Summer is here and with it comes a whole lot of National Park vacations. Meaning you’ll be hiking, climbing, camping, and running — and then jumping in as many bodies of water as possible to cool off from all the activity. While I love a long hike or a scenic drive, there’s just nothing quite like relaxing in cold water surrounded by some of the United States’ most beautiful backdrops. And you might be surprised at how many of the major park sites that are otherwise landlocked have epic swim spots.
But with so many options, which should you prioritize this summer? That’s where I come in. I’ve visited nearly every major National Park in the United States over the past four years, and have jumped in as many swimming holes, lakes, rivers, and streams as humanly possible during my travels. So today, I’ve picked my favorites and ranked them.
When ranking the swimming spots, I considered several things.
- That the water wasn’t from an ocean. While many National Parks are on islands and the coast, those are obvious. I wanted the lesser-known and more unexpected. And while lakes are not generally considered a “swimming hole,” I feel like a swimming spot is a nice in-between — so those are the ones I ranked.
- I thought about what you’d be surrounded by while soaking. Is the background a 10,000+ ft mountain or a simple prairie? Is the landscape surreal or fairly easy to find in other places?
- Is the spot accessible to the majority of people? While backpacking into an alpine lake to jump in (and freeze) is invigoration (and looks cool on the gram) it’s not the undertaking most of us want when we’re looking for some summer swimming.
- I considered the crowds. While the swim spots aren’t generally the most crowded parts of many National Parks, getting into the parks that have the best ones can be.
- Finally, are there other cool things to do nearby? Hikes to work up a sweat before your dip? Drinks to be procured or spots to sit and watch the sunset? Those spots ranked higher for me.
Let’s dive — figuratively and then literally — in!
13 – VOYAGEURS – RAINY LAKE – MINNESOTA
This lesser-visited park in Northern Minnesota is a “water-based” park, with many locations in the park only accessible by watercraft in the summer. With more than a third of the park underwater, it is a great place to take a dip when the water warms up in the summer months.
A nice choice is Rainy Lake, where you can canoe, kayak, fish, and even houseboat in designated or undesignated sites on the water. Then when the midwestern humidity starts to get to you, just jump in the lake.
BEST FOR: A POST-FISHING DIP
12 – NEW RIVER GORGE — GLADE CREEK TRAIL — WEST VIRGINIA
New River Gorge is the United States’ newest park designated as a “National Park” — number 63! And with reportedly over 2/3 of the population of the United States living within a days drive, it is the perfect option for a quick weekend getaway for most Americans.
I’ve visited a couple of times and I’m excited to get back and find some swimming holes and waterfalls while enjoying a part of the country that isn’t often thought about when considering a National Park vacation. A popular swimming hole is located on the Glade Creek Trail, a 5.6-mile (one-way) moderate hike that follows an abandoned narrow gauge railroad trail along Glade Creek. Work up a sweat before getting in the refreshing water at the falls.
Plan your trip to New River Gorge here.
BEST FOR: EAST COAST WEEKEND WARRIORS
11 – GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS — GREENBRIER SWIMMING HOLE— NORTH CAROLINA / TENNESSEE
Did you know that of the 63 major US National Parks, last year one park had nearly three times the amount of visitors as the second most visited? It’s true. Despite the parks being more popular than ever, there is still one park with visitation that always tops the list: Great Smoky Mountains. In 2022 nearly 13 million people ventured to the lush southern landscape, with Grand Canyon coming in second with just 4.7 million visitors.
I’ve visited in winter and summer and thoroughly enjoyed both. And while there are several areas of water, one spot comes up much more than others: the Greenbrier swimming hole. It’s located near Gatlinburg (one of the gateway cities to the Smokies) and easily accessible from Route 321. The swimming hole is on the Little Pigeon River, and deep enough for a relaxing swim day.
Make a camping reservation for Great Smoky Mountains National Park here.
BEST FOR: FAMILY TRAVELERS
10 – INDIANA DUNES – WEST BEACH – INDIANA
Indiana Dunes is one of the newest parks to receive the designation of simply “National Park” and is still a mystery to many travelers outside of the Midwest. On the banks of Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes is home to several beautiful beaches. While all beaches within the 15-mile stretch have water and restrooms, West Beach also has lifeguards and showers during the summer months.
Pro-Tip: Get there very early on weekends to secure parking, or opt for a weekday soak.
BEST FOR: CITY KIDS ON A DAY TRIP
9 – YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – FIREHOLE CANYON SWIMMING AREA – WYOMING
I was surprised when I first saw a swimming area in Yellowstone National Park. I mean, basically, all signage everywhere in the park is committed to telling visitors to stay on the trails and paths and never step anywhere near the otherworldly hydrothermal features. But Yellowstone is a huge park, with many different areas, and one that is perfect for swimming.
Firehole Canyon Swimming Area is generally closed until mid-summer to swimmers in the Firehole River due to high water and strong currents. But if you time your visit right – and get a parking spot – you’re in for a unique and refreshing experience.
Make a camping reservation for Yellowstone National Park here.
BEST FOR: BUCKET LIST TRAVELERS
8 – OLYMPIC — LAKE CRESCENT— WASHINGTON STATE
The Olympic Peninsula is by far one of the most beautiful and diverse places I have ever visited. Olympic National Park boasts mountain ranges, rainforests, hot springs, waterfalls, beaches, and lakes — truly an outdoors person’s paradise. Not to mention it’s just a short drive from Seattle.
I’ve visited primarily during the rainy springtime and could only sit on the lakeshores imagining what my day might be like in another season. Swimming surrounded by rolling mountains and lush forests whose colors look too emerald green to be real. When I make my way back on a sunny summer day the first lake I’m jumping in is Lake Crescent.
Make a camping reservation for Olympic National Park here.
BEST FOR: PACIFIC NORTHWEST EXPLORERS
7 – GREAT SAND DUNES — MEDANO CREEK— COLORADO
Great Sand Dunes National Park might feel like a surprising addition to this list. As a park that’s known for being home to the tallest sand dune in North America, water isn’t the first (or even second or third) thing that comes to mind when you ponder planning a trip. But while there’s not exactly a swimming hole, the park does boast one of the most fun places to get into the water in a National Park.
Medano Creek is a seasonally flowing creek that runs between the parking area and the sand dunes. As the snow starts to melt in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in late April, the water begins to flow. By late May to early June, you can experience the “surge flow” of the creek, with waves up to 20 inches deep! It’s a great place to play in the water or even just float.
Make a camping reservation for Great Sand Dunes here.
BEST FOR: THE AMATEUR SKIMBOARDER
6 – NORTH CASCADES — DIABLO LAKE — WASHINGTON STATE
Look at any list of “Underrated National Parks” and North Cascades is probably at the top. Despite its paradoxical “famously underrated” status, it still isn’t well visited, despite not being very difficult to get to and looking like the photo above with #nofilter.
North Cascades is known for its high mountain peaks and the clear blue water of Diablo Lake. But many people don’t seem to know that you can swim here, too. Colonial Creek Campground is a great place to get in and see the shockingly blue water for yourself.
Make a camping reservation for North Cascades National Park here.
BEST FOR: BLUE WATER-OBSESSED INSTAGRAMMERS
5 – GRAND TETON – STRING LAKE – WYOMING
Grand Teton is chock full of lakes and rivers that are a welcome respite on a summer day. String Lake is a favorite of mine, with close proximity to trailheads, plenty of spots to lounge around the shore, and shallow waters perfect for a SUP and then a dip.
The sandy bottom of the lake makes it more comfortable than many other alpine swim spots, and the shallow water warms up a bit more than some of your other options in the park. Stop for a swim after a long hike, then stay to watch the sunset.
Make a camping reservation for Grand Teton here.
BEST FOR: SUNSET LOVERS
4 – YOSEMITE — MERCED RIVER — CALIFORNIA
Yosemite is nothing if not iconic. The granite surroundings and waterfalls take your breath away. It’s known for hiking and backpacking primarily, but what I really love to do is relax near the water. The Merced River runs through the valley and is the perfect place to get away from some of the hustle of the park and refresh yourself after a hike.
Make a camping reservation for Yosemite National Park here.
BEST FOR: BAY AREA LONG WEEKENDERS
3 – CRATER LAKE – CLEETWOOD COVE – OREGON
Crater Lake often gets sidelined in the summer by its impressive neighbors to the north – Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades National Park. But it is one of the most shockingly beautiful places to visit in the United States. Formed by a volcanic eruption collapsing a tall peak, it is the deepest and arguably most pristine lake in the country. Fed by rain and snow, its dramatic blue waters are a sight to see – and swim in.
Cleetwood Cove Trail is the only legal way to access the shore of the lake, and swimming is permitted within 100 yards of the shore. The short but strenuous 1.1-mile hike down drops 700 feet through a series of switchbacks. Take a dip in the cool waters, but conserve your energy to make it back up.
BEST FOR: SMALL PARK LOVERS
2 – GLACIER — LAKE MCDONALD — MONTANA
Visiting Glacier National Park is a bucket list experience, to be sure. There are so many iconic images of the park, but one that is most often shared also happens to be the best spot to swim: Lake McDonald. With its multicolored pebbles that are just begging to be Instagrammed, to the clear water and beautiful mountains all around you. I hate the cliche, but… Lake McDonald is almost too beautiful to believe.
I’ve spent whole days walking the shore, dipping in the lake, and drinking a beer at the Lake McDonald Lodge wondering how on earth this was real life. I recommend you do the same.
BEST FOR: ROAD-TRIP WARRIORS
1 – GRAND TETON — JACKSON LAKE — WYOMING
I can’t write a National Parks list without including Grand Teton National Park in some way, usually at the top of the list. It has it all: dramatic vistas and mountain ranges, incredible hiking and mountaineering. But what I love the most is the water. There are lakes for every activity: kayak, SUP, and even a marina filled with motor and sailboats. I always make a stop at the swim beach (well, “rocks on the shore” beach) on Jackson Lake to spend an afternoon relaxing. Surprisingly it is never that crowded, and always more beautiful than I remembered.
Jackson is a big lake with big views. Pro-tip: camp at Colter Bay and you can walk right to the beach. Otherwise, there’s parking right nearby, and a grocery store (with liquor store) to grab some food and picnic on the shore.
Make a camping reservation for Grand Teton National Park here.
BEST FOR: EPIC MOUNTAIN VIEW CHASERS