Taking a dip in the Wilson Creek area.

When blazing summer temps start rolling in, it’s easy to look at the calendar and say, “Maybe I’ll head back out in … September. Instead, you should meet the heat head-on by making sure water plays a role in your adventure plan. 

Today, we share five of our favorite hiking destinations in which water plays a key role, as well as five paddle spots that eschew exposure and keep you happily afloat in shaded bliss. We’ll even throw in some resources where you can find additional cool spots to explore.


1. Wilson Creek area

Pisgah National Forest


This 49,000-acre catchment along the southeast flank of Grandfather Mountain is the best hot weather hiking around. Trails zig and zag across Harper Creek, North Harper Creek and other waterways that drop over falls, collect in pools, drop over more falls, collect in more — well, you get the idea. Sandal-and-river-short hiking at its best.

Learn more here.

2. North Mills River area

Pisgah National Forest

Mills River

One problem with summer and water is that come summer, everyone has water in mind — and typically the same places, too. Not the case with the Mills River area. From the campground you can pick up the river and wallow in river crossing after river crossing nearly the whole way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Cool solitude, stellar scenery.

Learn more here.

Schoolhouse Falls

3. Panthertown Valley


At not quite 10,000 acres, Panthertown Valley isn’t huge, but it is packed with mountainous fun, including 30 miles of trail and eight major waterfalls. One of the best natural pools around sits at the base of 25-foot Schoolhouse Falls (it’s got a nice beach, too). 

Learn more here.

4. Eno River

Durham and Orange counties (Triangle area)

Sometimes just the presence of water can have a cooling effect. While there are good spots to take a dip along the Eno (Eno Quarry, Bobbitt Hole, Sennett Hole), the trails that parallel much of the 33-mile-long Eno in the western Triangle are chill simply because of their proximity to the marvelous, montane Eno.

Learn more here.

5. Shenandoah National Park


Throw a dart at a map of Shenandoah National Park near Charlottesville and you can’t help but hit a hike that doesn’t cross paths with water and a waterfall. Jones Run Falls, Doyle River Falls, South River Falls are but three of the great falls hikes our GetHiking! Charlottesville crew does on a regular basis.

Learn more here.


1. Merchants Millpond

Merchants Millpond State Park


A swamp hardly seems the place to seek relief from torturous summer heat. But this 760-acre millpond has enough nooks and crannies towered over by tupelo gum and bald cypress to provide protected relief amid unparalleled coastal exploring. No boat, no problem: the park rents canoes for $5 for the first hour, $3 for each hour thereafter.

Learn more here.

2. Dan River, Section 4


The Dan’s central location just north of the Triad and flirting with Virginia makes it a popular getaway for cool summer fun. This 8.5-mile stretch has frisky Class I and II rapids, and is enveloped by mature hardwoods: between the shade and the moving water, it’s a mountain-like respite in the Piedmont. Boat and tube rentals nearby.

Learn more here.

3. National Whitewater Center


You call a half-mile-long concrete river cheating? We call it Charlotte’s modern answer to the New York City fire hydrants of yore. When they get this 12-million-gallon river running, there’s no better escape, whether you’re rafting with a group or bring your own whitewater playboat.

Learn more here. 

Three rivers area of Falls Lake

4. Three-rivers area of Falls Lake


Your kayak becomes the African Queen in the three-rivers area, where the Eno, Little and Flat rivers merge into Falls Lake. There’s some exposed water, but you don’t need to look hard to find the narrow passages that take you through the jungly terrain. Good thing there’s cell service: you may need it to Google-Map yourself back to the Eno River Wildlife Resources Commission access.

Learn more here. 

5. James River


The James is Virginia’s biggest river and likely its most fun. On its 340-mile journey from the Appalachians to the Chesapeake, the James offers long stretches of flat water suitable for beginners as well as some of the best whitewater in the state: through Richmond alone the James drops 105 vertical feet over seven miles providing Class I to Class V rapids.

Learn more through the James River Association, here. 

More helpful stuff

  • Wilson Creek. If you’re intrigued by the Wilson Creek area and are a backpacker, our GetBackpacking! group is headed there the weekend of June 29-July 1. We’ll camp at Huntfish Falls and in the Big Lost Cove area, and include a day hike to South Harper Falls. We’ll be doing supervised solo camping Saturday night. For more info and to sign up, go here. 
  • North Mills River area. Two years ago, our GetHiking! Classic Escapes did a basecamp hiking weekend out of the North Mills River Campground. If you’d like a copy of the guide we produced for that trip, email joe@getgoingnc.com.
  • For more hikes and tips on hiking, visit our GetHiking! Resource Page.
  • For more paddle trips and tips on paddling, visit our GetPaddling! Resource Page.
  • Playing in all this water on a summer’s day builds quite the thirst; a pity if you can’t quench it. Toss the Sawyer Mini water filter into your daypack or dry bag and never worry about getting parched in the outdoors again. 
  • All this talk about stream crossings may have some of you a little squeamish. It shouldn’t, especially if you know the basics of how to hike across moving water. For a copy of our Water Crossing Tip Sheet, email joe@getgoingnc.com.