Swimming in the Smokies

Swimming in the Smokies. Photo by Michael Miller.

Summer is drawing to an end. But despite the fact that kids are starting to be back in school, we still have at least a good month of summer weather. Plenty of time to visit that ole swimming hole…

People often ask us: So, can you swim in the mountain streams in the Smokies? Well, the short answer is yes. You are allowed to swim in the Smokies.

My husband’s family has always gone swimming in the cold mountain streams — often with our clothes on after a long hike! Nothing feels quite like that cold mountain water when you’re hot and sweaty. My father-in-law is quite famous for this practice, in fact. So we definitely swim in the streams. But we’re careful.

We’re careful because swimming in the Smokies can be VERY dangerous. In fact, a teenager, Amber Rose Mirisola, drowned at the end of July at the Sinks, a popular swimming area. And even though swimming in the park is allowed, it’s not technically encouraged by the park rangers because of the high number of deaths. You just want to be very, very careful.

First, we’ll look at safety information for swimming in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then, I’ll give you a list of places to try it … carefully.

5 safety tips for swimming in the Smokies

  1. Never, ever swim alone. If possible, keep a strong swimmer out of the water for help in an emergency. Be very, very careful letting kids swim and stay right with them at all times.
  2. Rocks near waterfalls will be slippery due to mist and algae. Again, be very, very careful if you climb them. (The park says not to, but we still do sometimes. Carefully.)
  3. Do not dive or jump into the water, since submerged rocks, trees or debris could be immediately below the surface of the water. Always explore the water first.
  4. If you find yourself accidentally swimming in fast moving water, don’t try to stand up. Most drownings occur from getting a leg or ankle caught in an underwater rock ledge or between boulders. The force of the water will push you over and hold you under. Instead, float on your back with your feet pointing downstream and toes up toward the surface. Always look downstream and be prepared to fend off rocks with your feet.
  5. Watch our for hypothermia, which can kill you. It comes from exposure to very cold water (think: mountain streams) and the lowering of the body’s core temperature. Symptoms include a loss of strength and muscular coordination by mental confusion and irrational behavior.

For more information, visit the Water Safety page of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park site.

But if you’re very careful, it can be a lot of fun to take a dunk in any mountain stream or find a swimming hole. Here are some popular ones.

Swimming spots in the Smokies

  • Midnight Hole. Very popular. Take the Big Creek / Mouse Creek Falls trail 1.4 miles, where  you’ll come to the Midnight Hole, a deep pool below a 6-foot falls. One blogger says, “You can jump off the rocks practically into the falls.” Another blog, running-water.com says the following about Midnight Hole:

Nobody sees Midnight Hole for the first time without exclaiming something. It’s deep and wide, even though there’s scarce surrounding rock structure here on Big Creek, no impound at the bottom and the fall is just a few feet high. Fortunately, the fall’s bedrock face overlies softer stone, and the differential erosion supplies the condition for a good swimming hole. … As a benefit, water has color and clarity that sets the standard for southeastern swimming holes.

  • Townsend Wye. There was a drowning at the Townsend Wye in this year, so be careful! But it does sound like a fluke kind of thing. But be careful — put kids in life vests! The Wye is in Townsend, which is about 20 miles from Pigeon Forge on Wears Valley Road. Aboutthegreatsmokies.com says, “There is a large grassy area beside this cool mountain river where you can picnic or sun bathe. Tube rentals are available at several shops close to the ‘Y.’”
  • Metcalf Bottoms. Metcalf Bottoms is a picnic area in the Smokies. You get to it by turning at the Sugarlands Visitors Center and following Little River Road until you see the turn-off for the picnic area. It’s about 20 minutes from downtown Gatlinburg. A tripadvisor.com user had this to say about Metcalf Bottoms:

After watching everyone having fun, we decided that we wanted to cool off in the river too. We decided to walk around to the other side of the wooden bridge and get in next to the bridge. Under the bridge, there was some slightly deeper water. Even though it was deeper, it still only came partway up our thighs…just not quite to our waist. It is not deep enough to actually swim, but deep enough for wading. There are lots of rocks on the bottom of this riverbed, so we wore our water shoes. Even with the water shoes, the rocks are slippery, so you have to be careful walking around. We decided to just sit down in the river for a while too.

  • Oconaluftee Islands Park. Now, this one is just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But I hear it’s amazing. It’s located in Cherokee, North Carolina, which as about an hour from Gatlinburg. The city of Cherokee web site said this about Oconaluftee Islands Park:

As the Oconaluftee passes through Cherokee, it is split by an amazing, grassy island – the ­Oconaluftee Islands Park – sheltered by canopies of oak and sycamore. The water ranges from ankle deep for toddlers to chest deep on Mom and Dad, and flows over soft sand and flat, time-smoothed river rocks shed from the world’s oldest mountains. These rocks are the perfect size and weight for kids to build dams, or encircle Dad as he chills out in the shallows. This island is both physical and metaphorical. On this cozy island, the world at large just … disappears. Wading. Splashing. Tubing. Salamander-hunting. Cloud-watching.

  • The Sinks. The Sinks are located about 15 miles from Gatlinburg on the Little River Road. It’s a popular swimming area, but please be careful if you decide to swim there. This is where Amber Rose Mirisola died just a few weeks ago. And there have been other deaths. To reach it, enter the park through Gatlinburg and take the second right by the Sugarlands Visitors Center and travel toward Elkmont. Not far past the turn-off for Elkmont you’ll find the Sinks on your right. Why is it popular? The Timbercreek cabins blog says, “There are falls that you can walk under — if you don’t mind all that water falling on you — and you jump off a relatively small cliff into the water below. Just be sure to always exercise caution. You’re out in the woods, you know. There aren’t any lifeguards around. I also recommend wearing water shoes.”

Do you have a favorite swimming spot in the Smokies? If so, we’d love to hear about it!

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