Since childhood, when we’ve thought of cooling off on a hot summer day, we’ve thought of losing ourselves in a cool mountain pool. Just the thought of a natural water slide, slipping into a rock-rimmed pool fed by a mountain stream sends a vicarious chill, a very welcome summer respite. Fortunately, we live in one of the best states imaginable to erase summer from our psyche with an icy dip. Consider visiting these five recommended North Carolina summer water features, falls, pools, slides and more to fulfill your childhood fantasies — after a nice hike to bolster your appreciation.

Summer is perfect for the natural water slide at Sliding Rock
Summer is perfect for the natural water slide at Sliding Rock (photo:

In his just-released third edition of “North Carolina Waterfalls,” Kevin Adams lists 1,000 waterfalls (300 are profiled in full). In our Southern Appalachians, waterfalls are everywhere, and sometimes, they’re just off the road. But more often, they’re nestled deep in a mountain valley, a challenge to get to without a little direction. Check out our options, and check out the 300 waterfalls profiled by Adams’ profiles that include the best way to reach the falls.

Top 5 Summer Water Features, Waterfalls, Pools and Natural Slides

1. Sliding Rock
Pisgah National Forest
Sliding Rock isn’t part of a hike, per se, but it is adjacent to hundreds of miles of some of the best hiking in the Pisgah National Forest: in the Shining Rock Wilderness, on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and in the Davidson River area. So go, do a little classic hiking, and then head up (or down) US 276, pay your two bucks (this is a National Forest Service fee area) and enjoy perhaps the most breathtaking water in the state.  From the “put-in,” slide 60-feet down a water-slick rock face into a pool that generally doesn’t heat up above 60 degrees. The true fun is standing on the adjoining observation platform and watching very surprised swimmers bob to the surface after their invigorating immersion. We recommend “earning” this chill with a 6-mile hike at Pink Beds, just up 276.
More info here.

2. Wilson Creek
Pisgah National Forest
Water, water everywhere in the Wilson Creek area — which can be a bit annoying on a hike if you’re not hoping to spend more time in the water than out. Hiking Harper Creek and North Harper Creek requires multiple creek crossings, some in near-knee deep water (minus a swift current).  A stellar pool awaits hikers at the base of North Harper Falls, a 40-foot drop less than a mile and a half in on its namesake trail. Similar reward greets hikers at nearby Hunt-Fish Falls, which drops 20 feet into an Olympic-size pool rimmed by sunning rocks. The Gragg Prong area offers multiple, more intimate pools in more challenging terrain. Wilson Creek offers the best collection of wet hiking you could hope to find in 49,000 acres.
More information here.
Summer cool down at NC Waterfall, North Harper Falls
North Harper Falls

3. North Mills River

Pisgah National Forest
Mills River
The quintessential Keens hike. This 6.5-mile hike from the North Mills River Recreation Area follows its namesake creek for the first 5 miles or so, crossing the creek 15 times. Then, the climbing starts; slip on your hiking socks and continue up, up, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll work up a sweat away from the water, but remember: you’ll be returning the same way, through those same 15 refreshing creek crossings. The crossings are mellow, rarely much above the ankle with minimal current.
More information here.
Summer Water Hike at North Mills River
North Mills River
4. Stone Mountain State Park
Roaring Gap
Stone Mountain’s perch at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment makes it the ideal catchment for run-off draining from the Southern Appalachians above. From the popular (for good reason: great views, an open meadow, a restored farm) 4.5-mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail, excuse yourself for a sidetrip down the mile-long Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail, which, in the spirit of aptly named trails, takes you to Middle and Lower Falls. Most folks are content to stop at Lower Falls; continue to Middle Falls and be rewarded with a dip in the resulting 3-foot-deep pool. Good hiking, good H20.
More info here.
Natural summer slide at Stone Mountain Lower Falls
Stone Mountain, Lower Falls
5. Panthertown Valley
Nantahala National Forest
Put in perspective, Panthertown’s pitch as the “Yosemite of the East” makes sense. At 10,000 acres, Panthertown is a scaled-down version of the 1,200-square-mile Yosemite National Park. Yosemite has 750 miles of trail, Panthertown just over 30. Panthertown has eight major falls, Yosemite, by the National Park Service’s (happy 100th, btw) own tally, has “countless” waterfalls. While Yosemite tops out at 13,114 feet (Mount Lyell), Panthertown barely makes it over 4,200 feet. Thus, you won’t find a 1,430-foot Upper Yosemite Fall, but you will find the 25-foot Schoolhouse Falls, and what you’ll find at its base is a sandy beach and pool that refreshes on the hottest summer day. Lots of other cool pool options, as well.
More info here.
 Summer cool down at Schoolhouse Falls, Nantahala National Forest NC
Schoolhouse Falls, Nantahala National Forest NC