An Old-fashioned Rite of Passage
By Jason Frye | Photography courtesy of John Starrett and Visit Jackson County Florida
Looking for fresh-water swimming holes where you can cool off this summer? These Southern waters offer a refreshing dip and a little nostalgia.
I was 7 or 8 years old when I dammed up Snap Creek with the help of my grandfather. With flat rocks, round rocks and one good-sized log, we worked to make a swimmin’ hole. That summer, he and my grandmother taught me to shuffle cards and play rummy; he also told me stories about being a kid – where he hunted, what chores he had to do, how fixing up a swimming hole was about the best thing that a bunch of poor holler kids could do back then.
So, we built one. Or we tried to. The stream was too shallow and we needed rain. What we built was more of a splashin’ hole, which was good enough for me. I stripped to my Underoos and played all afternoon. My grandfather even took off his shoes and socks and waded too, and for a few moments, we were just two kids in the swimming hole together.
That splashin’ hole was a sorry affair, but something in the idea — a swimming hole in the creek nearby, right down there at the river, by a waterfall no one really talked about —was awesome. It still thrills my 7-year-old self and the adult me, so as I travel around to write guidebooks and stories, I’m always looking out for a place where I can shimmy into my board shorts or skin it back to my boxers (or less) and go for a dip. Here are a few places I’ve found around the South where you can swim in proper swimming holes, crystal clear waters, natural springs, and other spots to splash the day away.
Midnight Hole, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You can go for a swim along Deep Creek near Bryson City, N.C., and there are several places where the Oconaluftee and Little Pigeon Rivers make for fine swimming on the North Carolina and Tennessee sides of the park. But look north, to the Cataloochee/Big Creek area of the park for an easy hike with a great payout: Midnight Hole. Six feet deep, perfect for swimming, Midnight Hole earned its name from the deep blue-green color of the water. It’s picturesque and popular, so take a photo or two before you go for a swim. To get there, take Big Creek Trail 1.4 miles, then look for the white blaze and short side trail on the left-hand side of the path. Families and other hikers frequent Midnight Hole, so if you’re going for a swim, be modest or careful or both.
Lake Tiak-O’Khata, Louisville, Miss.
More than a swimmin’ hole, Lake Tiak-O’Khata is an experience. A pair of restaurants, a lakefront motel and cabins, plus an RV park make this a destination. And you come for the lake, of course. The 100-acre Lake Tiak-O’Khata has a sandy beach and designated swimming area where water slides and piers give kids and adults plenty of options for how and where to play. Feel free to fish in the rest of the lake, but the water’s fine and if the fish aren’t biting (or if you just want to say they aren’t biting), then it’s time for a swim.
Little River Canyon, Ala.
In the Little River Canyon National Preserve about 90 minutes east of Huntsville, the so-called Hippy Hole has been something of a swimming hole tradition for generations of Alabamans. Martha’s Falls takes a short drop into the plunge pool that is the Hippy Hole, and folks swim, float, and frolic here, so bring your sunscreen, your pool toys and lunch, because you’re going to want to stick around. Oh, and that name, Hippy Hole? Rumor has it some long hairs smoking funny cigarettes used to frequent this spot for swimming in nature’s original bathing suit, so you might want to make a little noise as you get close to this swimming hole.
Edge of the World, Amicalola River, Ga.
Near Dawsonville, Ga., the Amicalola River Trail — called the Edge of the World Trail by locals — leads you three miles into the wilderness to this swimming hole that mixes some small rapids with lazy pools where you can float the afternoon away. It gets popular, so arrive early, especially if you want some unspoiled photography or some solitude while you take a dip.
The Ozarks, Ark.
Arkansas is positively loaded with swimming holes, but there’s no better place than the Ozark Mountains to find a place to dive in. Blanchard Springs Recreation Area might be one of the best known as this is a great spot to swim, fish, hike, picnic, and take in the scenery. Gunner Pool, northwest of the town of Mountain View, is a picturesque spot: a crystal-clear mountain spring and natural swimming hole surrounded by tall bluffs. And along the Buffalo National River, you’ll find a dozen spots to take a dip, but check out Buffalo Point for the swimming and the views.
Blue Springs Recreation Area, Fla.
In a county park a few miles from Marianna Jackson’s Blue Spring, a first-magnitude spring that pumps around 85 million gallons of freshwater a day, forms the 202-acre Merritt’s Mill Pond. You can swim in the mill pond, but the best swimming is in the headwaters where the water is absolutely crystal clear and the bowl makes for a fun spot to splash. Don’t forget Merritt’s Mill Pond. You can take a dip there if you want or you can hop in a kayak and explore. Cave divers come from the world over to dive in the underwater caverns here.