You don’t have to go all the way down to Acapulco to try out some amazing cliff diving. One of the best spots to release your inner daredevil right at home is the appropriately named Aztec Falls, a half-mile hike from the Pacific Crest Trail (the West's answer to the Appalachian Trail) or a 90-mile drive east of Los Angeles. Set among the white boulders and towering conifers of San Bernardino National Forest, the cliffs offer dives ranging from five to almost 60 feet high, with poolside stone slabs on which the less adventurous can sunbathe and spectate.
For more information: fs.usda.gov/sbnf
About four hours northwest of Toronto, Bruce Peninsula National Park sits on a thin stretch of land between Lake Huron on the west and Georgian Bay on the east. Here, the water has eroded the shoreline’s soft limestone, creating overhanging cliffs and deep sea caves, including the famed Grotto. After a 30-minute hike past fields of rare ferns and orchids, swimmers lower themselves down through a natural rock chimney and into the turquoise water below. The truly adventurous can then hold their breath, dive underwater, and continue through a sunlit tunnel out to the bay.
For more information: pc.gc.ca
There’s something almost theatrical about the setup here at this 211-acre park about 80 miles east of Nashville. The wide steps at the base of the 75-foot waterfall look exactly like an amphitheater, with all seats facing the headliner: a deep, cold-water swimming hole. So it’s only appropriate that the falls have a dramatic backstory to match. When plans were hatched to transform this family favorite into plots for 85 riverfront houses, an enterprising conservationist group bought the land at public auction and sold it back to the state, turning Cummins Falls into Tennessee’s newest state park in May 2012.
For more information: tn.gov
It’s no wonder the local tribe in this section of the Grand Canyon is called the Havasupai, or “people of the blue-green waters.” Set against red rock canyon walls, the waters of Havasu Falls are downright inspiring, taking on remarkably turquoise hues thanks to high concentrations of magnesium and calcium carbonate. The Havasupai consider the waters sacred, but even if you don’t believe in their powers, you’ll love wading in the wide pool beneath the 120-foot waterfall or sitting in the shade of the cottonwood trees. Although the falls are among the most well-known in the country, their extreme isolation—they’re only reachable by chartered helicopter, mule, horse or overnight hike—means you’re unlikely to encounter massive crowds.
For more information: havasupai-nsn.gov
Though the Dorset Quarry now feels as natural and wild as its fellow swimming holes, you’ll notice small details that tell a different story. The pool’s walls are totally straight at certain points, with seemingly perfect right angles that you won’t find elsewhere in nature. You’ll soon realize this isn’t your ordinary pond, but a man-made one. Opened in 1785 as America’s first commercial marble quarry, this place once provided construction materials for such notable buildings as the New York Public Library. Nowadays, it’s a perfect spot for cannonballs, swan dives and belly flops—almost the entire perimeter of the swimming hole serves as one big diving platform.
For more information: swimmingholes.org
Formed when the roof of an underground river collapsed, Hamilton Pool sits among 232 acres of protected Hill Country habitat, 23 miles west of Austin. The grotto, fed by a 50-foot waterfall that trickles or gushes into the canyon depending on the season, gives the feeling of swimming in a cave with all the lights flicked on. The pool is surrounded by massive limestone boulders, with a portion shaded by a limestone overhang dripping with stalactites. And what about those bat-like creatures swooping and diving in the sky over your head? Don’t worry, they’re just cliff swallows that nest among the moss and maidenhair ferns on the grotto walls.
For more information: parks.traviscountytx.gov
The curvy Hana Highway through Maui’s lush rainforests wasn’t always the massive tourist destination it is today. To attract visitors to the area, a local hotel owner began calling a series of tiered, waterfall-fed swimming holes the “Seven Sacred Pools." Sure, it had a nice ring to it—despite the fact that there are more than seven pools, and none of them were ever considered sacred. Nowadays, the pools are part of Haleakala National Park, a collection of bamboo forests and hiking trails on the gentle slopes of Maui’s tallest peak.
For more information: nps.gov/hale
Leave it to the enterprising folks of the Ozarks to coin a colorful term that perfectly captures the surroundings here. A “shut-in” occurs when a river’s flow is slowed or blocked by boulders or rock formations. About 100 miles south of St. Louis, this labyrinthine series of small pools and whitewater chutes was created over a billion years ago when ancient volcanic rock blocked the east fork of the Black River. The spot gets crowded in the summer, but there are so many Jacuzzi-sized offshoots to reach by scrambling over the boulders that you’re sure to find one to call your own.
For more information: mostateparks.com
A leap into the refreshingly brisk waters of Opal Pool should come with an automatic membership into the Polar Bear Club: Even during the dog days of summer, the waters hover near a bracing 42 degrees. Luckily, you will have worked up quite a sweat by the time you reach the pool, after a 3.5-mile hike through the old-growth Douglas firs of the Willamette National Forest’s Opal Creek Wilderness Area. When you finally see this hidden gem of a swimming hole, you might assume the name comes from its sparkling blue-green tones, but it was actually named for a park ranger’s wife!
For more information: fs.usda.gov
It’s not very often that the natural world and human interests conspire so perfectly, but this rock formation appears to have been created expressly for the purpose of recreation. Located in the Pisgah National Forest about 40 miles southwest of Asheville, this is one of the few swimming holes to come with a built-in delivery device: a 60-foot-long sloping boulder that carries swimmers down into a seven-foot-deep plunge pool with refreshingly chilly 50- to 60-degree mountain waters.
For more information: fs.usda.gov
Formed during the last ice age some 15,000 years ago, the Sooke Potholes are a result of melting ice and boulders scraping deep holes into the bedrock of the Sooke River. Though these deep, emerald-green pools are only about 25 miles west of Victoria on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, they feel worlds away from the city. Black bears, bald eagles and Roosevelt elk call this area home, and the fall brings spawning coho and Chinook salmon swimming upstream.
For more information: env.gov.bc.ca
Tucked into a forest 14 miles south of Tallahassee, the 6,000-acre Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park contains one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, with some 250 million gallons of crisp, clear water flowing out of its underground cave system every day. You can explore the spring by glass-bottom boat—a great way to see the fossilized mastodon bones 80 feet below the surface on the floor of the four-acre spring basin—or, better yet, dive right in. The 70-degree spring water might seem cool to Floridians, but it’s just right for manatees, who have been arriving in ever-increasing numbers each winter.