The South is known for its hot and muggy summers, but the mountains offer a breezy respite from the rising mercury, especially if you spend your afternoon at a crisp, cold swimming hole. Here are 10 of the best dips in the mountains.
Martha’s Falls, Little River National Preserve, Alabama
- Location: 111 miles west of Atlanta
- Best For: Families, thanks to an easy hike and a big pool.
Little River runs along the border of Alabama and Georgia and is best known for its 45-foot eponymous waterfall that marks the beginning of the Little River Canyon. Hike beyond this welcoming waterfall, heading deeper into the sandstone gorge to access Martha’s Falls, aka Hippie Hole, aka Little Falls (yes, it has three names), where the river tumbles over a low sandstone shelf and forms a curtain of water inside a rock amphitheater. Spend your day floating, sunning and jumping from the various rock perches surrounding the hole.
Pro move: Bring a raft or float. The pool below the falls is huge and has a swimming pool feel because of the rim of flat rocks around it.
Jacks River Falls, Cohutta Wilderness, Georgia
- Location: 95 miles north of Atlanta
- Best for: Adults, due to a long approach hike.
This 80-foot waterfall sits deep in North Georgia’s Cohutta Wilderness, offering one of the most remote swimming holes in the state. The river carves its way through a granite gorge, splitting into two veins as it works its way over a bulbous cliff. The pool at the base of the falls is deep, and you can launch yourself into the crisp water from a rock perched 15 feet above the gorge. There are two ways to reach the falls. Either hike 9 miles one-way on the Jacks River Trail from Daily Gap (crossing the river some 40 times along the way), or take the 4.5-mile hike from Beech Bottom Trail just across the Tennessee border.
Pro move: Pack a bag, this waterfall is best enjoyed as the highlight of an overnight trip.
Rainbow Falls, Gorges State Park, North Carolina
- Location: 55 miles south of Asheville
- Best for: Photographers—this is one of the most stunning falls in the South.
If you’re looking for sheer beauty, you can’t beat Rainbow Falls, a 150-foot, high-volume waterfall that takes a near-vertical plunge over the face of a broad granite cliff. You’ll find small pools for swimming and big rocks for sunning at the base of the falls, making it especially popular on hot sunny days. Reach the swimming hole by hiking 1.5 miles on Rainbow Falls Trail to the base of the waterfall. Continue up the trail for another half mile to Turtleback Falls, a popular sliding rock.
Pro move: Falls too busy? The Horse Pasture River below Rainbow offers smaller cascades that offer rock-hopping fun while you wait for the crowds to die down.
Second Falls, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
- Location: 35 miles south of Asheville
- Best For: Fly fishing
The Yellowstone Prong is a crystal-clear river that tumbles off the edge of Black Balsam in the Shining Rock Wilderness, gathering steam as it makes its toward the Pigeon River. Anglers flock to the river for the wild trout found in its pools, but swimmers love its waterfalls. Second Falls, in Graveyard Fields, a high-elevation valley next to the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the most dramatic, as the river drops 55 feet into a broad deep pool surrounded by boulders and rhododendron. Access the falls via a half-mile hike from the Graveyard Fields trailhead at milepost 418.8.
Pro move: Bring your fly rod and hike upstream of Second Falls to find quiet pools away from the crowds. Wild brook trout are known to lurk in the clear pools.
Sliding Rock, Sliding Rock Recreation Area, North Carolina
- Location: 40 miles south of Asheville
- Best for: Kids—this is a natural waterslide!
Listen, Sliding Rock is crowded. There’s no getting around that. It doesn’t matter if you visit on a Tuesday or a Saturday at the height of summer, you’re going to be rubbing elbows. But it’s so much fun, you won’t mind the crowds. This 60-foot-long natural waterslide has been worn (relatively) smooth by eons of erosion. Climb the side of the falls using the handrail, then bust your butt on the wild ride down, which ends in a deep, cold plunge pool. Repeat until you can’t handle the crowds anymore. It’s a roadside slide with its own parking area—and a $3 fee—so no hiking required.
Pro move: Plan your trip for the middle of the week, and if possible, try to hit the falls in the morning, to miss the biggest crowds.
Midnight Hole, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
- Location: 65 miles east of Knoxville
- Best For: Families, thanks to a short hike.
Legend has it that no one has reached the bottom of Midnight Hole, a swimming spot so deep, it’s pitch-black. We’re not sure about that claim, but you certainly won’t have to worry about touching the bottom when jumping from the edge of this 6-foot cascade. A rim of boulders, worn smooth by the water, surrounds the falls and provides a series of makeshift diving boards, offering anywhere from a 5-foot to a 12-foot drop. Reach Midnight Hole by hiking along Big Creek, gaining steady elevation on the wide Big Creek Trail for 1.5 miles from the Big Creek Trailhead.
Pro move: Bring your snorkel. The pool downstream of the falls is so clear it’s become popular for snorkeling.
Blue Hole, Bowater North Chickamauga Pocket Wilderness, Tennessee
- Location: 15 miles north of Chattanooga
- Best for: Rock jumpers and sun bathers.
North Chickamauga Creek, just 20 minutes north of Chattanooga, is full of swimming holes that are worthy of your attention, but you’ll know you’ve reached the right “Blue Hole” as a massive boulder hanging over a deep pool comes into view. You could sun yourself on this rock, but let’s be honest, it was made for jumping. Rinse and repeat. Reach this locally loved spot by hiking the unmarked but obvious trail for 10 minutes from the Bowater Chickamauga Pocket Wilderness parking lot off of Montlake Road.
Pro move: Bring your hiking boots. An 8-mile section of the Cumberland Trail runs through North Chickamauga Creek, offering big views of the gorge.
Riley Moore Falls, Sumter National Forest
- Location: 60 miles west of Greenville
- Best For: Families with small children because of the sandy beach and gradual entry.
There are taller waterfalls in the South, but what Riley Falls lacks in its 12-foot height, it makes up for in volume; the waterfall spans the entire 100-foot width of the Chuaga River, forming a wall of whitewater in the northwest corner of South Carolina. Below the falls is a sandy beach that gradually gives way to a deep pool and a solid rock ledge forms a shelf at the base of the falls (so don’t think about jumping!). Reach the waterfall by hiking a 1-mile flat trail suitable for families from the trailhead on Spy Rock Road.
Pro move: Bring beach chairs and toys and turn your trip into an impromptu beach vacation.
Cascade Falls, Jefferson National Forest, Virginia
- Location: 55 miles east of Roanoke
- Best For: Adults and older kids, given the longer approach.
You’re not going to have this 69-foot waterfall to yourself, but you can’t blame the other hikers and swimmers: the scene is stunning as Little Stony Creek tumbles seven stories in a staircase of whitewater and 100-foot cliffs rise on either side of the river. Access the trail along the 4-mile-long Cascades National Recreation Trail, which forms a 4-mile loop from the Cascades Day Use Area.
Pro move: Try to time it after a heavy rain to see the waterfall at full volume.
Devil’s Bathtub, Jefferson National Forest, Virginia
- Location: 25 miles north of Kingsport, Tennessee
- Best For: Instgrammers; a shot soaking in the bathtub is #winning.
There’s nothing ominous about this swimming hole—it earned its spooky name because the stream drops into smooth, kidney-shaped pool at the bottom of the cascade that resembles a giant bathtub. Take a dip in the plunge pool, then head downstream to the larger swimming hole called simply, The Swimming Hole. Devil’s Fork Loop Trail forms a 7.2-mile loop (with plenty of stream crossings) accessing the swimming hole.
Pro move: For a taste of cave diving, bring a set of goggles and try to swim to the bottom of the larger pool. Check out the smooth rock walls on the edge of the river and look for fish.