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The 10 Best Water Hikes in the U.S.

August 8, 2017
Zion National Park

Even in dry mountains and desert, America’s wildernesses are shot through with riffling rivers, placid lakes, and thundering waterfalls. If you haven’t experienced the singular joy of taking a dip in one of these after a sweaty hike, summer is the time to jump in. Record-breaking temperatures this year mean even the chilliest alpine tarns might be inviting. Here are some of our favorite wild places to get wet.

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake, Oregon

Cleetwood Cove

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake is like the Grand Canyon in that its glassy cobalt expanse cradled in the mouth of an extinct volcano simply has to be seen to be believed. The caldera holds some of the clearest, cleanest water in North America — and the only place to swim it is by descending nearly 700 feet of dusty switchbacks to Cleetwood Cove, a boulder-lined beach with spectacular views of the still sky mirrored in Crater Lake. Bring goggles to enjoy the 140 feet of visibility — and a jacket to warm up from its icy, snow-fed water.

Distance: 2.1 miles

Key Gear: Versatile shorts with a wide range of motion for steep hikes and scrambles  https://www.royalrobbins.com/ventura-short

Bunnell Cascade

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite’s waterfalls are among the grandest and tallest in the nation, but beyond them lies a secret granite waterpark fueled by the rivers that feed them. A long hike above Vernal and Nevada Falls leads hikers past iconic granite domes and the 2014 Meadow Fire to follow the Merced River to Bunnell Cascade. Here, the Merced bubbles over slick granite to create a natural waterslide that ends with a plunge in a clear, green pool.

Distance: 17 miles

Key Gear: Cooling fabric and 50+ SPF protection for the sun exposure on Yosemite’s exposed granite ie. Wick-ed Cool Polo for Men, Wicked Cool Polo for Women

Second Beach

Olympic National Park, Washington

Washington’s wild Olympic coast might be the most pristine in the country. Sitka-spruce topped sea stacks rise out of the crashing waves of the open Pacific, and sea otters comb starfish-studded tidepools for shellfish at high tide. Second Beach is popular for a dayhike, but the 5-mile beach offers ample spots to camp next to a driftwood fire. Bring a jacket and hot chocolate: The Pacific is a chilly 55 degrees, even in summer.

Distance: 4 miles

Key Gear: An essential overlayer to warm up after chilly swims Performance Flannel Overshirt for Men, Performance Plaid Flannel for Women

Caladesi Island State Park, Florida

On this white-sand jewel and rare natural Gulf Coast barrier island, teal water shelters mangrove swamps, pine forests, diverse shorebirds, and desolate beaches only a 40-minute drive and a short ferry ride from Tampa. Sugary dunes and clear water make for a perfect snorkel or beachside idyll.

Distance: 2.9 miles

Key Gear: A 360-degree wide brim and SPF 50+ protection from the Gulf Coast sun Wick-ed Cool Sun Hat

Big Creek

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

The Smokies are famous for mist and moisture crowning the forested peaks, but there’s more fun to be had when it collects in the countless pools lining the 10-mile out-and-back hike up Big Creek. This hike is perfect for little ones, as the highlights come early: The double falls feeding deep, clear Midnight Hole appear a mere 1.5 miles in. Continue another 4 miles to reach a more secluded hole at Mouse Creek Falls.

Distance: 10 miles

Key Gear: A short, moisture-wicking tee for the Smokies’ high-humidity summer Wick-ed Cool Short Sleeve for MenWick-ed Cool Short Sleeve for Women

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Cresent Dock

Crescent Dock

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Midwesterners know Lake Michigan is more inland ocean than mere lake. Experience the quiet, empty side of the midwest’s busiest lake on Manitou Island, where a hike to the Crescent Dock site ends in a sandy-bottomed beach where strong swimmers can bodysurf the lake’s 6-foot waves.

Distance: 6.1 miles

Key Gear: A long sleeve to keep cool on hot days while warding off cold when lakeshore breezes pick up Expedition Chill Long Sleeve for Men

Eagle Creek Trail, Oregon

Oregon is paradise for waterfall watchers, and there is no string of waterfalls more impressive than the six plus cascades leaping off the moss-covered black walls of Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge. Practice your slow-shutter shots and rise early or go midweek, because you’ll have company on this pourover pilgrimage. Our favorite: 160-foot Tunnel Falls at mile 5.8, where you’ll go behind the falls through a 20-foot tunnel carved into the basalt.

Distance: 13.1 Miles

Key Gear: A durable, quick-dry top for Oregon’s wettest trail Diablo Chill Long Sleeve

Pacific Tarn, Colorado

If you prefer your dips to come with a healthy serving of extreme adventure and bragging rights, then Pacific Tarn is your pool. At 13,400 feet, it’s the highest officially named permanent lake in the country. Caution: Getting there requires off-trail navigation and some scrambling, and when you reach the lake it might be rimmed in ice deep into summer. But you’ll likely have this icy prize all to yourself.

Distance: 7.4 miles

Key Gear: Warm, versatile high-mountain flannel for the country’s highest lake ie. Performance Flannel Plaid Long Sleeve for Men

Virgin River, Zion National Park

Virgin River, Zion National Park

Virgin River

Zion National Park, Utah

The Virgin River cuts through the sandstone cathedrals of Zion in many places, but the Pa’urus Trail is our pick for a family-friendly, easy walk down to a sandy beach and the Virgin’s refreshing, green currents. Look for great beaches near the bridges on this short trail, or sniff around the South Campground.

Distance: 3.2 miles

Key Gear: Swim and hike in one dual-purpose short ie. Coast Short

Havasupai Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Havasupai Falls, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Havasupai Falls

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

This paradise of aqua-tinted travertine waterfalls and pools set against the rust-red Grand Canyon is the stuff of magazine covers and life-list daydreams. Hikers will find multiple grottos and waterfalls along the 15-mile route, but plan ahead for this one: Permits to enter Havasu tribal lands are limited, and they go fast.

Distance: 15 miles

Key Gear: Lightweight, stretchy, quick-dry shorts for hopping from pool to pool Jammer Short

What are some of your favorite watering holes to take a dip in post-hike? Let us know in the comments!

Related links:

Off The Beaten Path In Mexico

The 5 Best Kid-Friendly Hikes In National Parks

8 Things to Pack on a Day Hike

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