The Triad region of North Carolina is home to three major river basins that link the eastern and western sides of the state. The Roanoke, Cape Fear, and Yadkin rivers originate in the foothills and flow across the Piedmont through towns like Halifax, Rockingham, and Fayetteville. Eventually, these rivers reach the Albemarle Sound and the open ocean. But, along the way, manmade dams and hilly terrain alter their flow and create fantastic waterfalls and swimming holes.
On a hot summer day, you can dip your toes in a refreshing pool under Carter Falls or stand in the billowing mist below High Shoals Falls. In the Triad, you’ll find everything from family-friendly nature walks to strenuous, full-day hikes that lead to shady picnic spots, sunny beaches, and roaring cascades. Take a break from the sweltering city with day trips to these top Triad waterfalls and swimming holes.
1. High Shoals Falls
An easy one-mile hike along the Jacob Fork River leads to the base of High Shoals Falls in South Mountains State Park. Rest on the rocks and soak your feet, or climb the steep stone staircase beside an 80-foot cascade to the top of the falls. From the falls, continue on to complete a 2.7-mile loop and return to the trailhead.
For total relaxation, wade in the Jacob Fork Creek, which runs along the Hemlock Nature Trail, just a few hundred feet from the Jacob Fork parking area. There are big boulders to sun yourself and educational displays on the riparian ecosystem around you.
2. Carter Falls
Hike three miles from the Isaacs Trailhead near Elkin to Grassy Creek and 60-foot Carter Falls. Upper and lower sections of the waterfall ramble over descending rock terraces into a wading pool at the base of the falls. Ambitious and experienced hikers can hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for a long-distance approach to the falls.
3. Eno Quarry
It’s less than a mile from the Cabe Lands Trailhead to Eno Quarry in Eno River State Park nine miles northwest of downtown Durham. Walk the trail around the quarry rim and find a spot to spread out your beach towel. Then, take the plunge in the 25- to 60-foot-deep water. Bring your float to paddle out to the center and lounge in the sun. This spot is for strong swimmers only since there are no shallow areas, the banks are steep, and the trail can get slick when wet.
4. Lower Cascades Falls
Hanging Rock State Park is known for its waterfalls, and 35-foot Lower Cascades is one of the most scenic and accessible. Hike under a half mile to the shallow wading pool at the base of the falls. An imposing bluff looms overhead, and the forest-covered gorge shades the water, making this one of the best spots to cool down and take a break from a hot and humid Carolinas summer.
5. Hanging Rock Park Lake
Take a dip in Hanging Rock State Park’s 12-acre lake, then warm up on the sandy beach, with a bathhouse, dressing rooms, and a snack bar nearby. There’s a small entry fee for access to the lifeguard-staffed swimming area.
6. The Bullhole
A historic, 12-foot cotton mill dam is the backdrop for one of the most popular swimming holes in the Triad. The Bullhole, seven miles south of Mocksville in Cooleemee Riverpark, is a shallow, kid-friendly pool at the base of the dam, perfect for wading and floating in your tube. Bring an old pair of tennis or water shoes with good tread to wear while you’re wading among the slippery granite stones.
7. Stone Mountain Falls
A 4.5-mile loop trail takes you across the summit of Stone Mountain, with three waterfalls to soothe your feet along the way. Start at the Upper Trailhead near the Stone Mountain State Park visitor center for your first look at the park’s namesake 600-foot granite dome and a 200-foot waterfall at the base. Continue hiking, adding 3.5 miles out and back on a spur trail to smaller but more accessible cascades at Middle and Lower Falls. The trails to the three falls are mostly flat, but they’re best suited to teens and adults due to the distance and the climb over the Stone Mountain summit.
8. Widows Creek Falls
One of the more secluded waterfalls in Stone Mountain State Park, Widow’s Creek Falls drops 25 feet, tumbles over rocks and empties into a shallow pool. You can relax in the pool and sit in the water that rushes over smooth rock terraces below. To reach the falls, head to the state park’s backpacker parking lot and then hike just a few hundred feet up Widow’s Creek.
9. Sennet Hole
West Point on the Eno, a 404-acre city park six miles north of Durham, is the starting point for a one-mile hike to Sennet Hole. Legend has it that a miserly mill operator who owned the land in the 1700s buried a pot of Spanish gold in the river. The tall tale adds history and adventure to your dip in the Olympic pool-size swimming hole. To reach Sennet Hole, take the white-blazed Buffalo Trail, cross Warren Creek, and then follow the Sennet Hole Trail to the pool. The water in the swimming hole is up to eight feet deep, but there are plenty of rock slabs for lounging and sunbathing when you’re ready to get out of the chilly water.
10. McGalliard Falls
The 40-foot waterfall and sandy beach at McGalliard Falls Park in Valdese is an excellent spot for families with small children to cool off and explore the history of this Waldensian settlement. The Town of Valdese opens the 1906 Meytre Grist Mill on the first Saturday of the month through the summer for milling demonstrations using the mill’s original, 113-year-old waterwheel.
Written by Ann Gibson for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.