water hikes

10 Summer Hikes with Cooling Water

What kind of Top 10 list would you have if it didn’t evolve over time? You’d either have a Top 10 list that wasn’t honest, or you’d have evidence that you need to get out more and experience new trails. 

Fortunately, neither is the case with this year’s running of our Top 10 Cool Hikes with Water, because it includes some new entries from the last time we ran it. To keep the list at 10 — arbitrary, perhaps, but it keeps things manageable — we’ve had to drop a couple hikes from last year’s list, which you can read here. But that doesn’t diminish those hikes; after all, these lists are subjective anyway, so be content with 10.

Now, on to our Top 10 Cool Hikes with Water for 2024. Links with additional information, including trailhead directions, can be found at the end of this post.

1. Morrow Mountain State Park, North Carolina State Parks, Albemarle, NC (northeast of Charlotte)

Water feature: swimming pool

A scouting trip to Morrow Mountain twentysome years ago was, I’m certain, on the hottest day recorded on Earth. How hot it was I’m not sure because the profuse sweat filling my eyes keep me from reading a thermometer. When I was done slogging up Sugarloaf Mountain, then Morrow Mountain, I was desperate for relief — relief I found in the park’s swimming pool, a genuine cement pond that was closed for renovation but has reopened for this summer. Part of the park’s original Civilian Conservation Corps construction, the pool’s inviting blue waters offer soothing recovery from even the sweatiest of hikes. Fee: $6 per day for adults, $4 for kids 3 to 12.

2. North Mills River, Pisgah National Forest, southwest of Asheville, NC

Water feature: creek crossings

We did a GetHiking! trip here in 2016 that had us spending much 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 saw us spending 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.

One of the 10 creek crossings on the St. Mary’s Wilderness hike

3. St. Mary’s Wilderness, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, Raphine, VA

Water feature: multiple creek crossings

Every time I see this hike posted by our GetHiking! Charlottesville crew I’m reminded of why I love summer so much: 10 creek crossings on a relatively short (5 or so miles) hike! Don the water sandals and quick-dry shorts and wade in. With nearly 10,000 acres, St. Mary’s is the largest wilderness on National Forest (George Washington and Jefferson) land in Virginia. If you’re looking for a great summer escape in the Charlottesville area, this is it.

4. Carolina Hemlocks Recreation Area, Pisgah National Forest, Burnsville, NC

Water feature: 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. And what a great carrot to dangle after hiking the Colbert Ridge Trail, which 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

5. Panthertown Valley: Schoolhouse Falls, Nantahala National Forest, Cashiers, NC 

Water feature: 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.

6. Sliding Rock, Pisgah National Forest, Brevard, NC

Water feature: 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 sliders 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 ($5), with bathhouse and lifeguard. Seasonal operation.

One of several pools on Gragg Prong

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

Water feature: 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). From the Huntfish Falls trailhead hike down to the falls, then follow the Mountains-to-Sea Trail down Lost Cove Creek. Shortly, you’ll encounter Gragg Prong and after maybe a quarter mile of climbing, a series of cold pools encased in rock. Wade in, jump in, warm yourself on the surrounding rock. Read more in a blog we wrote about the area for our friends at Great Outdoor Provision Co. Read it here.

8. Hanging Rock State Park, Sauratown Mountains, Danbury, NC

Water feature: swimming in a mountain lake

OK, this one gets an asterisk since it’s not in what we typically think of as “the mountains;” that is, the Southern Appalachians. 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, NC

Water feature: waterfalls. 

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.

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

High Shoals Falls at South Mountains State Park.

Water feature: 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. Morrow Mountain State Park
  2. St. Mary’s Wilderness
  3. North Mills River

4.  Carolina Hemlocks

5. Panthertown Valley: Schoolhouse Falls

6. Sliding Rock

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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