Take a Dip: Cool Off in the Water on these Hikes

The heat is rising! Here are five hikes near the Triangle that offer a chance to swim in creeks, lakes, and swimming holes.
by Joe Miller

Photo credit: Joe Pellegrino

Spanish explorer Ponce de León gets a bum rap for pursuing the fountain of youth. Sure, his primary focus was similar to that of fellow explorers — conquest and finding cities of gold. But his obsession with eternal youth had his peers (and parents, no doubt) questioning his commitment. Little did they know that Ponce was on to something. The fountain of youth does exist. In fact, you can find them all over. You just have to know where to look.

Water is the elixir of youth. Think about it: when did you ever feel younger than when you were frolicking, weightless, on — and especially beneath — the water? The neighborhood pool was great; that forbidden spot on the local lake or the river that ran outside of town was even better.

Fortunately, you needn’t board a barquentine bound for Bimini to find a watery return to your youth. In the Triangle, there’s a pretty good chance you can find one in less than an hour’s drive — we’re surprisingly close to waterfalls, swimming holes, and sandy shores. Here are five of our favorite lesser-known spots to get into the water.

Sennett’s Hole, Eno River, West Point on the Eno City Park, Durham

It’s a hot August day, the temperature’s in the 90s. Relief seems weeks away. But then you ease into Sennett’s Hole, a rock-rimmed pool on the Eno River, and pierce the thermocline — that magical submersion point where summer abruptly gives way to winter — and the unthinkable happens: goosebumps.

That’s not the only “magic” associated with this swimming spot. Legend has it that “General Sennett,” whose actual name was Michael Synott, had a mill near the hole back in the 1700s. It’s said he drowned trying to escape the devil, taking his silver and gold with him. The booty was never recovered, and is believed to still exist at the bottom of this bottomless (it’s maybe 10 feet deep) pool.

You reach the pool after a hike that’s a little over a mile. And while the water itself is refreshing, what makes it especially ideal are the rocks around it, perfect for drying off after a dip. Swim, sun, repeat.

5101 North Roxboro Street, Durham. Park near the mill, cross the pedestrian bridge over the Eno and hike a mile upstream on the Eagle Trail/Mountains- to-Sea Trail.

Hours: 8 a.m. to dusk
More information: enoriver.org

Joe Miller (Sennett’s Hole)

Jumping Fish Falls, Raven Rock State Park, Fuquay-Varina

If you’re familiar with Raven Rock State Park, it’s likely you’ve been to the portion of the park on the south side of the Cape Fear River. That’s where you’ll find the hiking trails, the mountain bike trails, the park’s 150-foot namesake bluff, and the Visitor Center — the features that draw the vast majority of Raven Rock’s quarter million annual visitors.

But on the north side of the river is the somewhat obscure Avents Creek Access. It includes a pair of 4-mile loop trails geared to equestrians, but open to hikers. That’s a good thing, because the West Loop offers access to the best cascade in the Triangle, Jumping Fish Falls. Hike the trail counterclockwise from the trailhead: you’ll hit Jumping Fish Falls about 3 miles in, making it an especially welcome respite as you loll about in the various small pools formed as Avents Creek courses over a series of rocky ledges.

1590 River Road, Fuquay-Varina. Park in the parking lot facing River Road, the Avents Creek Access will be on the left side. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (June through August)
More information: ncparks.gov/ raven-rock-state-park

Joe Miller (Avents Creek)

Barton’s Creek Beach, Falls Lake State Recreation Area, Wake Forest

A quarter mile from a busy boat ramp might be the last place you’d expect to find solitude on the water. But on a body of water with as many nooks and crannies as Falls Lake, such discoveries shouldn’t be surprising.

From the upper lot (the gravel one) at the Barton Creek Boat Ramp, pick up the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (Day-hike Section G along Falls Lake) headed west, through a young cedar forest, beneath hardwoods, across a power line clearcut. After 10 minutes or so, cross a small creek on an innovative footbridge, then keep an eye out on your right for a side trail down to the lake. Within 30 yards you’ll emerge at an intimate beach accessing a cove too small to accommodate the motorboat crowd.

It’ll likely be just you on this spit of sand, which gradually descends into the lake; cool just your feet if you want, wade in a bit further for full immersion. The only sense you’ll have of Falls Lake’s boaters is the occasional fading wake wafting in from the main channel.

1290 Six Forks Road, Wake Forest Hours: Dawn to dusk
More information: mountainstoseatrail.org, click on “Trail Segments”

Parkers Creek Recreation Area, Jordan Lake, Chapel Hill

Love the idea of losing yourself in a natural body of water — provided it’s not too natural? That’s why we have beaches at our State Recreation Areas, four at Falls Lake, four at Jordan Lake. One of our favorites is the beach at the Parkers Creek area of Jordan Lake. It’s got the standard features of a State Recreation Area swimming area: an expansive sandy beach, picnic shelters, bathhouse (with restrooms), and a roped swim area to contain the kids. The advantage here is that it’s on an isolated stretch of the lake, away from motor boat traffic.

The amenities make this about as comfortable as your neighborhood pool, with the allure of a natural body of water. It’s also big enough that if you’re a swimmer, you can do laps along the buoys marking the swim area. That’s an especially good option if you’re training for a triathlon in a natural body of water and need to get used to swimming a straight line — minus lines on the bottom of the pool — on your own.

Parkers Creek Beach Road, Chapel Hill Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. (May through August)
More information: ncparks.gov/jordan-lake-state-recreation-area

Hanging Rock Lake, Danbury

OK, it’s not in the Triangle (it’s within two hours of much of our area). But it is the closest you’ll get to experiencing a mountain lake. This 12-acre lake, formed by a dam on Cascade Creek, offers deep green waters that are cool on the surface, and cold a little farther down. Especially if you take advantage of the diving platform, it’s the kind of bracing escape from the heat of the summer that you’d expect to have to drive twice as far to find.

Adding to the alpine experience are the park’s surrounding peaks, including Moore’s Wall, Wolf Rock, House Rock, and Cook’s Wall. A bathhouse offers a touch of civility and convenience (including a snack bar), the sand beach, a place to warm and soak up the sun between dips. It’s especially rewarding after exploring those surrounding peaks.

Less experienced hikers might like the 1.7-mile Wolf Rock Trail, avid hikers the more challenging 4.7-mile Moore’s Wall Loop. Incorporate water- falls into your visit with short hikes on the Upper Cascades Trail and Indian Creek Trail, both of which begin from the Visitor Center.

1790 Hanging Rock Park Road, Danbury Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. THurs-
day through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5:45
p.m. Monday. Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

More information: ncparks.gov/hanging-rock-state-park

Joe Miller (Hanging Rock Lake)