7 Watery Wonders to Escape to this Summer in Western NC

These beautiful creeks, waterfalls, sliding rocks and lakes in the mountains of North Carolina can wash away your worries as temperatures rise.
by Emily Gajda & Emma Ginsberg

When the temperature rises, it can be easy to stay inside your cold, air-conditioned house and pretend that the weather outside your door is just a faraway dream. But the heat can also offer exciting opportunities for outdoor fun that you can’t have when it’s chilly. 

Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the humidity can be lower and the temperature a bit more mild, the landscape is rife with gorgeous waters. Mountain lakes, waterfalls and rivers can be great places to catch some mist and cool off when things heat up in the Piedmont. If you need to chill out this summer, why not pack up the family and head west? The swimming holes in and around Brevard are well-loved destinations, but Western North Carolina is home to many more hidden gem spots off the beaten path — find a small town to explore if you’re up for an adventure, or kick back in a a swanky vacation rental, like a treehouse or Hobbit Knoll, for some R&R after a day of hiking and splashing around. Whatever drift you’re catching, start by checking out these natural water features in Western NC for some vacation inspiration.

(Use Google Maps to navigate to these locations instead of alternative mapping apps. Many of them don’t have exact addresses, so directions are included to help clarify.)

Silver Run Falls | image credit: HD Carolina

A quick note before you dive in: most of these watering holes are natural and not altered for human accessibility. Between slippery terrain and unknown features, these can be hazardous for swimmers. See some reminders at the end of this article about how to stay safe in the water.

Silver Run Falls — Near Cashiers, NC

Located in the Nantahala National Forest, this 25-foot waterfall tumbles its way into a calm pool that’s perfect for swimming. A few miles south of Cashiers, this spot is great for families staying near Highlands, Cullowhee or any other little towns on the very southwestern tip of the state. Silver Run’s kid-safe pool is a very popular swimming spot in the summertime, so get there early or try a weekday morning to avoid the crowds.

Free | 35°04’00.9″N 83°04’01.1″W, Cashiers, NC 28717

Directions: From the town of Cashiers, drive south on NC Highway 107 for about 4 miles. A US Forest Service sign and a parking area will be on your left, and the falls are a short walk from the road.  

Elk Creek Falls

Elk River Falls — Near Banner Elk, NC

In Pisgah National Forest, the 50-foot Elk River Falls near Banner Elk and Newland gives visitors a gorgeous peek at an impressive waterfall. Though the currents around the Falls are too strong for safe swimming and wading, the area boasts a host of picturesque cliffside trails you can traverse to view the cascade from every angle, flat rocks perfect for picnicking and a beachy shoal where you can lounge under the Falls’ cooling mist.

Free | 3716-3984, Elk River Rd, Elk Park, NC 28622

Directions: From Banner Elk, drive west out of town on NC Highway 194 South. In about seven miles, turn right onto US Highway 19E North; then, in about a mile, turn right only Little Elk Road. Immediately take a left onto Old Mill Road, and then a right onto Elk River Road. Follow the road for about 4 miles, and the parking area will be on the right side of the road with a sign that says “Big Falls” marking the short but steep trail.

Wildcat Lake | image credit: Lees-McRae College

Wildcat Lake — Banner Elk, NC

With lifeguards on duty during the summers, with a swimming dock, fishing pier and bathhouses, Wildcat Lake is great if you need a refreshing dip without a long trek and with a few more creature comforts than you might find in the national forests. Staffed and run by Lees-McRae College, this lake has all the amenities you need to keep the kids entertained all day long: beautiful Fraser Fir Christmas trees line the sandy beach, and bluegill, bass and trout swim in the lake just waiting to bite your line. Not to mention, it’s barely 5 minutes from Banner Elk’s Main Street.

Free, donations accepted | 36°08’56.2″N 81°52’48.4″W, Banner Elk, NC, 28604

Directions: From Main Street (Banner Elk), head south on Shawneehaw Ave South. Take a right onto Hickory Nut Gap Road, and then stay on it until you pass the Grandfather Home for Children. Soon after passing the Grandfather Home, turn right into the parking area for Wildcat Lake.

Photograph by Kelly White / Courtesy National Park Service

Looking Glass Falls — Near Brevard, NC in Pisgah National Forest

Only about an hour outside of Asheville, Looking Glass Falls tumbles 60 feet over a cliff and is accessible from the roadside, making it one of the easiest NC waterfalls to view. While Looking Glass Falls is named for the mirror-like appearance of nearby Looking Glass Rock when it’s frozen over in the winter, the shores near the Falls are a warm and ice-free spot to hang out and get some mist in the summer. Though the Falls’ pool can be dangerous to swim in when water is high, the shallow creek just downstream is perfect for splashing and wading. For aspiring photographers, make sure to catch a snapshot of the sun as it rises directly over the waterfall each morning.

Free | US-276, Brevard, NC 28712

Directions: From Asheville, follow Interstate 240 West and 26 East. Take Exit 40 to get onto NC Highway 280 West, and then drive for 16 miles towards Brevard. Then, turn right onto US Highway 276 North and enter Pisgah National Forest. After 6 miles, the parking area will be on the right side of the road.

Quarry Falls | image credit: Cliff Smith

Quarry Falls (or “Bust Your Butt” Falls) — Near Highlands, NC

With two names, this spot has twice the fun. Just outside of Highlands on US Highway 64, the falls cascade down a series of flat rocks, which make for a fun slide when water is low. Though it’s dangerous to jump from the slippery boulders lining the river (in case you wondered where the “Bust Your Butt” nickname came from), the rocks lining Quarry Falls are scenic spots to take pictures from, or lay out a blanket for picnicking and sunning.

Free | Cullasaja River, Highlands, NC 28741

Directions: From Highlands, head Northwest on Main Street and then continue onto US Highway 64 West. In about six and a half miles, the falls will be very visible on the left side of the road and there are a few spots to pull off and park.

Sliding Rock Recreation Area

Sliding Rock — Near Brevard, N.C. in Pisgah National Forest

Arguably the most exciting natural water attraction in Western NC, Sliding Rock is a 60-foot, gradually sloped boulder that offers visitors an exhilarating (and very chilly) ride down a natural waterslide into an 8-foot deep pool. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day (May 7 – September 30), lifeguards, changing rooms and restrooms are available, and the recreation area has an entry fee of $4. The recreation area is open to visit during off-hours as well (minus amenities), and can be a lot less busy early in the morning. Some tips: high water and thunderstorms should always be respected as “no-slide” times, and if you want to slide, make sure to bring your most rugged swimsuit and a pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting wet.

Entry $4 dollars during amenities hours, free otherwise | Highway 276, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768

Directions: From Asheville, take Interstate 240 West to Interstate 26 East. Take Interstate 26 East to Exit 40, and then turn right on NC Highway 280 West towards Brevard. Drive for about 16 miles, and then turn right onto US Highway 276 North. Follow US 276 for about seven and a half miles and then Sliding Rock Recreation Area will be on the left.

Widow’s Creek Falls

Stone Mountain State Park & Widow’s Creek Falls — Roaring Gap, NC 

Northeast of Boone and Wilkesboro, and about an hour closer to the Triangle than the entries listed above, Stone Mountain State Park is a gorgeous place to explore nature. Hike a 4.5-mile loop trail to view the park’s namesake, 200-foot tall Stone Mountain Falls, and then cool off at nearby Widow’s Creek Falls after a day of adventuring. Featuring a cascade over flat rock for sliding and some shallow areas for wading, Widow’s Creek Falls is a popular destination during the summer months. For a more peaceful experience, weekdays and early mornings are your friends. The park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. from May to August.

Free | 36°23’47.5″N 81°04’00.7″W, Joynes, NC 28685

Directions: From the Park Office at 3042 Frank Parkway, Roaring Gap, NC, turn right onto Frank Parkway/Stone Mountain Road. Follow the road west for about 3 miles until you cross the Widow’s Creek Bridge. Park just past it at the Backpack Parking Lot.

Reminder: How to Swim Safely in Natural Waters

Just like swimming in the ocean, swimming in the mountains requires caution to stay safe. Between slippery, rocky terrain, powerful waterfalls and unknowns beneath the surface, serious injury and drowning are real risks. If you decide to swim in any swimming holes this summer, stay safe by sticking to a few handy guidelines:

Never wade or swim in pools directly above or below waterfalls; these areas are full of powerful currents that can pull even the strongest swimmers under. Though it can be tempting to dunk your head under a cool cascade on a hot day, running water is often faster and stronger than it appears.

If you’re jumping into a swimming hole, always check for boulders, tree trunks or other sharp objects in the pool before diving.

Water levels change from day to day and pool to pool, so make sure you know how deep or shallow the water is before you jump. When it doubt, wade in first and take a spin around so you know what you’re getting into.

Never swim in natural waters if you don’t feel completely comfortable. After all, you won’t be bored if you don’t want to swim! All of these areas are beautiful whether you’re viewing them in floaties or on foot, and offer exciting trails and sun spots for land-based visitors. 

Now get out, and enjoy!