Great Swimming Holes
Having a picnic beside a mountain stream, cooling off in refreshing waters and soaking up rays on a sun-warmed rock is one of the best ways to spend a summer day. Especially if you’ve earned your dip-and-dry with a good walk to get to the water.
Craig County, with much of its acreage owned by the forest service, is an obvious place to find swimmin’ holes on public lands. One of the more popular is Roaring Run, where an easy 1.5-mile loop trail follows the stream, stocked with trout, as it crosses five footbridges to pass through a deep canyon of boulders and towering rock walls. The pool at the base of a 35-foot stair-step falls is the reward for doing the walk. Bonuses include a natural waterslide about half way to the falls – it can be a little fast-moving and treacherous for younger children – and a quick visit to the pre-Civil War iron furnace near the trailhead.
If you wish for a little more privacy, head to the nearby Hoop Hole Loop Trail and the quintessential Allegheny Mountain stream, bordered by a profusion of mountain laurel and rhododendron bushes. Taking the left fork, walk about a mile up Hipes Branch to where Roanoker’s editor Kurt Rheinheimer told me he, a son and and seven year-old grandson, “found a great swimmin’ hole last summer. It has an eight-foot jump off a rock into an eight-foot deep cold pool.” The spot can be hidden by the rhododendron and mountain laurel in full summer, so keep both your eyes and ears open to be sure to find it.
Jennings Creek’s Panther Ford swimmin’ hole in Botetourt County is a favorite of Appalachian Trail hikers. It may not be a particularly idyllic setting, but it is certainly one of the Roanoke area’s most accessible, being located just a few feet from where the trail descends to cross Va. 614 near Arcadia. Th e bank slopes gently into the creek, providing the option of gradually slipping deeper and deeper into the water or just rushing in and taking the shock of the cold liquid all at once. There’s a small parking lot along 614 for those who want to stop by for a visit without a walk.
Speaking of easy access, I’m hard pressed to think of place that lets you get into the water with any more ease than Roanoke County’s Green Hill Park west of Salem. It’s only a moment or two of walking from the parking area to a small sandy spot at the Roanoke River. Granted, at this time of year, the stream may not be deep enough to do some real swimming, but that’s what draws families here. The water comes up only to an adult’s knees and that’s the perfect level to let the kids splash about or float lazily downstream on an innertube.
The Cascades, off of U.S. 460 (and onto Va. 623 north for about 3.5 miles), at Pembroke west of Blacksburg, is a popular jump-in spot. Th e 1.9-mile walk to get to it is a fun one, making its way along and nearly into Little Stoney Creek. The setting is pretty and inviting enough that the Cascades Trail is a designated national scenic trail. The route to the Cascades is actually two trails, with most hikers taking the right route on theway up – it’s rockier and closer to the stream – and then walking the flatter route back down, looking down onto where you walked up.
But the real attraction is the 66-foot falls into an oval pool. On a warm weekend day, the area around the falls and pool can get as crowded as the countryclub swimming pool, but on weekdays and cooler days there’s a chance to have the big cold water hole pretty much to yourself.
From the falls/pool areas, hikers also have two other choices beyond the easy 1.9 miles back: Head on above the falls either to the upper falls or onto the Nature Conservancy Trail to visit the dramatic vista at Barney’s Wall, a sheer drop off where you may well see rock climbers and will certainly experience a great view out over the New River Valley.
This is only a sampling of the swimmin’ holes in our area. I’ve not mentioned the stream at Fenwick Mines in Craig County, Bent Mountain Falls in Bottom Creek Gorge, or any of at least a dozen more. Summer passes quickly, so go visit one of these or find one of your own. Devote at least one day to this activity – or you will miss one of the season’s most enjoyable (and free) attractions.