Nature’s Pool Party: North Carolina Swimming Holes

Nature’s Pool Party: North Carolina Swimming Holes

Discover for yourself why North Carolina is a natural playground

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 fountains of youth. The better-known – the Sliding Rocks and Skinny Dip Falls – typically lie at the base of a cascade in the Southern Appalachians. But the coast and central regions of our state also have their share of hidden pools where the escape is just as refreshing. Here are 11 swimming hole locations for an unforgettable experience.

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.

Mountains

Huntfish Falls
Wilson Creek
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 Huntfish Falls, a three-quarter-mile hike down from pullout parking off milepost FS 464. Even on the hottest days, this pool is cold at the surface – dive three or four feet down for a truly lung-squeezing thrill. A spacious rock slab with good exposure offers quick drying and warming. Not quite as glamorous as its Wilson Creek neighbor, Harper’s Creek Falls, but the access is considerably safer.

Snake Pit
Boone
The Boone area is rife with great swimming holes frequented by the locals, including college students from nearby Appalachian State. So you can expect to encounter a lively bunch, also seeking summertime relief. There’s Trash Can Falls on Laurel Creek, which one local website says is “home to a really sketchy creek jump.” If you want to steer clear of sketchy, then just across the road (US Highway 321) you’ll find Snake Pit on the Watauga River. Here, according to the same website, the river is wide, the water is deep, the fun not so sketchy.

Skinny Dip Falls, Pisgah National Forest
Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 417
The Blue Ridge Parkway between NC Highways 276 and 215 is loaded with waterfalls and pools, the best-known of which is Skinny Dip Falls. Though its name may 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.

Skinny Dip Falls swimming hole

Deep in the forest, Skinny Dip Falls tumbles into an emerald green pool

Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area (South Toe River)
Burnsville
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 36 campsites, where you can expect lots of people, but lots of options as well.

Panthertown Valley: Schoolhouse Falls
Cashiers
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.

Sliding Rock, Pisgah National Forest
Brevard
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. Admission fee applies.

Slide down Sliding Rock

Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority

Take the plunge down Sliding Rock, propelled by thousands of gallons of water per minute

Piedmont

Sennet Hole, West Point on the Eno City Park
Durham
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. Sennet Hole may 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.

Hanging Rock State Park
Danbury
Hanging Rock is where residents in the Triad and surrounding areas go when they want a brief mountain escape but haven’t the 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 Piedmont 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.

Hanging Rock waterfall pool

Water pools at the bottom of waterfalls in Hanging Rock State Park

Morrow Mountain State Park
Albemarle
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.

Coast

Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
Seven Springs
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 may seal the deal for the wilderness averse. Admission fee applies.

Jones Lake State Park
Elizabethtown
Start your visit to Jones Lake with a four-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.

North Carolina State Parks offer a variety of fun, leisure and adventurous activities in nature, but this also includes potential hazards. Take care, be safe and enjoy.

Joe Miller is the author of Adventure Carolinas and other guidebooks, and writes about health, fitness and adventure at GetGoingNC.com.

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