10 Wonderful Watery Summer Escapes

Today, an evergreen post we like to run near the official start of summer (June 21, or next Wednesday): Our 10 favorite mountain watering holes, places where you are guaranteed to escape the death-grip of summer’s 90/90 (heat/humidity) doldrums. Some are just off the road, some you have to work for. All are worth a visit. Links for more information follow.

1. North Mills River, Pisgah National Forest, southwest of Asheville. Hiking, creek crossings.

We start with a bit of a surprise, perhaps, but we did a trip here in 2016 that had us spending most of our time in the mercifully cool waters of burbling North Mills River and Big Creek. Our 5-mile hike from the campground up to Little Pisgah Mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway spent all but the last mile splashing as much as hiking (the last mile was a bearish climb to the summit). It also included a pass by the Hendersonville Reservoir (probably not for taking a dip). A great hike in the right water shoes.

Tubers on Deep Creek

2. Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City. Hiking, tubing.

Once a summer you should do a long hike in the Smokies, and Deep Creek should be it. We recommend hiking this double loop, comprised of four trails, counterclockwise, heading up Indian Creek Trail, then catching the Sunkota Ridge Trail for a 5-mile climb up to Martin’s Gap. Take the Martin’s Gap Trail east to the Deep Creek Trail and begin a leisurely 8-mile descent on an old roadbed paralleling Deep Creek. When the trail gets about a mile from the end, you’ll start encountering the tubers who float merrily back to the trailhead. Rentals are available at the entrance.

3. Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area, Pisgah National Forest, Burnsville. Tubing, swimming holes

Could there be such a thing as a tubing and swimming hole resort? There could and there is: the Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area, which sits on a stretch of the South Toe River that has a ridiculous number of great places to wallow in the bracing waters that drain from the Black Mountains, the highest mountain range in the East with elevations approaching 6,700 feet. Wander through the Carolina Hemlocks Campground (36 campsites) and the majority will sport tubes and other gear suited to days on end spent frolicking in this mountain creek. A lot of people, true. A lot of options as well. And if you feel the need to stretch your legs, the Colbert Ridge Trail leaves from the west side of the campground, climbing 3.6 miles and gaining nearly 3,000 vertical feet on its way to Deep Gap on the crest of the Black Mountains.

water hikes
Schoolhouse Falls

4. Panthertown Valley: Schoolhouse Falls, Nantahala National Forest, Cashiers. Hiking, swimming.

You have to hike in about a mile-and-a-half for this hole, but what a hike it is, past towering hemlocks and rock outcrops in an area described as the Yosemite of the East. The payoff is sweet: 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. Those of you who apply to the gradual immersion school will be especially pleased by the gentle incline that introduces you to the cold. Fed by the Tuckasegee River, it’s possible to walk behind the falls at lower flows.

5. Sliding Rock, Pisgah National Forest, Brevard. Spectating.

Spectating? 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 their ice bath landing: all smiles going into the seven-foot-deep pool, an I’ll-never-be-warm-again look of horror 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 for anyone seeking Appalachian swimming hole cred. A fee area ($2), with bathhouse and lifeguard. Seasonal operation.

One of the many pools associated with Skinny Dip Falls

6. Skinny Dip Falls, Pisgah National Forest, Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 417. Hiking, swimming.

The Blue Ridge Parkway between NC 276 and NC 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. How could you be when you find a high mountain creek, Yellowstone Prong, playfully cutting through a Southern Appalachian hardwood forest, pausing here and there to form inviting splash pools. Another must for your North Carolina natural swimming hole check list.

water hikes
A pool on Gragg Prong

7. Gragg Prong, Wilson Creek area, Pisgah National Forest, Mortimer. Hiking, swimming.

Ah, Wilson Creek — probably our favorite summertime water escape in the state, in large part because it’s dang near impossible to avoid water (which is why we generally don’t visit in winter). In fact, we love it so much that we’ve devoted an entire blog to it, which we wrote for our friends at Great Outdoor Provision Co. Read it here.

Follow a hike at Hanging Rock with a swim in the 12-acre lake.

8. Hanging Rock State Park, Sauratown Mountains, Danbury. Hiking, swimming in a mountain lake.

OK, this one gets an asterisk since it’s not in what we typically think of as “the mountains.” But it is in the ancient Sauratown Mountain range, which runs from Hanging Rock to Pilot Mountain, and it does have 18 miles of hiking that mimics the Appalachians visible to the west. It’s also got a 12-acre lake with swimming beach, strategically located at the nexus of the park’s trail network. We especially love liking the 4.7-mile Moore’s Knob Loop Trail, working up a good glow, then dousing that glow in the lake’s cooling waters.

9. Upper Whitewater Falls, Nantahala National Forest, Jackson County. Water falls, hiking. You can’t talk about best water-based hikes in North Carolina without mentioning Upper Whitewater Falls, which plunges 411 feet (with its sister Lower Falls, they combine to make an 811-foot drop, making it the highest waterfall east of the Rockies). There’s an easy way to view the falls, via a quarter mile paved path to the upper overlook. Or, hike down to the lower overlook for better views, or hike down even farther to an area great for swimming and also to access the Foothills Trail, which runs 77 miles along the N.C./S.C. border.

High Shoals Falls

10. High Shoals Falls, South Mountains State Park, Connelly Springs. Hiking, waterfall.

At just 60 feet, High Shoals Falls might not sound that impressive. But it’s not just the falls, it’s the quarter mile or so of jumbled boulders — and Jacob Fork trying to figure its way through them — that lead up to it that makes this hike so cool. Even the lead-up to the boulder field, a civil gravel path the parallels Jacob Fork, is pretty swell. It’s about a mile up to the falls (and a mile back), but the beauty of a visit to South Mountains is that there are about 40 miles of trail in all, most of which is also open to equestrians, some to mountain bikers. If you’re into solitude, once you get past High Shoals Falls, you pretty much have South Mountains to yourself.

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For more information on the locations mentioned above, click the appropriate link:

  1. North Mills River
  2. Deep Creek

3.  Carolina Hemlocks

4. Panthertown Valley: Schoolhouse Falls

5. Sliding Rock 

6. Skinny Dip Falls  

7. Gragg Prong/Wilson Creek

8. Hanging Rock State Park

9. Upper Whitewater Falls

10. High Shoals Falls

In addition, you can find details on trips 2, 4 and 7 in “Backpacking North Carolina: The Definitive Guide to 43 Can’t-Miss Trips for Mountains to Sea.”

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