There’s not many people who come to Sky Ridge that don’t know they can raft the Nantahala river for an exciting family adventure. But, the water fun doesn’t have to stop there after your whitewater experience is over. The Western North Carolina mountains – and the Smoky Mountain National Park – are known for their pristine creeks and rivers, waterfalls, and of course…..swimming holes!
We know where many of them are, and we spent the last week documenting some of the more (and less) known swimming holes in the area around Sky Ridge. Some are perfect for a lazy family picnic by the water, others are only for the super fearless, but all are worth the effort when it’s time to cool down after a warm summer day. Read on to see what we found.
First Up, Deep Creek....
We’ve been big fans of the Deep Creek area for many years, and there’s no wonder why it’s one of the most popular summer destinations in the Smokies. Here, you can rent tubes for not much cash, and then you can drive in to the National Park to let the good times start flowing. From the parking lot, you’ll hike up about a mile or so, drop into the water, and float back down to your car. You can repeat as often as you’d like, as most tube rentals are daily and just need to be returned before dark.
Some things to know before going to Deep Creek…. you’ll likely have company. This is a very popular tourist destination, and many people will be there throughout the day to enjoy the ride. Don’t let that keep you from going, though. Once you’re on the water, it will feel like your own private river, for the most part! You’ll need a parking pass. If you don’t already have one, you can purchase the National Park parking pass in the picnic area near the bath houses just after you get inside the park area. There are two vending machines there that take cards or cash. Daily is $5, and weekly is $15. The name “Deep Creek” is misleading. The creek itself – except for a few places where it widens and deepens – is very shallow. Most people, even children, can simply stand up if they fall out of their tubes. Even still, life vests are a good idea for small children or those who aren’t strong swimmers.
Want to go? Just put Deep Creek Campground into the GPS on your phone and it will take you right to the park.
Next Stop, Bust Your Butt Falls...
If you’re looking for an easily accessible swimming hole, you’ve found it in Bust Your Butt Falls. Formerly known as Quarry Falls, you can drive right up to this waterfall off of Highway 64 as you head towards Highlands, NC. Parking right near the falls is somewhat limited, with most people choosing to park a little farther up in the larger parking area for Dry Falls and walking back down to the swimming area. Once you get there, you’ll notice there are many large rocks that make up the river banks. They are easily traversable, but you will need to pay attention to your feet as you make your way to the water to avoid tripping.
The water here, like all mountain water, is very cool, and the most logical place to swim is below the base of the falls. The water is deeper here, and many brave swimmers will attempt to swim under the falls to a protected rock ledge that’s unseen from above. I’m sure the kids love the thrill, but parents beware…. It’s hard to know if they’ve made it safely under or are struggling beneath the water!
Our opinion here is that swimming will mean a bit more skill or watchful eyes from parents, but it is a lovely option if you do not like hiking. This is probably best suited for teen-aged to adult swimmers, but even if you decide not to take a dip, a walk down to Dry Falls is an absolute must and totally worth the drive!
Want to go? Just enter Bust Your Butt Falls in the GPS on your phone and it will take you straight there. You'll see both the lower swimming area and Dry Falls on your right when heading there from Sky Ridge Yurts.
On To Paradise Falls...
Some of the biggest payoffs in the North Carolina mountains require some of the hardest efforts, and Paradise Falls certainly proves this point. Located a little more than an hour from Sky Ridge in Tuckasegee, NC, this is one of the most beautiful – and private – swimming holes in the area. A locals-only exclusive for decades, this amazing set of falls is becoming more popular as word spreads and it’s easier to drop GPS coordinates to help find it.
There are two swimming areas here, both deep enough for diving. The upper hole has a smaller deep pool and a small waterfall at its mouth, and is perfect for a relaxing swim. The jump-off spots are just high enough that even those a little afraid of heights will enjoy taking the plunge. Take serious heed, though, to respect the area below where the water falls over to create the main lower falls. It looks perfectly inviting to have a peek over the edge, but many have fallen to their deaths from this area. If you’re visiting the upper Paradise Falls, it’s best to stick to the back area of the swimming area for your safety.
The lower falls has probably one of the most breathtaking swimming holes in Western North Carolina, but be prepared to work to get the experience! The trail to the lower falls is very steep, requiring real skill in hiking and climbing. You will need to use exposed rocks and roots as a natural ladder in many places along the trail, and it is often slippery. Once you get to the bottom though, we think you’ll find the trouble was totally worth it.
Some things to know about Paradise Falls before you go…. you’ll likely have no cell service, as it is very remote. You’ll need sturdy footwear during the hike to the falls, so make sure you’re wearing something that adheres well to your feet with good tread to avoid slipping. This is a locals’ secret spot, so while there is an ample parking lot, the trail itself is not marked. Do some research before you go so you don’t get lost looking for the falls. You can find many great articles about the area online like this one here. You will need to cross a shallow creek to stay on the right trail (don’t be misled by the trail that cuts left at the creek). Once you cross the shallow creek, the upper falls will be to your right and the lower will be straight ahead (but down…really down). Please pack out anything you take in. It’s only beautiful if everyone helps keep it that way.
Overall, we would not recommend this swimming hole to families with small children. We also do not recommend this one to anyone who does not have a deep respect for Mother Nature and the power she holds over us. You must keep safety at the forefront of your thinking at all times if you choose to enjoy Paradise Falls.
Want to go? Just enter Paradise Falls into the GPS of your phone and be sure to choose the one that indicates Tuckasegee, NC.
Heading Through The Park To Townsend...
If the thrill of Paradise sounds like too much for you, you’ll love the slower-paced Townsend swimming area inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. A trip to this swimming hole will be a day trip, so pack a nice picnic lunch, throw some towels in the car and head on into the Park via the Cherokee, NC entrance. You’ll meander through this world-famous Park as you pass Clingman’s Dome and into the Tennessee. There are ample sights to see and pull-offs available along the drive to enjoy the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.
Just before you exit the park into Gatlinburg, you’ll turn left before the Visitor’s Center and follow the road out to Townsend. After about twenty scenic miles, you’ll see the swimming hole on your right. There is a large bend in the river, with a wide swath of green grass just before the beach area. Here, you can relax and enjoy the cool waters on the pebble “beach” under cool shade trees. Townsend is a great option for families that are looking for a calm place to turn the kids loose to play in the water while they relax. There is ample parking, but the same permit from Deep Creek we mentioned above is required but NOT available for purchase at the site. Be sure you have purchased this at one of the Visitor’s Centers before you head out to Townsend or you'll be back-tracking over forty miles to get one. You’ll also find relatively clean portable toilets available in the parking area for your convenience.
As an added bonus, you’ll be only about 10 minutes from Cade’s Cove as you exit the Townsend parking area to your right. If you’ve never been through the popular Cove, you really should go. It’s an eleven-mile driving trail that winds through some of the most picturesque areas of the Park. Wildlife as well as primitive dwellings can be seen from the comfort of your car and is well worth the time to visit after a nice day of swimming at Townsend. Cades Cove is closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesday mornings, so plan accordingly if you'd like to add this activity to your Wednesday.
Want to go? It’s best to enter the Great Smoky Mountain National Park through Cherokee and head straight on through until you see the brown park signs leading to Townsend and Cades Cove. It’s been our experience that phone GPS may guide you astray if you search by name.
And The Very Best For Last - Midnight Hole...
By far the biggest bang for your swimming hole buck by our estimation is Midnight Hole, tucked in the far eastern side of the Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s got all the elements that make a day of swimming in the mountains great – easy to find, plenty of parking, a beautiful easy 1 ½ mile hike with plenty of scenery, a gorgeously clear green pool at the base of a small waterfall that’s deep enough to dive into but works its way shallow with easy footing underneath. In a word – it’s perfect.
If we had anything bad to say about Midnight Hole, it would be that it will take some time in the car to get there from Sky Ridge. You have to head back to I-40 West to get there, so that means you have to drive the 45 minutes back towards Maggie Valley to pick the interstate up. Once you’re back on I-40, you’ll drive another fifteen minutes until you’re just over the Tennessee line to Exit 451. Take that exit and then you’ll immediately snake back into North Carolina towards Big Creek Campground inside the Smoky Mountain National Park. All in all, if you’re leaving Sky Ridge for a day at Midnight Hole, you’re going to need just under two hours to get there. But trust us, it’s two hours you won’t regret giving up for a day at one of the best swimming holes in the entire Western North Carolina region.
Some things to know before you go.... watch your GPS carefully and make sure you enter Big Creek Campground into your phone for directions. If you enter Midnight Hole, you'll find it; however, it will direct you to the other side of the trail entrance for the area. That would make it a nine-mile hike just to get to the swimming instead of the 1 1/2 mile hike from the Big Creek Campground entrance. Also, be on the lookout to your left as you hike. The swimming hole is not marked by any signs, so it's easy to pass. Make sure you are familiar with what the falls look like so you can spot them, or just listen for others splashing and enjoying the area.
Want to go? Just enter Big Creek Campground into the GPS of your phone and follow the directions. You will need a Great Smoky Mountain parking pass in order to park your car for the day, so make sure you grab one at the Visitor’s Center before you head out. They were not available for purchase that we could find on-site, so make sure to bring that along with you.
We often get asked why we don’t have any pools or hot tubs at Sky Ridge. There are plenty of reasons, but one of the biggest is that we believe it’s a bigger part of your experience here to go out and find some of the magical places that surround you in the Smoky Mountains. The ones we’ve listed here are only a few – there are many more to discover on your own. We encourage you to get out there and experience all of the wonderful things that await you when you visit Western NC. But wherever you go while you’re here, make sure to experience it all in a way that is respectful to both you and the mountain. Have fun, be careful, and by all means......jump in!