It’s one of the few things guaranteed to make you feel like a kid again: the swimming hole. Usually a natural oasis requiring some effort to reach, these bodies of water are known to wash away all worries on a hot day.
North Carolina has dozens of these natural pools. The better known – the Sliding Rocks and Skinny Dip Falls – typically lie at the base of a cascade in the mountains. But our coast and central region also have their share of hidden pools where the escape is just as refreshing.
1 Deep Creek
1 Deep CreekBryson CitySee on map
Grab an inner tube at a number of rental locations near the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, carry it less than a mile on the Deep Creek Trail, and choose whether you want your ride to be relaxing and lazy or wild and bouncy. The upper whitewater section ends at a wide, deep swimming hole, while the lower, smoother section ends at the parking lot.
2 Hunt-Fish Falls
2 Hunt-Fish FallsWilson CreekSee on map
The Wilson Creek area serves as the drainage to massive Grandfather Mountain; that alone should suggest water aplenty. Add to that the rugged terrain at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and there are bountiful waterfalls, many of which conclude in deep pools. One of the bigger, more accessible pools is at Hunt-Fish Falls, a 0.75-mile hike down from pullout parking off Milepost FS 464. Even on the hottest days, this pool is cold at the surface – dive 3 or 4 feet down for a truly lung-squeezing thrill. A spacious rock slab with good exposure offers quick drying and warming.
3 Skinny Dip Falls, Pisgah National Forest
3 Skinny Dip Falls, Pisgah National ForestBlue Ridge Parkway Milepost 417See on map
The Blue Ridge Parkway between N.C. Highways 276 and 215 is loaded with waterfalls and pools, the best known of which is Skinny Dip Falls. Though its name might be part of the allure, you won’t be disappointed after your 20-minute hike down to find swimmers appropriately clothed. You’ll also find a high mountain creek, Yellowstone Prong, playfully cutting through a Southern Appalachian hardwood forest, pausing here and there to form inviting splash pools. It’s another must-try for your North Carolina natural swimming hole checklist.
4 Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area
4 Carolina Hemlocks Recreation AreaBurnsvilleSee on map
Could there be such a thing as a tubing and swimming hole resort? There is: the Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area, which sits on a stretch of the South Toe River that has a large number of great places to wallow in the bracing waters that drain from the Black Mountains. It’s also the highest mountain range in the East with elevations approaching 6,700 feet. Wander through the Carolina Hemlocks Campground, home to more than 30 campsites, where you can expect lots of people, but lots of options as well.
5 Schoolhouse Falls, Panthertown Valley
5 Schoolhouse Falls, Panthertown ValleyCashiersSee on map
You have to hike in about a mile and a half for this hole, but it’s a scenic hike, taking you past towering hemlocks and rock outcrops in an area described as the Yosemite of the East. The payoff is well worth it: Schoolhouse Falls is a picturesque curtain of water dropping 20 feet into a luxurious pool, at the far side of which is a sand beach. You might appreciate the gentle incline that introduces you to the cold water. Fed by the Tuckasegee River, it’s possible to walk behind the falls at lower flows.
6 Sliding Rock, Pisgah National Forest
6 Sliding Rock, Pisgah National ForestBrevardSee on map
The true joy of Sliding Rock is standing in the spectator area where this smooth rock waterslide empties into a small pool and watching the surprised swimmers emerge from the cold bath. It’s usually all smiles going into the 7-foot-deep pool, and a teeth-chattering look on faces coming out. Located on the upper reaches of the Davidson River (rent a tube and float the river several miles downstream), this is a definite must-do. Seasonal operation, with bathhouse and lifeguard. A small admission fee applies.
7 Bust Your Butt Falls
7 Bust Your Butt FallsHighlandsSee on map
As is evident by now, the names of many North Carolina swimming holes are creatively explanatory (and remind you to be careful). Bust Your Butt Falls is a natural pool of water that is very accessible – it can literally be seen from the road, and a parking area is nearby. Lined by boulders, water flows in from the Cullasaja River. After going for a swim, dry off during a hike to see Bridal Veil Falls, Dry Falls or High Falls.
8 Sennett Hole, West Point on the Eno City Park
8 Sennett Hole, West Point on the Eno City ParkDurhamSee on map
When you romanticize about the perfect swimming hole, you likely envision a deep, cool pool you have to hike a bit to get to, a hidden spot off the beaten path. Sennett Hole might not be a secret, but the mile-long hike in gives that impression. This Olympic-size swimming hole, rimmed by sycamores, rock and a waterfall, enables you to dive as much as 8 feet under to encounter chilling waters. Stretch out on a chaise lounge rock to dry away the chill, and repeat as often as time allows.
9 Hanging Rock State Park
9 Hanging Rock State ParkDanburySee on map
Hanging Rock is where residents in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas go when they want a brief mountain escape but don't have time for the drive. Though the park tops out below 3,000 feet, that’s still 1,500 feet above the surrounding countryside. That elevation coupled with lots of rock outcrop gives a Blue Ridge feel to this central aerie. In the middle of it all is a 12-acre lake with a beach, dive platform and bathhouse. Cool as the lake’s waters are, the alpine quality makes them feel 10 degrees cooler. Open during the summer. Admission fee applies.
10 Morrow Mountain State Park
10 Morrow Mountain State ParkAlbemarleSee on map
Yes, technically this is a cement pond. And while the pool itself is modern, the bathhouse and surrounding facilities were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the Works Progress Administration. The gray stone architecture gives the pool a throwback feel, to summer camps of the 1940s and ’50s, when going for a swim was the only way to beat the stifling heat. There’s a certain timeless joy that’s part of the Morrow Mountain swimming experience.
11 Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
11 Cliffs of the Neuse State ParkSeven SpringsSee on map
On a hot day, you might dream of diving into a mountain lake and being embraced by the sobering chill. But you don’t have to drive to the mountains for a cold plunge – head over to Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, where the manmade, 11-acre lake, surrounded by a sand beach and ring of towering hardwoods, offers alpine escape, especially after working up a glow hiking the park’s 2-plus miles of trail. It’s a great place for the family to cool off from Memorial Day through Labor Day. A concession stand and bathhouse might seal the deal for the wilderness averse. Admission fee applies.
12 Jones Lake State Park
12 Jones Lake State ParkElizabethtownSee on map
Start your visit to Jones Lake with a 4-mile hike around the perimeter of the lake, checking out the varied topography, from pine savannah to wetland peppered with Spanish moss-draped pond cypress and scrubby leatherwood plants. Then enjoy a dip into the mysterious, tea-colored waters of the lake. The tannic waters create an eerie subterranean-world feel when you go under, but rest assured this is some of the cleanest water you’ll swim; the 224-acre Carolina bay lake is fed by a series of springs. The ample, white sand beach is ideal for sunning. Open during the summer. Admission fee applies.
Please exercise caution and obey all rules and warnings posted near waterfalls and swimming holes. The rocks around these bodies of water are often slippery, and the currents can be very strong. Take care, be safe and enjoy.