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Jonathan Stull | 06.26.2017

On hot days in the middle of summer, those oases we retreat to in search of reprieve can fill up quicker than we’d like. It’s days like these, when you’re shoulder to shoulder on a sandstone bench with your feet paddling in waters occupied by more floaties than hiking boots, that make you wonder if there might be a better solution.

There is: take a walk. Heat makes us crazy, and in times like these we resort to the most readily available option. If you can tolerate the heat for an hour or two and hike to your cold-water salvation, you may find indeed a quieter, cooler pool without the chaos of crowds. Here are a few suggestions to get your backcountry excursion going in the right direction.

  • Fins N Things Canyoneering, Sand Flats Recreation Area, Utah: Squeeze through slot canyons on your way to the swimming holes along the North Fork of Mill Creek.
  • Butte Creek Falls, Willamette Valley, Oregon: Falls cluster around Butte Creek, and many of them, including Abiqua and Butte Creek Falls, are hidden at the end of gravel logging roads—some of them requiring four-wheel drive. Upper Butte Creek Falls has a great late-summer swimming hole when you’re finished awing over the falls.
  • Cleetwood Cove Trail, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon: The trail is only 1.1 miles long, but in that span it drops 700 feet. It’s the only way to jump into the caldera lake. Worth it? You decide.
  • Thornton Lakes, North Cascades National Park, Washington: Perched at the end of 10 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain, the Thornton Lakes have a 360-degree view to go with cool waters on a hot summer day.
  • Catawba Falls, Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina: The 100-foot cascade in the Blue Ridge Mountains boasts a small pool to swim in, and the hike in, 3 miles from start to finish, passes the ruins of a hydroelectric dam.
  • Abrams Falls Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee: The 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls and the nearby swimming hole is a long way to go to cool off in the summer, but the hike follows an idyllic course along the creek. Keep an eye out for river otters and rhododendron.
  • Mooney + Beaver Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: The trek to Havasupai is long enough, and there are caves, slippery rock precipices, and creek crossings to consider on the way to Beaver Falls. Still, celadon waters in a desert oasis are more than compelling enough.
  • Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah: Hike through sand along a relatively short but slow-going trail to a 130-foot waterfall and a picturesque swimming hole.
  • Big Sur River Gorge, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California: A granite gorge off the beaten track, the swimming holes in Big Sur River Gorge are only accessible by walking the riverbed at low flow.
  • Mill Creek Swimming Holes, Moab, Utah: You can park your car and walk to a swimming hole in less than 100 feet, but the best swimming holes are a mile into the canyon and feature Native American petroglyphs.


Broken legs are very common at the Moab Mill Creek swimming holes. Witnessed rescue teams extracting a victim of a compound leg fracture earlier this month. Use extreme caution when jumping into river pools. The spillway pool just above the parking lot has a very small target. Full depth (perhaps 10') is only the size of a hoola hoop--I know because I retrieved a go-pro from the bottom using a snorkel mask. Pool up left/North fork is more subject to change, usually has a larger target, but is seldom more than 7' deep. Common to see 1-2 hundred people between the two swimming holes, unfortunately. Cascades further upstream from upper millcreek pool are less frequented, but there were posted warnings of nudity, etc. (fortunately, we found it unoccupied).
Mooney and Havasupai are in the Grand Canyon but in the Supai Reservation, not within the Park boundary.
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