There’s something about summer that makes Americans want to head to water.
Some head to the beach. Some head to the lake. And, in areas far from the nearest beach or lake, folks head to the river.
Scott County’s favorite swimming holes are shared by locals and visitors alike during the summer months — particularly on holiday weekends like Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day. It’s the time of year when the most people are typically off work, with the exception of Christmas … and, obviously, no one is swimming in December.
This summer has made these local swimming holes even more of a luxury, since most public pools are closed due to coronavirus concerns. Both the Town of Huntsville’s municipal pool and the National Park Service’s Bandy Creek pool — the only two public pools in Scott County — are closed this summer. (The Splashpad at Oneida City Park is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily).
A swimming hole is wherever folks decide to dip in and cool off, and range from deep holes of water suitable for diving in to shallow spots that are little more than wading pools. But there are a few places that most people congregate to.
(Note: Before diving in, a hole of water should be carefully inspected. In the free-flowing streams of the Cumberland Plateau, it’s not uncommon for heavy rains to carry logs and other debris and deposit them in deep holes of water. As a result, swimming holes that were safe even recently may be characteristically different. The use of rope swings are always dangerous, and are usually removed by National Park Service personnel when they’re discovered within the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.)
» Burnt Mill Bridge
For generations, Scott Countians on the south end have headed to Clear Fork at the Burnt Mill Bridge. Named for the mill that once stood on the river bank nearby, this river access point has long been a favorite. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area in the 1980s, picnic facilities were built at Burnt Mill, which further enhanced its draw as a place to enjoy the river.
While New River is often murky — if not downright muddy — due to summer thunderstorms, and contains more pollution, the Big South Fork’s other major tributary — Clear Fork — lives up to its name. Less mining and timber-cutting activities along its headwaters and tributaries have helped preserve the water quality of Clear Fork, and its bottom is usually lined with rock rather than the mud bottoms that are more characteristic of New River.
The swimming hole at Burnt Mill Bridge isn’t much of a “hole,” per se. It’s more of a place to simply cool off and float around on innertubes. But kids love it, and that’s what keeps families coming back summer after summer.
Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. 27 south to New River. Just past the river, turn right onto Old Hwy. 27 for about 1.5 miles. Then turn right again, and almost immediately left, onto Mountain View Road. Continue 2.3 miles to Black Creek Crossroads, then turn right onto Al Martin Road and follow it half a mile before veering left onto Honey Creek Road. The bridge is located at the bottom of the hill.
» Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole
Ah, Rugby. By the time you’ve hiked from Laurel Dale Cemetery to the Clear Fork River at the bottom of the gorge, the quaint Victorian village of Rugby is far behind. There’s no difference in the Clear Fork River here than there is a few miles downstream at Burnt Mill, but it just feels different … more cultured, somehow. Maybe it’s all in the name. But if you could go back a little more than a hundred years ago, this hole of water is where the gentlemen of Rugby went to bathe and swim — but just the men; the women had their own swimming hole nearby.
As swimming holes go, the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole isn’t particularly noteworthy. But it’s a beautiful place, and the fact that it’s the only popular swimming hole that requires a hike to access, that doesn’t deter the swimmers who visit it each summer once hot weather sets in.
Getting There: From Oneida, take U.S. 27 south to S.R. 52 in Elgin, then turn right and take S.R. 52 5.5 miles to Rugby. Just past White Oak Creek Lane, turn right onto the old highway into Rugby, and continue 1.5 miles to Laurel Dale Cemetery Road. Turn right and drive to the end of the road. The trailhead is located at the cemetery.
» Mill Creek
The last of the south-end swimming holes is Mill Creek, near Brimstone. Mill Creek drains a large valley to the east of Flower Mountain near the head of Brimstone Creek. Just across the ridge — of course, it’s a very big ridge — is Shack Creek, which empties into Smoky Creek. But Mill Creek empties into Brimstone Creek just below Lone Mountain Church.
For the most part, Mill Creek is typical of the mountain streams in the Brimstone community. But a small waterfall empties into a pool of cold water a few miles up the valley, forming an enticing swimming hole, and it’s one that has kept residents of the Brimstone community and others coming back for years.
Getting There: Take U.S. 27 south to Robbins, then turn left onto Brimstone Road. Continue along Brimstone Road for 11.3 miles before turning left onto Lone Mountain Road — which is also known as Mill Creek Road. After a couple of miles, you’ll find the swimming hole on your right.
» North White Oak Creek
When it comes to swimming holes, there are few with as scenic a drive to get there as North White Oak Creek, which empties into the Big South Fork River about a mile downstream of the O&W Bridge. The drive along the old O&W railroad grade is almost as much fun as the swim, and maybe that’s part of the reason that locals have been visiting North White Oak Creek to cool off since well before the area was protected by the Big South Fork national park.
There are actually a couple of different options for swimmers, both close together. At the end of O&W Road, where the creek crossing was located before the road beyond North White Oak was closed to vehicular traffic, is a shallow wading pool. Just downstream, where the railroad tressel once bridged the creek, is a deeper hole of water that is more suitable for swimming. The fact that the O&W Road is open to ATVs makes it a favorite destination for OHV riders who take their four-wheelers and side-by-sides to the end of the road for a swim.
There’s actually a third option, too, but it requires wading the creek and then hiking in. Further upstream is the so-called “Bologna Hole,” an unusually deep hole of water at a camping spot along the creek. The water hole is more than 15 feet deep in places — very unusual for the small stream.
Getting There: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west through Coopertown to Toomey Road. Turn left onto Toomey Road and continue 2.3 miles to O&W Road. Turn right and follow the O&W 5.4 miles to its terminus at the creek.
» Leatherwood Ford
Perhaps the most popular swimming hole on this list is the Leatherwood Ford river access west of Oneida. Locals and tourists alike love to kick off their shoes and get in the river here, on either side of the old “Low Water Bridge” that is now closed to pedestrians due to the heavy damage it has sustained. The water at Leatherwood Ford isn’t really deep enough to swim, but the kids love splashing around and chasing minnows in the shallow pools. And it is also the site of an activity that is rising in popularity: tubing. The small rapids in front of the day use area keep the river flowing at a pace that’s fun — yet relatively safe — for tubers who float on their innertubes from the old pedestrian bridge to the base of the day use area at the trailhead for the Angel Falls Trail, then carry their tubes up the River Walk and start again.
Getting There: From Oneida, take S.R. 297 west for 10.4 miles to the Leatherwood Ford day use area. The turnoff is located just before the bridge over the river at the bottom of the gorge.