America's BestSwimming HolesARIZONA
League Of Its Own
Just the best swimming hole in the world. Caribbean-blue water roars from a spring, 29,600 gallons a minute and 68 degrees. The main falls is well over a hundred feet high, a torrent of shocking blue rushing from red rock in the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Call ahead for a permit ($20).
Height: 5; depth: 5; privacy: 0.
Bonus: Trippy travertine pools.
Location: About 170 miles northwest of Flagstaff. From Flagstaff, take I-40 west for 71 miles to Seligman. Drive 28 miles northwest on State Road 66, then turn right on Indian Road 18 and drive 68 miles to the parking area at a mesa called Haulapai Hilltop. A trail descends for 9 miles and 2,350 vertical feet to the falls.
It's not a practical there-and-back day trip unless you're a hardcore trailrunner. Overnight gear and permit required.
Contact: Havasupai Indian Reservation (928-448-2121).
No Turning Back
Water flowing from the Salome Wilderness in Tonto National Forest creates a series of plunge pools that stretches like a half-mile string of emeralds through saguaro-topped granite walls, ending in a 30-foot jump. The scramble down is steep, with no trail. And once you leap in, there's no turning back.
Height: 5; depth: 5; privacy: 4.
Bonus: A water-carved rock looks just like a woman lying on her side.
Location: About 130 miles northeast of Phoenix. From the intersection of US 60 and SR 117 in Superior, drive east on US 60 19.8 mi to SR 88. Turn north on SR 88 for 14.6 mi to SR 188. Drive northwest on SR 188 for 28.4 mi to A-Cross Rd. Go east 9.2 mi to Trail #61. Descend 2 mi past a corral and through a cowboy gate. About 200 feet farther on, turn toward the creek to locate a concrete slab. Scramble down 25 feet of steep granite to the start The exit is on river right from a long pool at the bottom of the narrows. It's a steep scramble with no trail. Best scout it first.
Requires a short, but genuine canyoneering approach. Once you commit, the only way out is through the bottom. Expect swimming and 30-foot drops, with a steep and unmarked scramble to an exit trail.
Contact: Tonto National Forest (602-225-5200; www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto).
Ledge of Magnificence
In the Wet Beaver Wilderness of Coconino National Forest, red sandstone walls 25 feet high surround a pot of water that can be downright icy—it originates at 6,000 feet. A terrific three-foot wafer of rock overhangs the deep end. (And I swear I'm not making up the name.)
Height: 3; depth: 3; privacy: 3.
Bonus: West-facing ledges offer prime afternoon lounging.
Location: About 210 miles north of Phoenix. From Camp Verde, in central Arizona, take I-17 north for 11 miles. Drive 4.2 miles east on Forest Road 618 and park just before the ranger station. Hike 3 miles east along the Bell Trail. At the stream crossing, look up the canyon, and you'll see the Crack.
The approach is along a well-maintained trail suitable for children.
Contact: Coconino National Forest (928-527-3600; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino).
The Big Plunge
If Aztec Falls were a ski area, it would be Squaw Valley—steep and deep. The cataract is on Deep Creek in San Bernardino National Forest, and this swimming hole has amazing vertical: The sissy ledge is 30 feet high; the big one tops out at near 60. Surrounded by smooth rock and rich green conifers.
Height: 5; depth: 5; privacy: 3.
Bonus: Good side trip off the Pacific Crest Trail.
Location: About 30 miles northeast of San Bernardino. From San Bernardino, take State Road 18 north and then east for 18 miles to Crest Park. Drive 3.1 miles north on State Road 173 through Lake Arrowhead to Hook Creek Road. Travel 3 miles east on Hook Creek, then bear left a short distance on Squint Ranch Road to a right-hand descent that leads .45 miles to Splinter's Cabin and access to the Pacific Crest Trail. Hike .4 miles north (downstream) on the PCT to Aztec.
A short walk on the Pacific Coast Trail.
Contact: San Bernardino National Forest (909-383-5588; www.r5.fs.fed.us/sanbernardino).
Located in Tahoe National Forest just above the Middle Yuba River, Mushroom Hole takes its name from the shiitake-shaped rock that dominates it. At about 30 feet, it's one of the northern Sierra's most popular leaps.
Height: 5; depth: 5; privacy: 3.
Bonus: If you're offended by nudity, this is about the only Sierra swimming hole where you can avoid it—you would have to be a fool to go commando off this cliff.
Location: About 80 miles northeast of Sacramento. From Sacramento, take I-80 east for 36 miles to Auburn; head 28 miles north on State Road 49 to Nevada City, then continue north for another 14 miles on State Road 49. Cross the bridge over the Middle Yuba River and take an immediate left on Moonshine Creek Road. Drive a mile and park, making sure not to block any driveways. (There is lots of private property hereabouts, so obey signs.) Look for a trail on the left that will take you down to the river. About a half mile downsteam is an overused hole named Strawberry; continue another 250 yards to Mushroom.
Steep downhill climb to the trail, then a half-mile riverside hike to Strawberry and 250-yards to Mushroom. Wear tennis shoes or sturdy sandals for traction and watch for poison oak.
Contact: Tahoe National Forest (530-265-4531; www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe).
Free and Clear
Named it myself for the shape of a large rock at the confluence of Smith River and Buck Creek in Six Rivers National Forest. The water here is so clear that if you dropped a freshly minted quarter ten feet to the bottom you'd still be able to read the date.
Height: 1; depth: 3; privacy: 4.
Bonus: Located on California's only free-flowing river.
Location: About 25 miles east of Crescent City, near the Oregon line. From Crescent City, head 6.8 miles east on U.S. 199 and turn south onto County Road 427 (South Fork Road). After 13.5 miles, turn east onto Forest Service Road 15 N39 and continue 2.7 miles. Park at the South Kelsey Trailhead. Descend 300 vertical feet to the South Fork of the Smith River. You can walk the trail 1.5 miles upstream to Turtle Island, but it's more fun to walk the distance along the river.
A 1.5-mile approach along a marked, well-maintained trail.
Contact: Smith River National Recreation Area (707-457-3131; www.fs.fed.us/r5/sixrivers/recreation/smith-river).
Sand and Seclusion
Not very big, not terribly deep, but a perfect triangle of water in Yosemite National Park where you can idle away a summer day. Has sand pockets for lounging, a low rock for jumping, and lots of shade.
Height: 3; depth: 3; privacy: 3.
Bonus: Uncrowded retreat in one of America's favorite parks.
Location: About 20 miles east of Yosemite's Big Oak Flat entrance on Tioga Road (Route 120). From Yosemite's Big Oak Flat entrance, take State Road 120 (Tioga Road) 20 miles to the parking area for Yosemite Creek and the Ten Lakes Trail. Descend on the west side of the creek three-quarters of a mile to a crossing. After crossing, angle west, go a quarter mile through boulders to a wooded terrance. The pool is below the terrace. Alternately, you can go upstream from the Yosemite Creek Campground, but everything in the park is so congested that entering from above is preferable.
A short approach along the riverbank, with no special difficulties.
Contact: Yosemite National Park (209-372-0200; www.nps.gov/yose).
New England Classic
The West Branch of the Pleasant River flowing through the Katahdin Ironworks Jo-Mary Forest has gouged a canyon with four basins, ranging from excellent to classic. Buttermilk Falls is the best: It's a big hole flooded with sun—which is a good thing, because the water is New England brisk.
Height: 4; depth: 4; privacy: 2.
Bonus: A great spur trip off the Appalachian Trail.
Location: About 75 miles northwest of Bangor. In Bangor, from the junction of I-95 and State Road 15, go north on I-95 for 14.1 miles to exit 53. Drive 24.1 miles north on State Road 16 to the town of Milo. From Milo, continue north on State Road 11 for 12.5 miles. Turn onto the Katahdin Ironworks Road and go 6.6 miles to the Gulf Hagas parking lot. Hike 1.5 miles north on the AT to the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, then west 1.3 miles to Buttermilk Falls.
Nearly three miles on a well-marked trail into a steep, brushy descent.
Contact: North Maine Woods (207-435 6213; www.northmainewoods.org/ki-jo).
There's a great pool where the East Fork of the Black River swirls through a trough of ancient rock in Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. Jumping off the daredevil-tempting 40-foot rock face will definitely win you a citation—from park rangers. Warning: A paved walkway invites crowds.
Height: 3; depth: 4; privacy: 0.
Bonus: Two good climbing crags at riverside, open just after Labor Day until just before Memorial Day.
Location: About 130 miles southwest of St. Louis. From Farmington, take U.S. 67 south to Exit W (the town is called Doe Run). Go southwest 17 miles on County Road W until you reach a three-way intersection with a flashing red light. Turn right on State Road 21, drive a half mile, then turn left on County Road N. It's 13 miles to the park entrance.
A quarter-mile paved walkway makes it suitable for families.
Contact: Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park (573-546-2450; www.mostateparks.com/jshutins.htm).
Hudson River Refuge
At the top of the Hudson River Gorge in Adirondack Park—the start of what might arguably be the finest 13 miles of the Hudson—a sharp bend creates an arc running 200 feet below lightly forested rock walls.
Height: 4; depth: 3; privacy: 3.
Bonus: A sandy beach.
Location: About 40 miles northwest of Lake George. Drive nine miles north of Lake George on U.S. 9. Go 16.3 miles on State Road 28, to the town of North Creek. Turn right on State Road 28N, go 9.45 miles, then turn left on North Woods Club Road and proceed another 6.5 miles. Approaching Huntley Pond, look for the trailhead on the left. Hike .65 mile to a creek, cross a footbridge, and climb 200 feet. Then go east a half mile and descend 300 feet to the river.
A breeze of a walk from North Woods Club Road.
Contact: Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center (518-582-2000; www.northnet.org/adirondackvic).
God's Own Water Slide
In Nantahala National Forest, you'll find a stretch of the Horsepasture River where the bed becomes a flat sheet of rock, descending into a cylinder that drops 12 feet into a deep catch basin. Bring a rope and tie it to a tree to make it easier to get back up.
Height: 3; depth: 4; privacy: 1.
Bonus: That slide!
Location: About 65 miles southwest of Asheville. From Brevard, drive 8.3 miles southwest on U.S. 64 past the town of Rosman, then another 9.5 miles to State Road 281. Drive three-quarters of a mile south to Gorges State Park. Park the car, walk back to the state road and walk south about 40 yards, then turn left down the gated road. After a short distance, you'll see an abandoned road; turn right. Follow the road down to the river. The falls are less than 100 yards downstream. (From the state road the total walking distance is less than a mile, with a drop of about 400 vertical feet.)
On a steep dirt road: Beware of slick rocks.
Contact: Highlands Ranger District, Nantahala National Forest (828-526-3765; www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc).
Painted in the primary colors of the Southwest—red rock, green water, blue sky—this hole in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area has big ledges that are perfect for sunning. (I couldn't find an agreed-upon moniker for it, so I named it myself—inspired by my favorite Patsy Montana song.)
Height: 3; depth: 3; privacy: 4.
Bonus: Definitely among the prettiest places I have ever been.
Location: About 14 miles southeast of Hite on Lake Powell in southern Utah. From Hite, drive a quarter mile east on State Road 95 to County Road 208A. Go southeast for 7.5 miles to County Road 209A. Head a mile southeast on County Road 209A, then turn northeast (still on County Road 209A) and go about 2.5 miles to a butte and prominent spire called Squaw and Papoose Rock. Park, then walk a mile over the mesa to intersect the Sundance Trail. Follow markers 1.5 miles east to the drop-off. Descend the gully about 1,000 vertical feet. Walk down canyon 1.2 miles to the swimming hole.
Although routinely traveled by backpackers, the approach is a steep, hour-long descent down a gully that may deter more casual visitors. Expect third-class scrambling—expect some bouldering—and bring extra water or a filter.
Contact: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (928-608-6404; www.nps.gov/glca).
This hole on the West Branch of the Little River in Smugglers Notch State Park is Yosemite-class, the sort you'd expect to find in the Sierra backcountry. There's a little too much surrounding geometry in the form of rock falls, but it makes the setting seem rugged—and life is not always a smooth sandstone ledge, my friends.
Height: 3; depth: 3; privacy: 2.
Bonus: A great south-facing sunning rock; perfect for couples.
Location: Six miles northwest of Stowe. From Stowe, drive 6.4 miles northwest on State Road 108 (Mountain Road) toward Smugglers Notch State Park. The trail descends from the eastern side of the road, opposite the parking area. It's .2 mile to the river; turn right at the falls.
Descend 40 vertical feet along a path skirting the edge of the falls. Otherwise, close to the highway.
Contact: Smugglers Notch State Park (802-253-4014; www.vtstateparks.com).
Oh, You're Jumping
St. Marys River
Rambling through rocky terrain in George Washington and Jefferson National Forest is a trail that dead-ends on a ledge 12 feet above the river, opposite St. Marys Falls—and then insists you jump into the gorgeous water below. The instructions are clear: You walk here, you leap in.
Height: 2; depth: 3; privacy: 2.
Bonus: Excellent shade.
Location: About 35 miles west of Charlottesville. From the intersection of I-64 and U.S. 11, just below Staunton, drive 7.8 miles south on U.S. 11 to Steeles Tavern. Proceed south on State Road 56 for one mile to County Road 608, then east two miles to Cold Springs Road. Make a right and drive a third of a mile to St. Marys Road, then another right and go 1.3 miles to the trailhead. The hike is 1.9 miles.
Hike a well maintained trail, then leap 12 feet into the pool below.
Contact: Glenwood-Pedler Ranger District, George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (540-291-2188; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj).
Summer Beach Party
On northern West Virginia's Big Sandy Creek, right above the Cheat River, is a swimming hole so enormous you could land a float plane in it. Edging it is a beach big enough for a party—and it's probably seen a few. The one hitch: You have to swim to reach the sand.
Height: 3; depth: 4; privacy: 1.
Bonus: Local college kids elevate the abs-and-bikini factor.
Location: About 15 miles southeast of Morgantown, in northern West Virginia. Take State Road 7 southeast from Morgantown 13 miles to Masontown. Go a mile east on County Road 23. Turn north on County Road 21, toward Bull Run. That will get you down to the Cheat River. Cross a sketchy single-lane bridge, and you'll find the parking area a couple of hundred yards uphill. Follow the trail less than 100 yards east to the swimming hole. The land is owned by Allegheny Energy, but the public can pass through.
A short but steep approach; beware of broken glass from shattered beer bottles.
Contact: Friends of the Cheat (304-329-3621; www.cheat.org).