Vermont Swimming Holes Offer Natural Cool-Off Spots

In the only New England state without an Atlantic Ocean coastline, there are no ocean waves to bodysurf, no outdoor water parks to splash in.

But Vermont has no shortage of places to cool off: When summer's heat settles in, people head to the countryside to cool off in old-fashioned swimming holes that dot the state's rivers and streams. Clean and free, these hidden gems offer emerald-green water, boulders or rope swings to jump from and breathtakingly beautiful natural vistas. They're also so numerous (and often so hard to find unless you're a local) that they rarely become crowded.

There are downsides, however: No bathrooms, no parking lots. And with no lifeguards, tricky natural features and sometimes-difficult access roads or trails, they can also be dangerous.

Last week, a 12-year-old boy drowned at Bolton Potholes swimming hole in Bolton. The week before that, two swimmers had to be rescued from Huntington Gorge after being overcome by strong currents.

Vermont has dozens of swimming holes, which depending on your definition, can include lakes, backyard ponds and city or state park pools.

It's the natural ones that are the most alluring.

It just offers people the opportunity to go out and explore these places and make them your own. You can go to a swimming hole and often there's nobody there. Everybody has this fantasy of finding this bucolic place with a waterfall, so there's that kind of romanticism. There are no rules. There is no help. But people like that danger, they like that freedom. You just go to swim.

Among Vermont's most popular is Warren Falls, a spectacular gorge with waterfalls that cascade into pools for swimming and cliff jumping that's located on Green Mountain National Forest land, in Warren.

It's easy to miss. It's on Route 100 south of the village of Warren, and is unmarked, with just a pull-off parking area and no signs to direct you. Once you've stepped onto the trail, a steep, winding tree root-embedded path leads to the main swimming area.

The three-tiered falls are just beautiful. It's majestic.

Farther north is the Kenneth Ward Recreation area on the Mad River in Moretown, better known as Big Rock because of the 15-foot high boulder that regulars jump from. Unlike most swimming holes, it has its own parking area, but no signs say what lies down the staircase leading from it.

A rocky beach, a dozen or so smaller rocks to jump from and the shallow, slow-flowing Mad River make it a destination for sunbathers, families and thrill-seekers.

Beaches are the exception at Vermont swimming holes. Most barely have enough flat space to walk on, let alone put down a blanket or a beach chair. Typically, they're ringed by rocks, steep grassy riverbanks or woods.

Up north in the ski town of Stowe is a swimming hole known as Foster's that's formed by a mountain stream that flows down from Mount Mansfield, the state's highest peak. It's small and the water's cold, with only one safe spot to jump from, but the quick and easy access from Notch Brook Road, down a stone staircase, makes it a nice spot for a quick dip.

At swimming holes with waterfalls, fast-moving water or jumping, danger is never far away — but help can be.

Vermont's most notorious swimming hole is Huntington Gorge, a swirling maze of waterfalls, ledges and pools that's so treacherous it has a sign posted next to it listing the names, ages and year of death of the 20 people who've perished there through the decades.

Less dangerous locations can still have hazards. Among the safety precautions recommended:

  • Avoid swift-moving water swollen by recent rains, which can cause dangerous currents.

  • Check for water depth, underwater ledges or other unseen hazards before jumping or diving in, since conditions can change.

  • Consider wearing water shoes or other footwear you can wear in the water, since most swimming areas have rocky beaches and rocky river bottoms.

With most Vermont swimming holes, getting there is half the fun — and a big challenge.

There are no road signs to them, no simple directions unless you know the local landmarks. Sometimes, friendly gas station attendants, town officials or general store clerks will direct you.

The digital era has made a little easier. SwimmingHoles.org site lists 1,000 swimming holes in the U.S. and Canada — broken down by state — providing photos, directions and other information about swimming areas, including 89 in Vermont.

But those who prize their out-of-the-way paradises aren't eager to tell the world about them. Like parents unwilling to part with the telephone number of a favorite baby sitter, they don't want to spoil a good thing.

If You Go...

VERMONT SWIMMING HOLES: 89 of the state's swimming holes are listed at http://www.swimmingholes.org. Here are three worth checking out:

—WARREN Falls: Green Mountain National Forest, Warren, Vt. Take Route 100 south from the village of Warren, look for small parking area on the right side of road about 1 mile south of village. A breathtaking gorge with three pools and more than a half-dozen places to jump from ranging from about 6 feet to about 50 feet, Warren Falls is a must-see for thrill-seekers but has almost no place to sit, sunbathe or put down a beach chair. It's all action.

—KENNETH WARD RECREATION AREA, aka BIG ROCK: Moretown, Vt. Take Route 100B south from Interstate 89 in Middlesex, go four miles to sign and parking area on left. With its wide rocky beach, shallow slow-moving Mad River water and variety of rocks and boulders to jump from, "Big Rock" is a favorite for families with small children and dogs.

—FOSTER'S: Stowe, Vt. Take Route 108 north from village of Stowe, go 5 miles up, turn right at Notch Brook Road. Swimming area is three-tenths of a mile up, on your left. Small, secluded and with limited sun exposure because of towering trees that surround it, Foster's is preferred by locals and anyone who doesn't mind a little nip in their dip, with colder-than-most water temperatures. Flat rocks at one end are OK for lounging, but no beach area.

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