The South's Best Swimming Holes and Waterfalls
Aiken State Park, South Carolina
You can float, fish, hike, swim—and learn a little African-American history in the process—at this 1,067-acre natural area on the banks of the South Fork Edisto River east of Aiken. Underground springs fill the area’s four fishing and swimming lakes, while the river’s South Fork offers calm water for canoeing and kayaking. After a good splash, take a stroll along one of the hiking trails, where interpretive signs tell the story of the park’s unique beginnings: Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Aiken State Park was one of the few projects in the country completed entirely by an African-American detachment of the Depression-era public works program—and the workers’ construction skills are evident in several original structures located throughout the park.
Stay: The Willcox Hotel was built in the late 1800s, back when Aiken was known as the “Newport of the South.” Its guest roster has included Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Arden. Rates from $189
Plan Your Visit: Aiken State Park
Blackwater River, Florida
“Blackwater” is a misleading name for one of the country’s clearest rivers. Running through Northwest Florida, the Blackwater is smooth and sandy-bottomed, ideal for paddling a canoe or flopping onto an inner tube. At Blackwater River State Park (about 20 miles northeast of Milton), you can explore swimming holes and hiking trails on your own, or stop at the nearby Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center to sign up for one of the paddling or tubing trips down the Blackwater and its Coldwater Creek tributary.
Stay: The Summerwind Resort, at Navarre Beach (about 30 miles south of the park), offers condos with Gulf views and access to white-sand beaches. Rates from $122 (three-night minimum)
Bogue Chitto State Park, Louisiana
About an hour’s drive from the best wining and dining in Louisiana, you’ll find the state’s best trekking and tubing. Set on the banks of the Bogue Chitto River, this scenic park 65 miles north of New Orleans covers more than 1,000 acres of hardwood forests, cypress-tupelo swamps, and smooth- to swift-running water. Rent a canoe, kayak, or tube and take a floating trip down the river, or follow a boardwalk to Fricke’s Cave, a series of unusual sandstone formations rising above a river-bottom gorge.
Stay: Hilton Garden Inn Covington/Mandeville (about 25 miles away from the state park) features a fitness center and also has an on-site restaurant. Rates from $100
Plan Your Visit: Bogue Chitto State Park
Chau Ram Falls, South Carolina
More than 30 waterfalls tumble, rumble, and roar throughout South Carolina’s Upcountry region in the northwest corner of the state. One of the most beautiful and accessible is Chau Ram Falls, about 25 miles west of Clemson. The centerpiece of Chau Ram County Park, the waterfall forms as Ramsey Creek empties into the Chauga River then pours 40 feet downward onto smooth boulders. Catch pools at the bottom give adventurous swimmers a place to splash, or you can enjoy calmer waters near a beach on the river’s edge. A suspension bridge over the river offers access to easily hiked trails that lead to even more Upcountry waterfalls.
Stay: The James F. Martin Inn at Clemson University (about 25 miles from the park) offers rooms overlooking Lake Hartwell, as well as access to the university’s Walker Golf Course. Rates from $129
Plan Your Visit: Chau Ram County Park
Cummins Falls, Tennessee
You can sightsee, soak, or swim at these multilevel falls about 9 miles north of Cookeville. If all you want is a scenic view, head to the overlook a few yards from the gravel parking lot of Cummins Falls State Park where you can see the rushing waters cascade 75 feet into a deep gorge. Actually getting in the water here requires a rugged hike that includes steep elevation drops (not suitable for kids or flip-flops, so wear sturdy shoes). The trail, which includes a wade through the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River, is a 2-mile loop that descends into the 200-foot-deep gorge and then turns upstream to the falls. But once you reach the cool, wide plunge pool at the bottom, you’ll be really glad you made the effort.
Stay: The family-owned Alpine Lodge and Suites (just off I-40 East in Cookeville) features comfortable rooms with great mountain views. Rates from $60
Plan Your Visit: Cummins Falls State Park
De Leon Springs, Florida
To see why tourists flocked to Orlando long before Disney came to town, check out this spot an hour north of the mouse-manic city, about 15 miles off I-4 East. Now a state park, the De Leon Springs tourist attraction once featured a hotel, restaurant, boat rides, and even two water-skiing elephants named Sunshine Sally and Queenie. While the hotel and (rather questionable) animal act are gone, you can still have pancakes at the attraction’s Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House or take a Fountain of Youth boat tour. The main draw—which has lured swimmers since the 1880s—is an underground spring that produces more than 19 million gallons of 72-degree water a day.
Stay: About 14 miles south in Deland, The Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina features casual but comfortable rooms, suites, and cottages. Rates from $135
Plan Your Visit: De Leon Springs State Park
Hamilton Pool Preserve, Texas
About 30 miles west of Austin and 50 miles east of Luckenbach, this swimming hole in a spring-fed box canyon is as famous in Texas as Waylon and Willie. Local legend says the 8-year-old son of a rancher discovered the spot in the 1880s, and overheated locals and tourists have been jumping in ever since. The public “pool” got so popular (and polluted) that in 1985, Travis County purchased it and 200 surrounding acres to form the Hamilton Pool Preserve, limiting the number of swimmers allowed into the water at any given time. After paying a $10 reservation fee (payable only online), you’ll pony up another $15 (cash or check only) per vehicle at the preserve to cool off under a 50-foot waterfall or wade in the clear pool (about 50 degrees in some places) and explore a collapsed stone grotto. It gets crowded on a hot summer day, so arrive early or expect a wait.
Stay: About 15 miles south of the preserve, The Liney Moon bed-and-breakfast in Dripping Springs features 10 quirky cottages with modern amenities. Rates from $169
Plan Your Visit: Hamilton Pool Preserve
Harpeth River State Park, Tennessee
Soak in the shadow of historic ruins or swim near the rutted lanes of the Old Natchez Trace at this 40-mile-long linear park north of Franklin. Following the meandering Harpeth River, the park contains several natural, archeological, and historic sites as well as 10 river access points where you can put in inner tubes, canoes, or kayaks. Bring your own float (or rent one from a local outfitter) and embark on a one-hour or daylong trip down the river. Then explore the Newsom’s Mill Ruins just off I-40, about 20 miles north of Franklin. Set on a bluff above the water, the historic site features the 154-year-old ruins of a stone gristmill, once the center of a small town. The tumbled-down walls now overlook a great spot to take a dip. Closer to Franklin, you’ll find another park swimming hole—complete with a rope swing—near the intersection of Temple Road and the Old Natchez Trace.
Stay: A hot breakfast and a couple of evening cocktails are included with your room at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Franklin. Rates from $170
Plan Your Visit: Harpeth River State Park
Helton Creek Falls, Georgia
If you love waterfalls but hate hiking, then head to these multilevel waters some 20 miles west of Helen. Set in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest near Vogel State Park, the two waterfalls are less than a half-mile stroll from a parking area on Helton Creek Road. A wooden staircase leads to a viewing platform beside the Lower Falls, which spill into a clear pool surrounded by mosses and ferns. You can cool off there in the spray and the shade or follow a trail to the Upper Falls. (That part does take a little hiking, but it’s worth the workout.)
Stay: The Brasstown Valley Resort and Spa in Young Harris (about 20 miles to the north) offers golf, horseback riding, and spa services in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rates from $239
Plan Your Visit: Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Ranger Station
Jamestown Beach Event Park, Virginia
Spend the morning exploring Colonial Williamsburg before enjoying an afternoon of sun and sand at this popular public beach about 6 miles southwest of the city. Set on the banks of the James River, the park includes three recently restored beaches. You can step into the shallow, cool river; take a seat at one of the tree-shaded picnic tables; or feel the breeze on the free Jamestown Ferry trip across the river to Surry County. Just be sure to return before sunset. Because the park sits on the eastern edge of the James, you can watch the sun sink over sparkling water—a rare sight in Virginia.
Stay: About 5 miles from the beach, Greensprings Vacation Resort in Williamsburg offers two- and four-bedroom suites with
full kitchens. You can also enjoy a view thanks to the resort’s balconies and patios. Rates from $220 (for a two-bedroom suite)
Plan Your Visit: Jamestown Beach Event Park
Kinlock Falls, Alabama
It takes a bit of a road trip to find these falls in northwest Alabama, but once you reach the cool pool at the base, you’ll be rewarded for your efforts. About 12 miles northeast of Haleyville in William B. Bankhead National Forest, Kinlock Falls is just a short downhill walk from Forest Service Road 210. There, the water tumbles 10 feet over well-worn rock ridges, and you can also climb down the hillside next to the falls. (Either route is slippery, so step with caution.) Even on a sultry August afternoon, the pool at the base of the falls, with its sandbar bottom, is clear and cold.
Stay: The Comfort Suites in Cullman (just off I-65 about 30 miles east of the falls) offers mini suites and a complimentary breakfast. Rates from $120
Plan Your Visit: William B. Bankhead National Forest Ranger Station
Lake Barkley, Kentucky
Kentucky might be better known for spirited Thoroughbreds than spotted bass, but with more miles of flowing water than any other state except Alaska, the Bluegrass State also has lots of other blue stuff. Much of that cooling water is contained in two huge lakes bordering the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area about 45 miles southeast of Paducah. Set between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, the 170,000-acre recreational area contains historic sites, wildlife preserves, hiking trails, state parks—and hundreds of miles of lake shoreline perfect for swimming, boating, fishing, and waterskiing. Besides water-themed fun, Lake Barkley State Resort Park, situated on the recreational area’s eastern edge, also offers golfing, biking, camping, birding, and one of the South’s most elegant state resort lodges.
Stay: Architect Edward Durell Stone (designer of Radio City Music Hall) also drew the plans for the Lake Barkley Resort Lodge, which offers lake views from most of its 120 rooms. Rates from $100
Plan Your Visit: Lake Barkley State Resort Park
Lake Leatherwood, Arkansas
One of the largest hand-cut limestone dams in America helped form this placid lake, ready-made for swimming, boating, and fishing. A series of hiking and biking trails crisscrosses the 1,600-acre Eureka Springs municipal park surrounding the lake, taking visitors to overlooks of forested mountains and unusual rock formations. Take a breather at Thorncrown Chapel, renowned architect E. Fay Jones’ soaring glass masterpiece less than a mile from the park entrance.
Stay: The boutique 1905 Basin Park Hotel is within walking distance of more than 100 Eureka Springs shops and restaurants. Rates from $160
Plan Your Visit: Lake Leatherwood City Park
Lake Lure, North Carolina
Ever heard of the “lake lift”? Made famous by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, it involves standing in the water and executing an overhead lift in one smooth, graceful motion. The lake lift has inspired thousands of visitors to nearly drown themselves at this idyllic Blue Ridge Mountain setting, about 30 miles from Asheville. The town of Lake Lure maintains a water park and a sandy beach on the lake’s edge, which is an ideal place to spend sultry summer afternoons. If you’ve got designs on the annual lake lift competition held during the Dirty Dancing Festival (August 19-20 this year), just remember—romance is always easier in the movies.
Stay: The Lodge on Lake Lure offers the only waterside rooms on the lake, as well as good food, a relaxing atmosphere, and great mountain views from its Tree Tops Restaurant. Rates from $195
Plan Your Visit: The Town of Lake Lure
Lake Marion, South Carolina
About an hour’s drive north of Charleston lies the largest lake in South Carolina—so big that locals have dubbed it “the inland sea.” Lake Marion spreads for 171 square miles over five counties, helping farmers irrigate their crops, giving anglers plenty of promising spots to fish, and creating a large, watery playground for skiers and swimmers. The best place to drop a line, strap on skis, or take a dive is Santee State Park on the lake’s western shore. Fish for some of the South’s biggest catfish, or rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard for a day on the water. You can also take a Fisheagle Wildlife boat tour—a popular South Carolina “sea cruise”—and explore the huge lake.
Stay: In the town of Santee (about 5 miles south of the state park), Clark’s Inn and Restaurant offers one of the best eateries in town and golf packages that provide access to several area courses. Rates from $150
Plan Your Visit: Santee State Park
Lake Sidney Lanier, Georgia
August in Atlanta is a lot more bearable thanks to this sprawling, man-made lake off I-85, about an hour northeast of the city. Formed 60 years ago when the Buford Dam was constructed on the Chattahoochee River, Lake Sidney Lanier now covers 39,000 acres and includes nearly 700 miles of shoreline. Lanier Islands, a 1,500-acre resort, has welcomed families since the 1970s, and the lake became even cooler with the opening of the LanierWorld theme park. The attraction’s Family Fun Park includes more than a dozen water rides and Georgia’s largest wave pool, while its Big Beach has more than a half mile of white sand and blue water.
Stay: Located just 2 miles from LanierWorld, the Legacy Lodge and Conference Center offers rooms, suites, and villas in a lakeside setting. Rates from $189
Plan Your Visit: Lanier Islands
Panther Creek State Park, Tennessee
If you’re yearning for scenic views, misty mornings, clear air, and cool water, plan a day at this mountain oasis about an hour from Knoxville. The 1,435-acre park on the edge of Cherokee Lake features some of the best fishing, boating, swimming, hikng, and biking in the state of Tennessee. You can jump in the lake or dive into the park’s giant, fan-shaped swimming pool. For breathtaking views, hike the Point Lookout Trail.
Stay: The Holiday Inn Express and Suites in the small college burg of Morristown is about 10 miles from the park. Rates from $120
Plan Your Visit: Panther Creek State Park
Rocky Falls, Ozark National Scenic Riverway, Missouri
It took Mother Nature a while to build this swimming hole along the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, 14 miles southeast of Eminence in southeastern Missouri. The work started more than a billion years ago, when molten lava flowed for miles and cooled, covering the ground with a reddish brown rock known as rhyolite porphyry. The rock is much harder than the surrounding limestone, and it resisted erosion for eons, eventually forming a small canyon, known as a “shut-in” because it shuts in the stream. A little farther down, the water gets past the confines of hard rhyolite and widens again, forming a pool. The amount of rainfall each summer determines whether Rocky Falls will be calmly flowing or outright gushing en route to the nearby Current River. (Ozark National Scenic Riverways was formed to protect the Current and Jacks Fork rivers and was the first national park created just for that purpose.)
Stay: The Rosecliff Lodge at The Landing (in Van Buren, about 30 minutes southeast of Rocky Falls) features rooms overlooking the Current River. Rates from $120
Plan Your Visit: Ozark National Scenic Riverways
Silver Run Falls, North Carolina
These rushing waters about 5 miles south of Cashiers are a spectacular place to experience a waterfall with minimal effort. Fed by the Whitewater River, the 25-foot falls tumble just a quarter mile from a roadside parking area that’s located off State 107. You can watch the waterfall from observation points along the trail and shore or, with a little more walking, get a heads-up view of the falls from the calm pool at the bottom. A popular spot with locals, Silver Run Falls can get overrun on a hot summer afternoon, so try to get there a little early.
Stay: The Laurelwood Inn in Cashiers offers renovated log structures containing 16 rooms and three suites, as well as a secluded log cabin. Rates from $89
Plan Your Visit: The Nantahala National Forest District Station
Sliding Rock, North Carolina
Call it nature’s Slip ’N Slide. Tucked away in Pisgah National Forest a few miles north of Brevard, Sliding Rock has been dunking and delighting local residents and out-of-towners for generations. Cool-to-chilly water (55 degrees or so) flows at a rate of more than 11,000 gallons a minute down a series of smooth, flat-top boulders, washing willing sliders into an 8-foot-deep pool. After a splash, dog-paddle to shore, get in line on the handrail-guarded incline, and go again. The attraction is open (with lifeguards on duty) daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer, and it’s a cool place to escape the heat for an afternoon. It will cost you just $2—and maybe the back side of your swimsuit.
Stay: The Sunset Motel in Brevard is a restored 1960s motor court with kitschy decor and interesting amenities (such as a bicycle wash for Brevard’s cycling crowd). Rates from $89
Plan Your Visit: Pisgah National Forest District Station
Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia
Smith Mountain Lake State Park is right on the eastern edge of Virginia’s second-largest body of fresh water. The park features one of the state’s most popular and accessible fishing piers, as well as two public beaches, one of which is 500 feet long, open from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. While the beach is open, the park offers rentals for canoes, kayaks, boats, water scooters, water bikes, pontoon boats, and more. You can also enjoy hiking trails ranging from an easy half-mile stroll to a more strenuous 3-mile trek through hardwood and pine forests to scenic vistas. There’s even more to see in the small towns and attractions along the shores.
Stay: About 10 miles northeast of the park, the Halesford Harbour Inn features rooms with mini kitchens and lakeside views, as well as boat rentals. Weekend rates from $170; The state park itself has 20 rental cabins. (Only #7 is universally accessible.) See photos of typical park lodging and reserver online, or call 800/933-7275.
Plan Your Visit: Smith Mountain Lake State Park
Wakulla Springs, Florida
Talk about old-school Florida. People have been cooling off in these crystal-clear springs, about 15 miles south of Tallahassee, for more than 15,000 years—from the Timucua American Indians, who named them Wakulla or “mysterious waters,” to contemporary glass-bottomed boat tourists searching for turtles, alligators, and manatees in the watery depths. Spend a day jumping into the spring-fed swimming hole, scuba diving in its deep Cherokee Sink, or hiking the surrounding old-growth forest and you’ll soon understand why the area around the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park has been designated as a National Natural Landmark.
Stay: Within the park, the Wakulla Springs Lodge is an Art Deco gem. Built by financier Edward Ball in 1937, it still retains its classically comfortable atmosphere (as well as one of the longest marble-top bars in the world). Rates from $140
Plan Your Visit: Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Watson Mill Bridge State Park, Georgia
You might see sunbathing Bulldogs when you visit this picturesque spot about 30 minutes east of The University of Georgia. Summer finds students as well as alumni splashing in the cool shoals of the South Fork Broad River just below Watson Mill Bridge. It’s the longest covered bridge in Georgia and one of fewer than 20 left in the state. Take a morning swim, and spend the afternoon hiking, biking, or horseback riding along trails that wind through more than 1,000 acres of parkland.
Stay: The Hotel Indigo Athens is within walking distance of The University of Georgia and the Athens Warehouse Historic District. Rates from $250
Plan Your Visit: Watson Mill Bridge State Park