Standing in the sunshine on the rocky bank, with rivulets of cool water dripping from your hair and swimsuit, you wait your turn at the base of the old oak. You’re up. You grip the fraying rope, get a running start, swing out over the pool of clear water, and release. Cannonball!
In summertime, when the mercury taunts the tip of the thermometer like an angry red fist, the best place to cool down is an old-fashioned swimming hole. These often-secluded natural pools are the perfect antidote to crowded pools with zinc-covered teenage lifeguards or water parks with $8 hot dogs. And they offer a dose of not-yet-forgotten Americana, where sunny days are measured by best friends and belly flops.
Swimming holes are where we shrug off responsibilities and play with the enthusiastic zeal of a child. They’re also places where we come of age. In The Man in the Moon, 14-year-old Dani (Reese Witherspoon) has her first kiss with the gorgeous 17-year-old neighbor (Jason London)—and subsequently learns her first lessons in love—down at the swimming hole.
Pancho Doll, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times, is something of an aficionado. For his first book, Day Trips with a Splash: Swimming Holes of California, Doll logged 25,000 miles in his truck searching the state for the best, from the Oregon state line to San Diego County. He has since penned a whole series that chronicles the best freshwater spots across the country. This is a man who knows a thing or two about taking a dip. “The Holy Trinity of swimming-hole quality is height, depth, and privacy,” says Doll. “Surrounding rock provides a sense of enclosure, often a nice slab inclined for summer repose, even a ledge to jump from.”
And what says “swimming hole” more than an old-fashioned rope swing? At the cypress-studded Blue Hole in Wimberley, TX, two such swings hang from burly tree limbs. Drop in with the Austinites who come to float on inner tubes and picnic on the grassy banks.
While these natural oases might seem most at home in the South, you’ll find swimming holes across the country. At Peekamoose Blue Hole in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, dappled light bounces off leafy canopies and swimmers submerge themselves in the cool waters like an invigorating summer baptism.
So grab your swimsuit, a towel, and a pair of water shoes, and jump in at some of our favorite swimming holes. Last one in’s a rotten egg!—Alice Bruneau