A good swimmin’ hole is hard to find, since everyone wants to keep their favorite spot a secret.
You can find books galore — videos, even — listing waterfalls in western North Carolina: Looking Glass Falls, north of Brevard; Whitewater Falls, near Cashiers; Linville Falls, north of Morganton, to name just a few. You can even see one of our most famous waterfalls — Hickory Nut Gap Falls in Chimney Rock Park — in the movie Last of the Mohicans.
But swimming holes? You have to scout those out the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.
That’s how Mountain Xpress found out about Skinny Dip, an ice-cold, double pool of water on the East Fork of the Pigeon River. It’s a well-kept secret, especially considering that this waterfall and swimming hole is less than a quarter-mile off the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’d never, in all modesty, really skinny dip at any other cool dunking spot within shouting distance of the Parkway — like the pool below Yellowstone Falls at Graveyard Fields (milepost 418), which is so easily accessible, so popular, so chock-full of people dippin’, sunnin’ on the rocks, and such. From this little hole in the ground, you could practically flash the tourists in Winnebagos as they cruise the Parkway.
But Skinny Dip is so secret, my guide actually forgot where it was.
“I’m sure this is it,” Shannon Rose declared, as we stopped at a Parkway overlook near Highway 191. With her dog, Waldo, leading the way, we took off into the woods, following a trail into the dark, cool green of late spring. Fifteen feet in, the trail came to a T: The Shut-In Trail took off to our left and right, and an overgrown hint of a trail dove down the hill.
“This is not it,” Rose muttered.
Waldo looked up at us. He was willing and able to trot the 13 miles up to Mount Pisgah, via the Shut-In. We weren’t.
We tried at least three subsequent overlooks, stopping whenever we saw a trail marker near one. Each time, we got out, donned our packs, and told Waldo to “Sit, boy!” before we crossed the pavement. He’d oblige, waiting for cars to pass. We’d duck into the woods, once walking uphill for a quarter-mile. “This isn’t it,” Rose would say, shaking her head.
No wonder nobody knows about Skinny Dip: The wood elves apparently erase your memory after your visit.
We drove through tunnel after tunnel: Frying Pan, Ferrin Knob(s) (numbers one, two and three), Little Pisgah. We passed the Pisgah Inn. If we drove much farther, we’d be at Graveyard Fields. But just past where U.S. Highway 276 intersects the Parkway, we stopped at the Looking Glass Rock overlook (milepost 417). Again, we hiked in. The temperature dropped the moment we hit the woods. The trail was lined with ferns and giant trees. Waldo bounded ahead.
Rose was sure this was it.
But I wasn’t convinced until I saw the sign: “To Skinny Dip.” Winding down a rocky trail, crossing trickling streams, we could hear the waterfall’s roar through the trees. Down and down we went, through rhododendron groves, Rose recollecting that she’d once told her daughter that gnomes and elves lived here.
Then the trail tumbled down some wooden steps to a bridge over icy clear water, glinting yellow with the color of the rocks at its deep bottom. Waldo wasted no time: He dove in and swam out. We pulled our boots off and tested the water.
Be warned: Skinny Dip will send your body into at least seven kinds of shock.
A few hikers lingered about the falls, resting on the big rocks, sipping from water bottles. But not a one of ’em was actually going into that icebox. Only Waldo dove in, eagerly retrieving sticks for us. If a dog could say, “Ahhhhh!” he surely would have.
Rose and I had our doubts, but eventually, we braved the polar waters. Rose perched on a convenient jumping rock, breathing deep and settling her goggles on tight. I think she was meditating — mind over cold matter and all that. It didn’t help much. She held her nose, cannon-balled into the water, and came up for air with a shout. After one minute, she climbed out, completely goosebumped and shaking all over. “Wow!” she yelped.
On a really hot summer day, this would be just the thing, I told Rose. As for me, I braved Skinny Dip long enough to make my skin turn red and tingly numb.
If the passing Winnebagos had only known.
If you’re willing to brave the chill, just about any western North Carolina waterfall and accompanying pool will do. A favorite among kids is Sliding Rock, located north of Brevard on Highway 276. Nearby, you’ll find Looking Glass Falls, complete with a large pool for swimming. A more secluded spot, Slick Rock Falls, can be found off 276, as well: Just turn onto the road leading to the Fish Hatchery, then take the first forest road to your right.
The Pink Beds on 276 offer another swimming spot: Take the Forest Service road just north of the Pink Beds picnic area, drive in about two miles and turn right on the next Forest Service road. Take that road to its end, where the South Mills River runs deep and cold under shady trees.
Haywood County residents favor the pool at Sunburst, a little campground located on Highway 215, just south (and up the mountain) from Waynesville. You can also reach Sunburst from where 215 intersects the Parkway (near Graveyard Fields).
As for more waterfalls, they’re way too numerous to list here: You’ll find a variety of books, maps and videos at local bookstores and outfitters.
When visiting waterfalls, be careful: People die every year trying to climb on slick rocks above the falls. If an area is fenced off, stay out. And don’t go rock-hopping across the top of the falls.
In other words, watch where you dip your skinny.