Life

The Best Natural Waterparks In The United States


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Tell us there’s something better than a waterpark. Just you try. Being propelled down a chute by rushing water, swinging on a rope like Tarzan before letting go and plunging into a cool pool, and riding an innertube down a lazy river are all core ingredients in the recipe for an epic summer.

The only downsides? The crowds. The… capitalism of it all. The pricey snacks and hair-in-pools. The chlorine. And now that we list them out like that, these things do sort of drain some of the joy from a waterpark experience.

So what’s better than a waterpark? A natural waterpark. Rock slides, rope swings, and swimming holes. Visiting national and state parks, hiking, and getting wet under the shade of old growth forests. We gathered ten natural waterparks here for your enjoyment. Many of them have waterslides carved into riverbeds by centuries of erosion, but there are also some rope swings and even a quarry with a zip line. They make for a perfect summer day trip if you’re that close. If not… well… summer is the time for road trips!

Johnson’s Shut-Ins (Reynolds County, Missouri)

Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is located on the East Fork Black River in the southeastern part of the state. It’s named for the shut-ins — those areas where the scope of the river is altered by hard rocks that fail to erode under the force of the water. This creates a series of small pools and chutes that people ride in swirls of water. Because the rocks in the area are igneous ones that have been worn smooth, you can get going pretty fast when the flow is strong. Take the obstacle course that includes shallow dips, deep pools, and cascading pathways.

People in Missouri literally call this “nature’s waterpark,” so expect it to be fairly crowded. If you get a chance, go early on a sweltering weekday. And be sure to check the park website for the water conditions before you make the drive. They are generally fine, but if the river levels rise to a dangerous extent, the gates are closed.

Sliding Rock (Brevard, North Carolina)

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, people looking to cool off near Asheville line up single file to wait for a turn on Sliding Rock, a 60-foot flat, angled boulder that some people call nature’s Slip n’ Slide. If you aren’t feeling like engaging in the short ride vs. long wait pattern for your visit, opt out and hit the observation decks to watch other people scream and splash into the eight-foot-deep pool at the bottom. That water is 50-60 degrees, so it can wring out some shrieks.

If you go during “off” hours, you can visit for free, but the restrooms aren’t open and there isn’t a lifeguard on duty. It really is better to go between 10 am and six pm and pay the three-dollar entrance. Honestly, the rock is pretty safe, but why risk drowning without a lifeguard present?

The Blue Hole (Wimberley, Texas)

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Every state has at least one swimming hole, but Texas has a whole load of them. And they look exactly like the image of a swimming hole that you’ve developed over years of seeing them in popular culture. The Blue Hole is rimmed by old growth bald cypress trees and the surrounding area is a mix of native grasses, colorful wildflowers, and rocky outcroppings studded with central Texas shrubs and trees. It sounds perfect. It only needs one thing…a rope swing.

Guess what? It has two. Swing to your heart’s delight.

It’s worth noting that swimming here is more complicated than rolling up with a picnic and a cooler and snagging a spot for the day. You’re encouraged to make reservations because once the park reaches capacity, no one else gets to go in. Plus, the swimming area isn’t open every day, so there isn’t any upside to forgoing the reservation and driving out there on a whim. Admission to the swimming area is ten bucks (and that’s still less expensive than a waterpark).

Enfield Falls (Ithaca, New York)

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Flying through summer ☀️

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