There’s a reason why we flock to swimming holes every summer. Taking a dip in the deep, sparkling pools of water set amongst forests, waterfalls, and rocky bluffs is a whole lot better (and more scenic) than sitting indoors next to an air conditioner. At a lot of spots, the water can be reached can be reached within a minute or two after leaving your car. But where’s the adventure in that? Here are some splash zones that can be accessed only by hiking in, and that’s honestly half the fun. Plus, there’s a good chance they aren’t nearly as crowded as the swim spots that are easier to access.
Remember that you always swim (or jump) at your own risk, and in changing conditions—wildfires, fast currents after rainstorms, late season snow blocking the roads—not all the activities here are recommended.
Closest town: Camas, Washington
Distance from downtown Portland: 22 miles
No need to travel far for a good swim session in a natural setting. The 312-acre Lacamas Regional Park in Camas, Washington, has more than 12 miles of trails and is a paradise for many: photographers (especially during spring when the camas lilies bloom), birders, hikers, and of course, daredevils who cliff-jump into the waters at Pothole Falls, the waterfall at Lacamas Creek. Named for the soft rock that over time eroded and formed numerous “potholes” ranging in width and depth, the falls come summer make a nice spot to cool off mid-hike. The easiest way to reach the swimming hole is to start at the Lacamas Park trailhead by Round Lake. The hike around the lake is around 1.2 miles, but if you prefer to cover more ground before taking a dip, take a left over the footbridge to cross the channel between Round Lake and neighboring Lacamas Lake, and walk on a paved trail beneath shady Douglas firs. A short side trail takes you to a viewing platform where you can try and spot great blue herons. Not long after, you’ll pass an erratic boulder which per helpful trail signage is thought to have been carried over from the Missoula Floods more than 12,000 years ago. From here it’s a quick jaunt to the swimming hole. Veer left onto a short side trail which takes you to an overlook of Pothole Falls, then take an unmarked trail to make your way down to the water. The water can be shallow in some places, so be sure to scope it out before attempting to jump from a rock. (Or, skip the jump altogether and just find a nice rock for sunbathing.) To complete the loop, make a left back onto the main trail, and you’ll cross a narrow walkway over the dam, where you’ll see some rusted spillway gears and also get a nice view across the lake. Continue on the trail, which now also parallels with Mill Pond, home to various wildlife, including waterfowl and turtles that can be seen basking atop logs. Return to the trailhead.
Closest town: Estacada, Oregon
Distance from downtown Portland: 31 miles
Six miles south of downtown Estacada, Metzler Park is isolated enough for a proper nature escape. The park sits on Clear Creek, a wide rushing waterway that turns into a tranquil swimming hole at the bend just a tenth of a mile from the trailhead. The short, family-friendly trail takes you on a suspension bridge across the creek. Right after crossing, you’ll see another sign on your right pointing you toward the swimming hole. Follow the short leafy path through the woods to a small cobbled beach at the Clear Creek swimming hole. In the spring, the trail can be quite muddy, but that’s less likely in the summer months. For a longer hike, the park has a 2.5-mile nature trail that weaves through a forest of Douglas fir, hemlock, and maple, with 20 stops along the way to identify various native plants. There's tent and RV camping May through September; otherwise, the day use parking fee is $8. —MH
Mosier Creek Falls
Closest town: Mosier, Oregon
Distance from downtown Portland: 69 miles
This popular wildflower hike along the Mosier Plateau trail has yet another attraction: a “secret” swimming hole tucked between the upper and lower tiers at Mosier Creek Falls. Unnoticed by hikers who venture out in the springtime to gawk at balsamroot and lupine, the plunge-worthy swimming hole gives you an excuse to revisit Mosier in the summer. After parking at the lot just past the Totem Pole Plaza, cross the white bridge over Mosier Creek and, shortly after, pick up the trail to your right marked by a bench. From here, you’ll pass the cemetery through Mosier Pocket Park where members of the Mosier family that founded the town are buried. The trail steadily climbs for about a mile, and you’ll walk high above the scenic Mosier Creek, which cuts through a ravine and also has several enviable homes perched along the cliff. Take in the view at the Mosier Creek Falls overlook before making your way down to the swimming hole. Or if you really want to earn your stripes, hike the entire 3.5-mile loop and then return for a much-deserved dip. Just remember, hiking the mostly exposed trail is a whole different ballgame in the summer heat than it is in, say, April. So be sure to wear a hat, slather on sunscreen, and bring plenty of water.
Closest town: Trout Lake, Washington
Distance from downtown Portland: 99 miles
Part of the Indian Heaven Wilderness in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest, shallow Lake Wapiki sits in the old crater of Lemei Rock. At 3.5 miles each way from the Lemei Trailhead, with a steep spur for the final section up to the lake (and views galore of Adams, Hood, and other peaks), it's is just enough of a trek to keep it from getting too crowded, though the area is popular and is just a couple of miles from the Pacific Crest Trail. It's best to go in late summer, after the snow has melted and the mosquitoes have died down a bit, and when the trailside huckleberries are ripe for snacking. There are a few campsites around the lake, and an overnight will offer some time to explore the smaller, rocky pools in between Wapiki and Lemei Rock. Wilderness permits (self-issued at trailhead) required. —MS