STEP INTO THE TREASURED WATERS OF LOCAL SWIMMING HOLES, HIDDEN ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF QUAINT DESTINATIONS
written by Kelsey Swenson
Every summer, water brings people together to wade, leap and swim into riverside coves, desert oases and mountain lakes. Plunging into cool, clear natural waters makes experiencing wilderness that much more, well, immersive. That’s why most treasured swimming holes are well-kept secrets. We’re revealing some of the best gems here, to share with those who will tread lightly and splash joyfully.
PATEROS – Alta Lake
On the margins of the vast Eastern Oregon desert, the Methow and Columbia Rivers converge in the small city of Pateros. Just 2 miles away, Alta Lake State Park sits at a higher elevation in a valley between rising stone cliffs where the Cascades begin. Pateros native and City Administrator Jord Wilson said people flock from around the state to swim and camp at Alta Lake, minutes from the eateries along the streets of downtown Pateros.
Since the park was founded in 1951, desert dwellers from lower altitudes have sought solace at the lake they’ve deemed their beloved swimming hole, making it a tradition to take a dip on hot days when the mountains call, and watch late-night movie screenings on the beach. After a day on the lake, Kodi’s Noon Saloon cooks up a killer burger, and Sweet River Bakery serves legendary cinnamon rolls and handcrafted lunch or dinner on the patio with live music under the lights. If you’re there August 20 through 22, the low-key vibe jumps a notch with hydroplane races down the river.
ROSLYN – Cooper Hole
Out Cle Elum Lake’s back door, Cooper River treks right into the heart of the Cascades. The teal waters sliding over polished river stones at Cooper River swimming hole have long since been discovered, but locals had done a great job of keeping their cherished spot secret for a long time. “The site is surrounded by deep-green trees and Cascade mountain views,” said Natalie Benson of Kittitas County Chamber. “You are literally in the middle of the Cascade woods.” It lies near Salmon La Sac Campground on the edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, easily accessible from the road. Just beyond a curtain of evergreens, an 8-foot-deep splash of dark blue glimmers in contrast to the bright pool.
At this liquid jewel, be sure to not disturb the recently reintroduced salmon on their journey, and to recreate responsibly by preserving the pristine state of the water and its environs, Benson noted. After a dip, amble along Cooper River Trail through old growth forests, while snacking on sweet, trailside berries growing in late summer. Stop for a picnic lunch at Cooper Lake, where more swimming spots abound against a backdrop of towering mountains. If you feel like wandering into civilization, stroll through downtown Roslyn. Stop at Basecamp Books and Bites for an outdoor summer movie night, the signature Basecamp Cheeseburger and a good book or trail guide to bring back to your camp chair on the river.
SPOKANE – The Cove
The Spokane River slows and swirls into coves, enticing visitors and wildlife to relish in the ecosystem and geology of Fisk State Park. Birds chirp from tall ponderosa pines sprouting from cliffs hugging pools of water, perfect for a swim. “As for the cliffs, they’re naturally occurring granite outcroppings, carved out of the earth during the massive Missoula floods,” said Kate Hudson of Visit Spokane. That was nearly 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.
Today, people flock from all over to cool off and leap (carefully) from the 5-to 60-foot cliffs with an exhilarating splash into water reflecting sunset-pink skies on hot days. As if the natural landscape couldn’t get any more exciting, a rope swing hangs from a nearby tree. If you jump, Hudson warns, jump out far enough into deep water to avoid rocks directly below. To dry off after the plunge, lounge on the rocks or wind through the trees on some of Fisk State Park’s trails. For a side trip, the 3.3-mile Painted Rocks Nature Trail is a short distance upriver near Spokane where hikers can gaze out at the Little Spokane River meandering through the valley.
WINTHROP – Pearrygin Lake
Wake up in the early hours in your tent or a Pearrygin Lake State Park cabin, slip into the misty waters and watch the sun rise over the hills lining the edge of the Northern Cascades. Now imagine that dip at night, catching the Northern Lights awash above.
“There’s a certain magic in the valley that cannot be photographed,” said Anne Young, Winthrop Marketing Director. “It has to be experienced.” In town, just around the bend, weathered buildings holding small family-owned businesses, restaurants and outfitter shops. An ice cream at Sheri’s Sweet Shop is a must after a long day of swimming and exploring.
The beauty here deepens in late September, when the glassy waters reflect the beginnings of autumn. Wildflowers and yellow-orange needles of deciduous larch pines fill the hillsides with color where a 6-mile trail loops the lake.
PORT ANGELES – Devil’s Punchbowl
With the Olympic Mountains guarding glacially carved Lake Crescent, the water is known for its clarity, which may help clear up any hesitation to jump into the chill. Just a few miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the lake is situated in the northern hills of Olympic National Park. A leisurely 20-minute hike down Spruce Railroad Trail Road will bring you to a small footbridge over the water crossing a notch on the lake’s shore. Wade into the radiantly blue water on flat stones behind the bridge to access an intimate swimming hole cut out of the lake expanse. Cozy Crescent Lake Lodge is nearby for an overnight stay and to warm up after the cold dip. If the lake is too frigid for you, head over to Lake Cushman on North Shore West for equally clear waters on a secluded spot to relish in the sun before tucking in for the night at one of the lake’s campgrounds.
RANDLE – Cowlitz Park
In the height of summer, there’s no better feeling than being miles away from crowds in the cool waters of a swimming hole in the middle of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Sandwiched between Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier, the White Pass Scenic Byway winds along crystal creek waters to the little town of Randle. Proceed just beyond Cowlitz Dam and Lake Scanewa Reservoir to the Cowlitz River and you’ll find this gem. “It’s really just a beautiful park in general. There’s a lot of mature trees and a little island in the middle of the swimming hole,” said Laura Wolf, Wildlife and Recreation Supervisor for Lewis County Public Utility District. “It’s special because it’s a bit more secluded.”
Fewer folks venturing here means the chance to spot wildlife. Floating on your back, look for bald eagles gliding over the glacial melt of the Cowlitz warmed by the sun. When you’re sufficiently refreshed and ready to warm up again, hit two acres of open grass for volleyball, soccer, baseball, frisbee golf and picnicking. The campground offers a hundred campsites tucked into the forest.
AUBURN – Green River Gorge
Nestled under cliffs called the Hanging Gardens, Green River Gorge is straight out of a fairy tale. Tall sandstone cliffs tower over calm eddies of the Green River, swirling into pools of blue-green, amid the gorge, carved out more than fifty million years ago. Meandering for 12 miles below the cliffs, it’s the only river-cut canyon in the state without dams. The beauty of the gorge spurred a movement in the 1960s to conserve it in its natural state. The 1966 article “A Ribbon of Wilderness in Our Midst” in The New York Times brought it to national attention. “Placid pools like miniature chain lakes create an occasional corridor of silence into which only faint and muffled hints of rushing water may penetrate from around the bend,” wrote Wolf G. Bauer. Tendrils of vines from overhanging cliffs make the quiet oasis seem like another world, yet it’s only thirty minutes east of Auburn on the edge of a bustling metropolis. Before the bridge on 293rd Ave SE, turn right onto Green River Gorge Road and walk the gravel trail at the end of the parking lot, taking the second left down the hillside on a primitive trail to arrive at the swimming hole in the gorge’s basin. You might even spot a river otter.