town of Jawbone Flats. Take a refreshing dip beneath a towering canopy of 500-year-old trees and the 30-foot Opal Pool Falls, where Opal Creek cuts a 100-yard-long chasm through the bedrock and splashes into to the pool. Between the rich hues of the forest above and the brilliant shades of moss along the water’s edge, this sylvan hamlet reminds us of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

10. Aztec Falls - San Bernardino, California

Aztec Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes Jonathan

Aztec Falls - Hidden Swimming Holes

Jonathan

 

Nestled among towering boulders, a lively atmosphere of reveling locals often greets visitors at this popular rock-jumping spot a short hike from Lake Arrowhead—but don't be discouraged if you prefer a more secluded bonding moment with nature. Encounter several tranquil falls and swimming areas on the hike towards Aztec Falls, an equally-awesome back-up plan on days when the jumping crowd is especially rowdy. Alternatively, if you can’t beat the belly-floppers and cannon-ballers, join them!

Not all of us are lucky enough to live near the ocean, but that doesn't mean we're limited to chlorine-filled pools when the weather calls for a refreshing dip. Keep this list of heavenly swimming holes handy—they’ll turn those face-melting days into chilled-out memories.  

Erika Prins

Erika Prins Simonds has a serious sock tan. When she's not exploring the Pacific Northwest by bike, car or foot, she writes about outdoor recreation, politics and people. Read more of her work at erikaprins.com.

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