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Thursday, August 19, 2010

America's Best Swimming Holes

By Alice Bruneau
Havasu Falls, Arizona


Standing in the sunshine on the rocky bank, with rivulets of cool water dripping from your hair and swimsuit, you wait your turn at the base of the old oak. You’re up. You grip the fraying rope, get a running start, swing out over the pool of clear water, and release. Cannonball!

In summertime, when the mercury taunts the tip of the thermometer like an angry red fist, the best place to cool down is an old-fashioned swimming hole. These often-secluded natural pools are the perfect antidote to crowded pools with zinc-covered teenage lifeguards or water parks with $8 hot dogs. And they offer a dose of not-yet-forgotten Americana, where sunny days are measured by best friends and belly flops.

Swimming holes are where we shrug off responsibilities and play with the enthusiastic zeal of a child. They’re also places where we come of age. In The Man in the Moon, 14-year-old Dani (Reese Witherspoon) has her first kiss with the gorgeous 17-year-old neighbor (Jason London)—and subsequently learns her first lessons in love—down at the swimming hole.

Pancho Doll, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times, is something of an aficionado. For his first book, Day Trips with a Splash: Swimming Holes of California, Doll logged 25,000 miles in his truck searching the state for the best, from the Oregon state line to San Diego County. He has since penned a whole series that chronicles the best freshwater spots across the country. This is a man who knows a thing or two about taking a dip. “The Holy Trinity of swimming-hole quality is height, depth, and privacy,” says Doll. “Surrounding rock provides a sense of enclosure, often a nice slab inclined for summer repose, even a ledge to jump from.”

And what says “swimming hole” more than an old-fashioned rope swing? At the cypress-studded Blue Hole in Wimberley, TX, three such swings hang from burly tree limbs. Drop in with the Austinites who come to float on inner tubes and picnic on the grassy banks.

While these natural oases might seem most at home in the South, you’ll find swimming holes across the country. At Peekamoose Blue Hole in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, dappled light bounces off leafy canopies and swimmers submerge themselves in the cool waters like an invigorating summer baptism.

So grab your swimsuit, a towel, and a pair of water shoes, and jump in at some of our favorite swimming holes. Last one in’s a rotten egg!

Little River Canyon, Alabama

Jon McLean/Alamy

Little River Canyon, AL

In northeastern Alabama, the Little River snakes across the top of Lookout Mountain before plummeting into the 12-mile-long Little River Canyon. Bordered by broad-faced cliffs, with large blocks of sandstone jutting from the water, this canyon—at 600 feet, the deepest this side of the Mississippi—is home to a handful of perfect swimming holes. Just downstream from the Alabama Highway 35 bridge, follow the short paved path to the bottom of Little River Falls for an easy-access dunk when water levels are low. (High water means dangerous currents.) Or start at Eberhart Point and hike 0.75 miles to the canyon floor to Hippy Hole, where rope swings dangle from trees and a series of cliffs serve as springboards for daredevils.

Havasu Falls, Arizona


Havasu Falls, Supai, AZ

There’s off the beaten path. And then there’s Havasu Falls—located a mile and a half outside the Havasupai Indian village of Supai, on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The only way to get here is to charter a helicopter, hike a steep 10 miles, or hire a pack animal. (The U.S. Post Office still uses mules to make mail deliveries to the village.) And you’ll need a permit ($20). But boy, is it worth it. A torrent of water streams across the sunburnt rock face of the Grand Canyon’s south rim, collecting in a pool 100 feet below. The water, so turquoise it looks like it’s on loan from the Caribbean, stays about 72 degrees year-round and is perfect for lazy floating or practicing your belly flop. And with such a schlep to get here, you don’t have to fight the crowds for a prime sunning spot. Yeah, it’s pretty much the best swimming hole ever.

Carlon Falls, Yosemite National Park, CA

En route to Hetch Hetchy, pull off winding Evergreen Road at the South Fork Tuolumne River for a mostly flat, two-mile hike to this rare year-round waterfall. Bordered by towering ponderosa pines, with meadows of purple lupine and small bright sunflowers nearby, this secret swimming hole is rarely visited by Yosemite pilgrims. The 35-foot falls cascades over wide granite ledges into a boulder-strewn pool, where, most of the time, the birds in the canopy and the whoosh of rushing water are the only other sounds you’ll hear. Exactly how a good swimming hole should be.

Redfish Lake, Idaho

George and Monserrate Schwartz/Alamy

Redfish Lake, Stanley, ID

In an area where salmon outnumber people, Redfish Lake, outside Stanley (population: 106), is a jaw-dropping example of why you explore the backcountry. Legend has it, there were once so many sockeye salmon spawning in the lake that it appeared red. Hence the name. Now it’s better known for its vast bird population, including peregrine falcons and songbirds like yellow-flecked Townsend’s warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. Laze on the south-shore beach for staggering views of the snowcapped Sawtooth Range reflected in the pristine waters. Once you’ve been here, the words “untouched wilderness” will have a whole new meaning.

Echo Lake, Mount Desert Island, ME

On Mount Desert Island, fingerlike fjords carved by glaciers define the rugged salt-licked coastline. But in the southwestern interior, the beach at Echo Lake (about 20 minutes from Bar Harbor) slopes gently into deep blue fresh water. At its deepest, the placid lake is only 66 feet. And while it’s warmer than the shockingly cold northern Atlantic, temperatures rarely get above 55 degrees. We recommend working up a sweat on the Beech Mountain hiking trails, with bluffs and overlooks that perfectly frame the lake’s crescent-shaped gravel beach, before taking the polar bear plunge. Then hop back into town on the free Island Explorer Shuttle Bus, which makes hourly runs between the lake and the village green.

Johnson's Shut-Ins, Missouri

National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy

Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Reynolds County, MO

The East Fork of the Black River churns through a furrowed channel of rock at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in the Ozark Mountains. The “shut-ins” are areas where the river is blocked by smooth volcanic stone (formed eons ago) strewn throughout the stream, creating a series of small pools. Going from eddy to eddy can be a wet-and-wild obstacle course through cascading streams, deep pools, and shallow pockets. But don’t expect to have it to yourself. With a quarter-mile paved walkway, and located just two hours from St. Louis, Johnson’s Shut-Ins is Missouri’s unofficial state water park.

Peekamoose Blue Hole, Sundown, NY

If this place doesn’t remind you of old Mountain Dew ads, you’re probably part of the Twilight generation. You know the ones—groups of beautiful young people playing in the summer sun, jumping into water, popping open a can of the electric yellow soda, while a singer reminds us that “being cool is a state of mind.” In the middle of a Catskills forest, Rondout Creek pours through a rock gap to create a deep swimming hole worthy of such rowdy camaraderie. Think jackknifes and cannonballs. The I-live-for-summer rope swing dangles over the deepest end and practically begs to be used. To find the Peekamoose Blue Hole (and your inner Brad Pitt), follow New York Route 28A to West Shoken.

Sliding Rock, North Carolina

George and Monserrate Schwartz/Alamy

Sliding Rock, Brevard, NC

Think of this angled rock face as nature’s original waterslide. Smoothed by centuries of flowing water, the 60-foot boulder shoots bathers into the frigid Carolina mountain waters like they have buttered backsides. The well-known playground off Highway 276 in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest attracts everyone from local teenagers and young families to Blue Ridge Parkway road-trippers who line up to slide one-by-one into the cool 50-degree stream from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In the height of summer, lifeguards supervise the action. A word to the wise: smooth doesn’t mean perfectly flat. It is a rock, after all. Throw on an old pair of shorts to keep from snagging your swimsuit.

Cummins Falls, Cookeville, TN

About halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, Cummins Falls cascades 50 feet over wide stair-stepped rocks into a deep cold-water pool. It’s a hard-earned scramble to the bottom that involves hiking to the overlook, wading across the ankle-deep stream, climbing up to the ridge, and using a rope guide to walk yourself down to the water. This is not a swimming hole for lightweights. Translation: expect a younger crowd. But if you’re agile (and sure-footed), the descent into the cavernous pool is worth the effort.

The Blue Hole, Texas

Randy Green/Alamy

The Blue Hole, Wimberley, TX

In Texas, swimming holes are synonymous with summer. And the Blue Hole in Wimberley is probably the quintessential example. If Hollywood wanted to cast a swimming hole, it would take its cues from this one. Grassy banks offer prime picnic spots. Old-growth bald cypresses dot the water, casting welcome shade from the blazing southern sun. The cool spring-fed pool hosts a veritable parade of inner tubes on the weekends, when Austinites flock to the hole for an afternoon of lazy floating. Up for a little more action? The three rope swings should do it.