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Adventure, Travel / July 28, 2014

America’s 5 best swimming holes

Written by: Molly McCowan

To many of us, swimming holes are part of a now outdated version of Americana. In the age of suburban development and public pools, hitting the swimming hole feels as anachronistic as trading baseball cards or reading the newspaper.

But some truly great swimming holes still exist on America’s public lands—they just take some work to get to. So next time the mercury spikes, lace up your hiking boots and hit one these five chlorine alternatives.

Havasu Falls, Arizona

It's not the Instagram filter---high levels of calcium carbonate give the water of Havasu Falls an electric turquoise hue. Photo by The Bei Posti.

Beside Havasu Falls is Supai Indian Village, a community so remote its mail is packed in on mules. Photo by Jon Roig.

Tucked away at the end of a 10-mile out-and-back trail in Grand Canyon National Park, the 70-degree Havasu Falls pool is arguably the best swimming hole in the country. Most hikers backpack down to the falls and camp overnight to relax and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

If you go: You’ll need to pay the $35 park entrance fee, plus $17 per night for camping. Advance registration is required (and available online). Once you reach Supai Village (eight miles into the hike), stop at the tourist office to check in.

Getting there: From Flagstaff, take I-40 west to exit 121 (Route 66). Follow Route 66 until you reach the exit for Indian Rd. 18. Follow Indian Rd. 18 north for 65 miles until you reach the Hualapai Hilltop parking area and trailhead.


Cummins Falls, Tennessee

The natural stone "steps" at the base of Cummins Falls make it a prize for photographers. But get up early if you want this shot---bathers often walk all the way up to the falls themselves. Photo by Benton Rogers.

Think of Cummins Falls as the Havasu of the South. The amphitheatre-like 75-foot waterfall cascades over natural stone steps into a deep, cold-water pool. The 3.2-mile out-and-back trail is moderately difficult and fairly adventurous, with a steep descent down a rocky cliff.

If you go: Due to the steepness of the descent, this trail may not be best for small children or dogs. Wear grippy water shoes—there are slippery creek crossings on the way to the swimming hole.

Getting there: From Cookeville, take TN-290 northwest for 6.6 miles. Turn right onto Cummins Mills Rd. and drive to the entrance of Cummins Falls State Park.


Quarry Park, Minnesota

Still moments are rare at Melrose Deep 7, but they do exist. Photo by Andrew Ciscel.

Visiting Quarry Park in mid-summer? Expect a party. Photo courtesy of Quarry Park.

Remember all those ’80s movies where the main characters took a dip in the local quarry? Well, that’s not all nostalgia. Minnesota’s Quarry Park and Nature Preserve features an easy 2.6-mile loop trail if you want to hike around and see many of the different pools, one of which is open to swimming.

If you go: Only Quarry #2 (commonly called “Melrose Deep 7”) is open to swimming. We recommend jumping from the surrounding cliffs, but be sure to watch for rock outcroppings. Daily parking permits are $5.

Getting there: From St. Cloud, take W. St. Germain St. south until you reach County Rd. 137. Take a right and drive for about 2 miles until you see the sign for the park entrance.


Meadow Run, Pennsylvania

Meadow Run itself is a 100 foot long natural waterslide. Photo by daveynin.

The hike to Meadow Run also passes the 35-foot Cucumber Falls. Photo by Nicolas Raymond.

This easy 4.2-mile loop trail in Ohiopyle State Park near Pittsburgh features a 100-foot natural waterslide and a 35-foot waterfall, Cucumber Falls. Need we say more?

If you go: Wear water shoes and cutoff jeans to protect your more sensitive bits from the sandpapery rock as you careen down the waterslide. Entrance to the park is free.

Getting there: From Pittsburgh, take I-76 east until you reach the exit for PA-381/PA-711. Take this road south until you reach Ohiopyle Rd., then take a right and drive to the park entrance.


Three Sisters Falls, California

The lowest of three wading/swimming pools at Three Sisters Falls. Photo by Ryan Bradford.

This one is a challenge. The 4-mile out-and-back trail is recommended for experienced hikers only, but the payoff is worth it. The trail is mostly uphill until you reach the summit, but offers beautiful views of the surrounding valley. Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with three levels of pools connected by waterfalls.

If you go: No entrance fee. This is an unofficial trail, and it requires traversing some tricky terrain. Bring lots of water.

Getting there: From Descanso, take Oak Grove Dr. 1.6 miles until you reach Boulder Creek Rd. Turn right onto Boulder Creek Rd., following it north for 13 miles to a hairpin turn where Cedar Creek Rd. joins from the west. The trailhead starts here.

about the author

Molly McCowan

Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her love for travel sees her globe-trotting whenever she can, and she seeks out experiences that are off the beaten path so she can immerse herself in new cultures. She speaks fluent Spanish, so she’s almost always planning a trip to somewhere in Latin America. She also lived in Spain for a while, and backpacked across Europe on a shoestring budget. She hikes, camps, goes four-wheeling in her old Jeep Wrangler, and fly fishes in the mountains of Colorado regularly.

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