Back to Nature

Waterfall hikes and mountain waterslides are the perfect natural thrills.

Photos by Sam Dean

This summer, shake off the sand and choose an uncommon vacation destination. In western Virginia, you’ll discover rugged landscapes that have evolved into their own natural water parks, secret swimming holes, and picturesque waterfalls—all fueled by refreshingly cool mountain water.

Pack your bathing suit and head to Shenandoah National Park, where a quick hike on Cedar Run Trail leads you to popular spots to take a dip. This trail features two waterfalls that form natural waterslides, nestled right into the landscape. The first, located about a mile up from the lower parking lot, boasts a steeper drop than the second waterfall, found another half mile up the trail. Cliff jumping is plentiful at the first waterslide area, with heights ranging from 10 to 25 feet. For small children and families, the second waterslide may be more ideal, with its shorter slide and smaller pool.

Ironically, Warm Springs in Bath County is home to a cool spring. Blowing Springs Campground is named after the nearby natural limestone springs. The water in the swimming holes and streams remains a constant 58 degrees year-round, due to the ducts that blow cold air out of the rocks from an underground cave. Take a dip in the spring located across Highway 39 from the campground—a great way to cool off after hiking the nearby trails.

This secret waterfall maybe isn’t so secret (about 150,000 people visit the falls every year), but it sure is worth the journey. The 69-foot Cascade Falls in Giles County is complete with a large pool and 200-foot surrounding cliff walls, and it only takes a leisurely two-mile hike to get there. Cool off next to the majestic waterfall, a popular picture spot, or sunbathe on one of the surrounding rocks; swimming is not encouraged due to the current the falls create.

According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, designated “wilderness” in Virginia comprises areas that have been deemed by Congress as places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man; where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” This is why true adrenaline junkies will love a trip through the St. Mary’s Wilderness in Raphine, where a 15-foot waterfall can be reached after a difficult hike, including wading through the St. Mary’s River, depending on the time of year. Cliff jumpers have a great time plunging from the waterfall into the deep pool below.

Not in the mood for a hike? Bring the children, and head to Holliday Lake State Park in Appomattox. One of the state parks where swimming is allowed, the park has a guarded lake “beach,” along with an in-water playground.

At Breaks Interstate Park, visit Splash! in the Park with its 4,000-square-foot leisure pool, current channel, four waterslides, spray ground, in-pool games, and more. Spread across Kentucky and Virginia, this state park is one of only two interstate parks in the country. Surrounded by the woods of southwest Virginia, it may not be a mountain stream, but it’s sure to recharge your summer vacation.

This article originally appeared in our WaterLife 2019 issue.

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