Many strategies for dealing with mid-Atlantic summer heat involve cool water: outdoor pools, ocean waves or slow-flowing rivers.
But there’s nothing quite like plunging into a boulder-strewn, tree-lined swimming hole for that special respite that only a mountain stream can provide — and the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia have plenty of offerings.
On the eastern flank of Shenandoah National Park, west of Charlottesville, the Moormans River gathers the springs and seeps from ancient rocks into its north and south forks above the Sugar Hollow reservoir at the end of VA Route 614.
One of the swimming holes here is known locally as the “Snake Hole,” but the name doesn’t deter visitors. You’ll find it by taking a forested trail from the reservoir along the north fork of the Moormans. The trail follows a 20-foot ledge carved out of sandy sediment during the high flows of hurricane rains in the 1990s.
Where the trail levels off, stepping stones across the river form a shallow pool just right for testing the waters. The swimming hole lies about 500 yards ahead, deep enough for full-body immersion and a possible water slide through smooth boulders from the pool just above.
Mila Zimmerman, a Charlottesville acupuncturist, spends at least one day here with her children and their friends every summer. “We just lose our sense of time, playing with the elements at hand,” Zimmerman said.
“The flowing water, the smells, the creatures they encounter,” she said, are more than enough to fill the day.
Like many swimming holes, the Moormans River is no hidden gem. On a summer day, the parking lot can be filled by visitors headed here or up a trail along the southern fork to the Blue Hole, less than a half mile from the parking area.
But the popularity of these places is no reason not to visit them — or any others in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the elevation change alone can provide 5 to 10 Fahrenheit degrees of cooling relief. Making the swimming hole or waterfall a hiking destination adds a particular satisfaction.
To the south in Augusta County, the St. Marys River collects water flowing from the western side of the Blue Ridge down through the St. Marys Wilderness Area. From the wilderness area parking area off Virginia Route 608, the trail weaves along the river through lush summer vegetation fed by periodic overflows during summer storms. Your destination is a 25-foot waterfall, but there are plenty of spots along the way to cool off.
On a western spur of Shenandoah National Park, south of Front Royal, Overall Run flows toward the valley between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains. A quarter-mile hike from the Thompson Hollow Trailhead leads to a series of pools along the stream. Farther up is Overall Falls. At 93-feet, it’s the tallest waterfall in the park.
There are several options in Washington National Forest along Passage Creek. You’ll find several in the heart of the Elizabeth Furnace National Recreation Area, named for the iron ore furnaces that once dotted the landscape. The creek is a tributary of the Shenandoah River’s North Fork and flows through the valley between the two spine-like ridges of Massanutten Mountain.
One of the deepest spots on Passage Creek is yet another “Blue Hole,” a short hike from the recreation area campground. Walk a bit farther to reach Buzzard Rock Hole, just as satisfying and reported to be a tad less busy in the summer.
There are a few things to consider when visiting any swimming hole. Start by making sure that you won’t be trespassing. While many swimming holes are detailed online, keep to those on public lands.
Mon Zamora and Raisa Lea, avid hikers and authors of 20 Weekend Trips Near Washington, D.C., remind readers to watch their step whenever traversing the rocks and shallows of these kinds of swimming holes. On a camping trip to Overall Run, a slip on an algae-covered rock sent Zamora to the emergency room for stitches.
Consider, too, that water levels vary in the summer and with the weather. A small chute of flowing water sliding into a pool can become a dangerous torrent after a heavy rain. Investigate the bottom of any beckoning pool before jumping in lest you collide with hidden rocks. Don’t venture out alone, and always respect the power of water.
Remember that these creeks are sustenance for wild animals and home to fish and other aquatic species.
Protect yourself from the sun and insects, but sparingly, and practice “leave no trace” ethics when in the wild, no matter how many other people are present.
But do pack a snack and fresh water and linger awhile. Investigate what’s under that palm-sized rock on the bottom — dragonfly or stonefly larvae? — before gently returning it to the stream. Shiver in the shade of overhanging trees, then soak up the heat of a sun-drenched rock.
And when you leave at the end of the day, you’re likely to feel, as Zimmerman puts it, “tired and dirty and happy.”
Ready for a dip? Know before you go: