When summer hits in the south, there are few things more refreshing than taking a swim, whether it’s a in a swimming pool, the ocean, a lake, or a river. However, while any of these options will do the trick for cooling you down on a hot day, if you’re looking for a truly unique swimming experience, it’s hard to beat the charm – and refreshment – of good old fashioned swimming holes.
By definition, swimming holes are small bodies of water found within a creek, stream, or river that are somewhat separated from the larger body of water and are deep enough for a person to swim. But, because they are still part of the moving cycle of water, they tend to stay fresh and cool. Of course, like any body of water, swimming holes are not without their safety concerns and even if a hole looks fun, it might be best for wading and limited water play. Also, because they are found in natural settings, lifeguards aren’t usually present and currents can sometimes be strong – which means that swimming buddies are a must at all times and you should always use your best judgement when deciding to wade versus swim. However, with proper attention to safety, swimming holes can provide an incredible summer experience for your whole family.
Thanks to the large number of rivers and streams in Virginia, swimming holes can be found in nearly every part of the state. Perhaps you’ve visited some of the swimming holes in and around Richmond already. But if you haven’t, or if you’re looking for a fun day trip that combines swimming with time spent in the great outdoors, then be sure to check out our list of some of the best swimming holes within an hour or two’s drive. And of course, if you have a favorite swimming hole we’ve left off the list, be sure to let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Greater Richmond Area
Located on the James River in downtown Richmond, Belle Isle is by far one of the most popular outdoor areas in the city. This 54-acre island boasts a rich history dating back hundreds of years. Once a Native American fishing ground, the island saw its first European visitors in 1607 when Captain John Smith landed there. Later, during the Civil War, it was home to one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps. Today, the island offers hiking, bike trails, fishing, and, of course, water play.
With large flat rocks lining the shores of the island, there are few places better for spending a day wading, sunning, or rock hopping. The island is part of the James River Park System and it should be noted the park officially states that the water is not suitable for swimming due to the presence of rapids and strong currents. But if you’re looking to splash, wade, and just cool down in general, the pools of water in and among the rocks offer the perfect solution.
Address: Lee Bridge Richmond, VA 23225
Located on the southside of Richmond along the banks of the James River, Pony Pasture got its name from the ponies that were once kept on the land. Today, this James River Park is a popular destination for swimming, sunbathing, hiking, and biking. Like Belle Isle, Pony Pasture has large flat rocks and boulders that make for great picnic and sunning spots. However, unlike Belle Isle, swimming is a much safer endeavor here. The large rocks and boulders are filled with exciting crevices and pools to explore, and when the water levels are under five feet, the Class II rapids along the shoreline offer natural water slides that will keep kids and adults alike entertained for hours. Depending on water levels, you can even swim or rock-hop to the 100-acre Williams Island located across from Pony Pasture. Keep in mind that little ones should wear life jackets and it’s recommended that everyone have proper footwear.
If you’re up for a small hike, what you find at the end of the North Bank trail will be more than worth the effort it took to get there. Located near Maymont on the northside of the river, North Bank Park, or Texas Beach as it’s known to many, features sandy beaches along with some of the calmest, safest waters in the James River. While the park can get busy, you’ll usually find that it’s not as crowded as some of the more popular spots like Pony Pasture. As an added bonus, this portion of the James River is said to have the best snorkeling in the area, so be sure to bring along some masks and snorkels to see fish, turtles, shells, crawdads, snails, and more.
Location: 1941 Texas Ave., Richmond, VA 23220
Also known as the Tredegar Street Takeout, Tredegar Beach is located under the CSX Viaduct on Tredegar Street at Brown’s Island in downtown Richmond. With a large sandy beach and shallow waters perfect for swimming, splashing, and playing, this popular summer destination is a great family spot. If you have a more adventurous crowd, there is a rope swing that many visitors like to use – but it’s not officially sanctioned, so use with caution!
Location: 463 Tredegar Street Richmond, VA 23219
Located about an hour or so out of Richmond in Victoria, VA, Nottoway Falls, or “The Falls” as it’s known by the locals, provides a picturesque swimming spot for even the hottest of days. Set just off the Nottoway River, Nottoway Falls is part of a man-made fishing reservoir and lake, however, the falls themselves are natural and run over large rocks making them perfect for sliding and splashing. With plenty of swimming below the falls, it’s easy to spend a day here picnicking, sunning, and swimming.
Address: 5036 Falls Road, Victoria, VA 23974
Central and Western Virginia
If you love the idea of a hike, but worry about the heat, then head to the Sugar Hollow Reservoir and hike your way to the Blue Hole – one of the deepest swimming holes around. The hike is only about one and a half miles and leads straight to this delightful forest gem. The Blue Hole is fed by a small waterfall on the right of the path and features a large rock perfect for jumping in to the cool waters. Keep in mind, the water does get deep, so as with all of our swimming holes, use caution and keep your eyes on little ones especially.
Snake Hole is located nearby the Blue Hole and also provides a refreshing break from the summer heat. Despite the name, snakes are not necessarily a major concern, although like any outdoor spot in Virginia, you’ll always want to keep an eye out for woodland critters.
Both of these fantastic swimming holes are fed by the Moorman’s River and can be reached by parking in one of the two Sugar Hollow Reservoir parking lots.
This recreation area and campground located in Bath County in Warm Springs, VA, is an outdoors lover’s delight. Not only can you set up camp for a weekend with a variety of amenities, but you’ll also have access to trails, fishing, and one of the state’s most remarkable geological features – a duct that blows air out of surrounding rocks at a constant 58 degrees year-round. But what we love about this natural wonderland is the plentiful swimming holes located at the end of hiking trails.
Address: SR 39, Warm Springs, VA 24484
Not only is Goshen Pass a strikingly beautiful place for a hike or picnic, but it’s also one of the most popular swimming spots in the western part of the state. Located just outside of Lexington, VA, about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Richmond, Goshen Pass is a mountain gorge formed by the Maury River. The pass provides excellent swimming holes, chances to play among the rapids, and opportunities for tubing and paddling sports. Surrounded by forest, sheer rocky cliffs, and tranquil nature, Goshen Pass is well worth a day trip.
Address: Route 39, Lexington, VA 24450
From the Skyline Drive at milepost 46 in Amherst, VA, head east Highway 60, then take a right on Panther Falls Road. After about four miles, you’ll find a trail that leads to one of the most delightful swimming holes on our list. Panther Falls is fed by the Pedlar River and showcases a 10-foot waterfall framed by two massive boulders that are ideal for jumping off of into the deep pool below. For those less adventurous, there are ample smaller, calm pools, as well as gentle slides for a more relaxing way to enjoy the cool water.
Address: Panther Falls Rd, Amherst, VA 24521
It doesn’t get much better than a swimming hole beneath the oldest covered bridge in Virginia, now does it? Visitors to Humpback Bridge in Covington would most likely agree. As one of the only remaining covered bridges in the US, Humpback Bridge dates back to the 1820s. After three wooden iterations of the bridge were washed away due to flooding, a steel-trussed version was put in place in 1929 where it remains to this day. While the waters of Dunlap Creek, which runs under the bridge, are not necessarily a swimming hole by definition, they do provide a perfect pool-like place to swim, wade, and splash the day away. Bring a picnic and eat along the shore, then cool down from the heat of the day.
Address: 9211 Rumsey Rd, Covington, VA 24426
For the more dedicated hikers out there, Riprap Hollow is a win-win. Like some of the other swimming holes on our list, a hike is required to reach this pristine body of water off of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park about an hour or so northwest of Charlottesville and roughly two hours from Richmond. And while the hike is a bit more strenuous than some (a 10-mile loop along the Riprap Trail, the Wildcat Ridge Trail, and the Appalachian Trail or a ~3.5 mile hike straight to the swimming hole), the reward is well worth it. Not only are the mountain-stream fed waters cool and refreshing, but the hike there offers stunning views from Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rocks.
Address: (Riprap Trailhead/Parking Area) Skyline Drive Milepost 90, Grottoes, VA 24441
St. Mary’s Falls can be found in the Saint Mary’s Wilderness Area, one of the largest designated wilderness areas in Virginia. Historically, the site was an old iron ore mining area and today, offers beautiful hikes and trails. But one of the best features of this area is the waterfall-fed swimming hole found at the end of 2.2-mile hike. Best of all, if you continue on for another .3 miles, you’ll find a second, equally fantastic swimming hole along the trail. The hike itself is not too challenging and, even on the hottest day, it’s a trip worth taking.
With more than one option for swimming along the banks of Passage Creek in the George Washington National Forest, you’ll find that the few hours that it takes to get there are worth it. Just past the Elizabeth Furnace National Recreation Area campground, you’ll find the Blue Hole – one of the deepest spots on Passage Creek, which is a tributary of the Shenandoah River’s North Fork. Head a little farther down the shoreline and you’ll find Buzzard Rock Hole, another great spot for a dip – and reported to be less crowded than the Blue Hole. Also the site of Buzzard Rock cliffs, you’ll find rock-climbers and hikers in the area, as well as plenty of large rocks perfect for sunning.
Address: SR 678, Waterlick, VA. Get directions here.
On the western edge of the Shenandoah National Park just south of Front Royal, VA, Overall Run Falls stands at a majestic 93-feet, making it the tallest water fall in the park. As a word of warning, in the heat of the summer, the waterfall tends to slow down to a bit more than a trickle, but still offers ample water to fill a series of three interconnected swimming holes two miles downstream. The creek, known as Overall Run, also glides over a smooth rock wall to create a natural water slide. Depending on your desire to hike, as well as swim, the swimming holes can only be reached at the end of a rather long (8.5-mile), moderately difficult loop on the Overall Run/Beecher Ridge trail or, for easier access, you can stick with a more moderate one-mile hike from a parking area on Thompson Hollow Road.
These are just a handful of the many swimming holes you’ll find throughout the state of Virginia. As mentioned earlier, we kept our search limited to our favorite sites within a few hours of Richmond. But if you’re looking for a longer trip or a mini-vacation getaway, be sure to visit www.swimmingholes.org to find a long list of amazing swimming holes, waterfalls, and more.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for more fun, family-friendly activities in Richmond, be sure to check out our list of Free and Almost Free Summer Activities for Families in Richmond!