When you hear the words “national park” what comes to mind? Towering trees, awe-inspiring mountain ranges, amazing biodiversity, and wildlife? The places where you go to hike, summit mountains, camp, and pull over every time the shoulder widens to ooh and ahh?
I think of all of those things too, of course. And I do all of them as a national parks-focused traveler. But the thing I really love to do, which might be a little more unexpected on a National Park vacation, is to swim. In lakes and near beaches and in rivers and swimming holes. There is something so quintessentially summer about donning a bathing suit and jumping into a lake, even if the water is still cold enough to make you scream. It just feels right.
Through my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to swim in some of the most beautiful national parks in the United States. And I’m making plans to jump into some new swimming holes this summer. Here are my eight favorites for you to plan your own escape.
Grand Tetons — Jackson Lake — WYOMING
I can’t write a National Parks list without including Grand Teton National Park in some way. 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 have a picnic on the shore.
Other great places to swim: String Lake and Jackson Lake at Signal Mountain
Make a camping reservation for Grand Teton National Park here.
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 four 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 2020 over 12 million people ventured to the lush southern landscape, with Yellowstone coming in second at just 3.8 million.
I have only visited the park once in late winter — so no swimming for me. But when asking around researching for my next trip, one spot comes up much more than others: the Greenbrier swimming hole. Located near Gatlinburg (one of the gateway cities to the Smokies), it’s 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.
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 visited 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.
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 this.
North Cascades is known for its high mountain peaks and the clear blue water of Diablo Lake. What many people don’t seem to know is that you can actually 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.
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 spent a whole day 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.
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 starts 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 to float.
Make a camping reservation for Great Sand Dunes here.
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 day-use reservation for Yosemite National Park here.
New River Gorge — Glade Creek Trail — WEST VIRGINIA
New River Gorge is the United States’ newest park designated as a “National Park” — number 63! I haven’t visited (yet) but I have painstakingly researched all there is to do in this West Virginia landmark. I’m excited to hike on the Glade Creek Trail 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.
Make a camping reservation for New River Gorge National Park here.