Natural springs and swimming holes possess a certain magical beauty. For millennia, human beings have been drawn to natural pools: for survival, recreation, and the life-giving qualities of water. As we may feel we’ve become detached from the natural world, a visit to a refreshing spring or waterfall can be the perfect remedy.
As I’m already daydreaming about the hot, muggy, warm summer ahead, I’ve compiled a list of some of America’s best springs, swimming holes, and natural water parks. I’ve been to a few myself, but trust me when I say I will be visiting every last one of these spots at some point in my life!
Side Note: If you plan to visit any of the following places, make sure you do your research ahead of time to know what to expect in terms of weather conditions, tourist season, and bringing the right gear. Swim at your own risk! (Saying that just makes me want to go right NOW!)
1. Jacob’s Well, Wimberly, Texas
Jacob’s Well is a perennial karstic spring in located northwest of Wimberly, Texas, about a 45 minute drive from Austin. It is one of the longest underwater caves in Texas, surging up thousands of gallons of water per minute and acts as headwaters to the beautiful Cypress Creek. Sacred to the American Indian, essential to the early settlers, revered by divers, “The Well” enjoys a rich history.
From the opening in the creek bed, Jacob’s Well cave descends vertically for about 30 feet, then continues downward at an angle through a series of silted chambers separated by narrow restrictions, finally reaching an average depth of 120 feet. One reviewer on Roadtrippers says, “It is still natural and uncommercialized and a definite must-see in Texas!”
Free to the public!
2. Hamilton Pool, Dripping Springs, Texas
Also about a 45-minute drive from Austin (different direction), is Hamilton Pool, an amazing historic natural swimming pool. Hamilton Creek spills out over limestone outcroppings to create a 50-foot waterfall as it plunges into the head of a steep box canyon. A unique natural area surrounds this pool, collapsed grotto and canyon, formed by thousands of years of water erosion. Lush plant communities, a variety of wildlife species and natural shelter attracted the area’s first inhabitants. Cultural remains date back over 8,000 years.
Open all year with an entry fee.
3. Little River Canyon National Preserve, Fort Payne, Alabama
Little River is unique because it flows for most of its length atop Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama. Forested uplands, waterfalls, canyon rims and bluffs, pools, boulders, and sandstone cliffs offer settings for a variety of recreational activities. Natural resources and cultural heritage come together to tell the story of the Preserve, a special place in the Southern Appalachians. In the winter and early spring the water level is high. Kayakers love this time of year because they can kayak the river. During the summer and early fall, the water level is much lower. No matter the season; Little River Falls is a very beautiful place to visit.
Free to the public! Open all year.
4. Cummins Falls State Park, Cookeville, Tennessee
Cummins Falls State Park is an idyllic, but rugged, 211-acre day-use park located nine miles north of Cookeville on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River on the Eastern Highland Rim. Located in the Cordell Hull Watershed, the area has been a scenic spot and swimming hole for local residents of Jackson and Putnam counties for more than 100 years. Cummins Falls is Tennessee’s eighth largest waterfall in volume of water and is 75 feet high. It’s a 20-minute hike to get to the falls, but it’s worth it!
Open all year, Free.
5. Chena Hot Springs, Alaska
Chena Hot Springs is an unincorporated community located 56.5 miles northeast of Fairbanks, in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. It is renowned for its hot springs and private resort. The recreation area is home to some of the best hiking, canoeing, public-use cabins and fishing in the area. The springs are at the center of a 40-square-mile geothermal area and produce a steady stream of water that, at 165 degrees, must be cooled before you can even think about soaking in it! The facility at Chena Hot Springs has several indoor and outdoor tubs, Jacuzzis, an indoor family swimming pool and outdoor Rock Lake – a boulder-ringed artificial lake that provides a wonderful and relaxing vantage point for watching northern lights in winter. The ice bar at the Aurora Ice Museum looks AMAZING!
6. Conundrum Hot Springs, Rocky Mountains: Elk Range, Colorado
This brings me to another fantastic hot spring: Conundrum Hot Springs, nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains in the Elk Range, near Aspen. There are several pools hewn from craters and fed by plastic pipe, some larger than others and varying in temperature from 102°F to 105°F.No matter which you sink into, you’ll have outrageous alpine views, including glimpses of steep avalanche chutes and waterfalls. Clothing is optional!
This is one of those spots you have to earn it to enjoy it. Taking the Conundrum Creek Trail, it’s 9 miles one-way to get to the spring, so you’ll want to camp the night at the campground nearby. This makes a great little backpacking trip. My husband I trekked up here a few years ago, it was phenomenal. But a few words to the wise: Don’t drink too much whiskey while you’re in the spring, because it might take you over 2 hours to drunkenly wander (barefoot!) in the pitch dark to make it back to your tent.
Free to the public. Please be considerate! Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints!
7. Devil’s Den Spring, Williston, Florida
Let’s head south and get to lower elevation: Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring near Williston, Florida. It’s actually a karst window, in which the roof over a subterranean river has collapsed, exposing the water to the open surface. This underground spring has been home to many extinct animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age, which are on display at The University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. On cold winter mornings you can see steam, like smoke, rising from the chimney opening. Thus, the early settlers gave the name Devil’s Den. With crystal clear water, year round 72 degree water temperatures, ancient rock formations with stalactites, fossil beds dating back 33 million years, and much more, you’re guaranteed to leave with memories that will last a lifetime!
This spot is very popular among scuba divers and snorkelers. I just visited this spot a few weeks ago; it was magical. Bring your own gear if you have it, if not, you can rent. Go on a week day if you can, as the entry free is cheaper and you’ll have less crowds. There is a beautiful campground available for just $10/night.
8. Manatee Springs State Park, Chiefland, Florida
Photo by Laura Bingham
The beautiful spring at Manatee Spring State Park produces an average of 100 million gallons of clear, cool water daily. In winter, West Indian manatees swim upriver to the warmer waters of the springs. Popular for snorkeling and scuba diving, the headwaters of the spring are also a great spot for swimming. The spring run forms a sparkling stream that meanders through hardwood wetlands to the Suwannee River. Camping available starting at $20/night for tents.
While you’re in the area, also check out Fanning Springs State Park (practically right next door). There should be fewer people, and that’s where I found my little Manatee friend! (pictured above)
9. Bridal Veil Falls at Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia
One of the most spectacular canyons in the eastern U.S., Tallulah Gorge is two miles long and nearly 1,000 feet deep. Visitors can hike rim trails to several overlooks, or they can obtain a permit to hike to the gorge floor, which allows you to carefully cross the Tallulah River at a relatively-level trail on the river’s north bank to reach Bridal Veil Falls. So, it’s a bit of work, but worth it!
Open all year, Small fee. Check website for details.
10. Sliding Rock, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Sliding Rock is a waterfall in Western North Carolina, located near Brevard, so named because visitors can slide all the way down the waterfall into the plunge pool below. The water is very cold and is popular for cooling off in the summer.
A $2.00 per person fee is charged by the Forest Service to use the area between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, ONLY when lifeguards and rangers are on duty. The rock is closed to sliders during times of high water or when lightning is detected in the area.
Some people recommend wearing pants or jeans, because sliding down a huge rock can hurt! But it looks like so much fun!
12. Falling Water Falls, Arkansas
This beautiful little waterfall is conveniently located right next to the road, so you don’t even have to get out of your car to see it! Falling Water Falls is located on Falling Water Creek, just a few miles east of Ben Hur, on Falling Water Road/FR#1205. There is also a nice big pool that the falls spill into, and it is a popular swimming hole in the summer. This waterfall is located just south of the Richland Creek Wilderness Area, which also has numerous other beautiful waterfalls, well worth a day of exploring.
Open all year, free to the public.
13. Havasupai Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Then of course, there is the amazing Havasupai Falls, a major destination for hikers who want to visit the incredible waterfalls and sparkling blue-green pools. Hidden in the Grand Canyon, and difficult to get reservations for, this paradise is for those who can plan ahead and enjoy strenuous hikes. The Havasupai people live near the Havasupai Falls in the Supai Village.
I have not been here (YET!) but my husband has,and tells me: Yes, the water actually looks like that! In fact, pictures cannot even do it justice. The water is beyond turquoise blue; it’s indescribable. This one is not for the faint-of-heart, but if you’re committed to doing the hike, you’ll get a BIG pay-off at the end.
Grand Canyon Website for more Info: PLEASE NOTE: It requires a 10 mile hike EACH WAY to the beautiful Blue Green waterfalls of Havasupai. For information about visiting Havasupai on your own, YOU MUST call 928-448-2180. (Read more)
14. Mosquito Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico
Hey, Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory, so it counts!
Hidden along the Caribbean coast on Vieques Island is one of the most spectacular bioluminescent bays in the world. The mysterious blue-green light is created by micro-organisms which thrive in an environment uniquely suited to their needs. You can read a more thorough explanation of why these bioluminescent organisms glow here.
A trip into the bay at night is a magical experience.
My husband and I made a trip to the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico a couple of years ago when we were dating. We had to visit the bioluminescent bay. Though we never do guided group tours, that’s really the only way you can get into the bay, and it is SO worth the money. We got into kayaks with a small group and paddled out into the bay, watching as the glowing organisms swirled and danced around us. You could see fish glowing as they swam by! It really looked like something out of a fairy tale. If you’re brave enough, jump into the water and watch as it seems like YOU are glowing! The sky was crystal-clear that night for us, and in a peaceful moment, you almost could not discern between the dazzling water and the starry night sky.
Ever see the Life of Pi movie? It’s kind of like that scene, minus the whale…