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9 Best Swimming Hole Hikes in the Carolinas

It’s the season for brilliant blue skies, abundant sunshine, and warm temperatures lingering through the sunset in the Carolinas. But summer can also bring oppressive humidity and heat waves that send the mercury soaring. Don’t let the heat keep you off the trail. Pick a hike that leads to a refreshing reward instead.

The thought of cooling off in a mountain stream or Piedmont Lake is just the incentive you need to get outdoors early and often through the dog days of summer. Pack your swimsuit along with your trail mix on these nine Carolina trails that end with a swim.

1. Mountains-to-Sea Trail to Skinny Dip Falls

Pick up this well-known cross-state trail at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 417 at the Looking Glass Rock overlook for a short hike that’s about three-quarters of a mile. After a few rock scrambles, you’ll reach the base of the falls, where you can wade in the crisp, clear water or splash on the rocky ledge between the upper and lower cascades.

2. Sliding Rock

Your hike consists of a slow-moving line that winds its way up the rock face, but it’s worth the wait to take the plunge down a 60-foot chute of icy mountain water. This popular Pisgah National Forest swimming hole is an exhilarating ride, and the sub-60-degree plunge pool at the bottom is guaranteed to take your breath away. There are restrooms, lifeguards on duty, and a $3 fee during the peak summer months.

3. Wolf Rock Trail to Hanging Rock Park Lake

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Hike to the sandy beach at Hanging Rock State Park’s 12-acre lake. Tom Mangan

Start at the Hanging Rock State Park visitor center to hike a 2.7-mile loop, passing two Saura Mountain overlooks on your way to a sandy beach on the park’s 12-acre lake. If you’re hiking with young children, stroll the 0.7-mile Chestnut Oak Nature Trail before your swim. For a more challenging trek, combine looping trails to the park’s five overlooks to hike more than 10 miles before you take the plunge.

4. Hooker Falls

Hooker Falls is only 12 feet high, but it has a wide cascade that tumbles into a broad pool at the base, making it an ideal spot to swim, float, and bask in the sun on surrounding rock slabs. It’s only a quarter-mile hike from the parking area in DuPont State Forest, but you can lengthen the distance to seven miles by hiking to all four waterfalls on the Little River before your swim.

5. Mill’s Creek Trail to Lake James

Start your 3.6-mile loop hike at the Paddy’s Creek Campground in Lake James State Park to trek through thick forest, mostly overlooking the lake, to a sandy swim area. You’ll find a bathhouse, concession stand, and lifeguards on the beach, where you can even rent kayaks, canoes, and SUP boards. After your swim, continue climbing and descending a series of ridges until you come to the connector trail leading back to the campground.

6. Little Green Trail to Schoolhouse Falls

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Enjoy a swim at Schoolhouse Falls, and then hike to the rocky summit of Little Green Mountain. www.HDCarolina.com

You’ll hit two waterfalls and one of Panthertown Valley’s most expansive views on this five-mile loop. It’s just over a mile from the Cold Mountain Gap parking area to the wading pool below the 20-foot-high Schoolhouse Falls. Stop for a swim, and then follow the trail as it curves behind the cascade and continues across 4,040-foot Little Green Mountain to the rocky and exposed summit at Tranquility Point. From the summit, descend to Mac’s Gap Trail and turn left to cross Greenland Creek where you’ll pick up the trail leading to 60-foot Greenland Creek Falls. Return to Mac’s Gap for the one-mile hike back to the trailhead.

7. Hunt-Fish Falls

Short and wide, Hunt-Fish Falls in Pisgah National Forest sits above one of the top natural swimming pools in western North Carolina. To visit the falls, follow an easy 1.6-mile out-and-back hike on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which is also blazed as the Hunt-Fish Falls Trail. During this pleasant walk, you’ll follow Lost Cove Creek to the top of the falls. After a relaxing sun and swim session on the rocks surrounding the pool, you can double back to the trailhead or keep going on the Mountains-to-Sea and Lost Cove trails.

8. Laurel Bluffs Trail to Eno Quarry

Just over three miles from the Pleasant Green Access in Eno River State Park, you’ll find one of the most tranquil swimming holes in the state. You’d never suspect you were minutes from the Research Triangle on the rocky banks of Eno Quarry. Take the Laurel Bluffs Trail 1.4 miles to the 0.8-mile Quarry Trail. A lollipop loop circles around the quarry, where you can pick a place to jump in. Watch your footing on the steep banks and consider packing in a noodle or inflatable tube to float in the surprisingly chilly water that’s up to 60 feet deep in spots.

9. Upper Falls Trail to Upper Creek Falls

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Cool off in the vast pool at the base of Upper Creek Falls. www.HDCarolina.com

To visit this 60-foot cascade in Pisgah National Forest, you’ll walk a loop that’s just 1.6 miles, but the steep trail more than makes up for the short distance. Take Upper Falls Trail to a series of cascades and steps down to the water’s edge. From here, you can turn left to a swimming hole with a rope swing, turn right to climb to the top of the falls, or cross the creek to continue hiking. You’ll pass side trails to picnic and sunbathing spots on the water until the trail crosses the creek at the lower falls and climbs back to the trailhead.

Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

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