Close to town and free
The Swannanoa River at Azalea Park: If you’ve ever driven out past the John B. Lewis Soccer Fields on Azalea Road in East Asheville and wondered why a bunch of cars are parked on the verge of a grassy field, here’s the answer: there’s a great swimming hole back there. It’s often crowded, because, well, lots of folks know about it and it’s so convenient to town, but it’s a great dip with a little beachy area and a tiny waterfall that the kids can tube over.
Splashville: Not a swimming hole, but a free fountain in the middle of Pack Square Park is an awesome place to get soaked. The arching, changing streams of water can fascinate young ‘uns for, well, lots of minutes. The recycling H2O also is chlorinated if you’re kids are too young to know not to drink from lakes and river. Toddler-friendly, for sure, though watch out as the stone can be slippery.
Jean Webb Park: Just north of Asheville on Riverside Drive is Jean Webb Park, which offers access to the French Broad River where it’s not particularly deep or, typically, too fast. Even so, I’d only let proficient swimmers get in the water here. Also a nice spot from which to fish. Picnic tables and grills, too.
Outside of town
North Mills River Campground: This campground and recreation area on, yes, the Mills River, will cost you $5 per car for day use. There’s a great picnic area and easy swimming and creek walking. A season pass for both this campground and nearby Lake Powhatan costs $30. The pass grants entry for the registered vehicle and the driver; it's $2 for all other passengers.
Lake Powhatan: Just 12 miles from town, this lake has a great sandy beach area with swimming. For $2 a person, it’s easy, convenient and inexpensive. It can get a little crowded, however.
The Beach at Lake Lure: This lake’s a bit more expensive than the spots in the National Forest above, but it’s fun. In addition to the large sandy beach and a covered picnic area with concessions, there’s a water park and a great water slide. All this makes Lake Lure Beach well worth the price of admission, which is $8 per day for adults and $6 for kids aged 4-12. Unless, of course, you are a resident of Lake Lure, in which case you get in for freebies.
The famous Sliding Rock: This 60-foot natural water slide with a deep pool at the bottom in Pisgah National Forest attracts loads of folks every summer. Kids under the age of 7 are supposed to slide with an adult. I guess the hope is that the adult can control the slide speed and attempt not to land on the child when they both hit the pool. If the parent does land on the kid, at least he’s there to pull him out. It’s $1 per person to enter the area, which is run by the Forest Service, who kindly hire lifeguards in the summer. Try to get there early in the day as the line can be long. Pets on leash allowed, but they aren’t allowed to slide, which once frustrated my pup, who wanted to follow his kids and then barked incessantly. Annoying mutt.
There also are a number of water falls nearby with pools at the bottom for swimming. Just don’t climb up the falls, please. People fall and die every year, and it breaks my heart.