Take the Plunge: A Guide to NH's Swimming Holes



The Wild Ammonoosuc River close to the Swift River covered bridge on Rte. 112 near the town of Swiftwater.

Photo by Eric Schwartz

There's nothing cool about hunching over a computer screen and updating your Facebook status all summer long.

If you really want to get down with your peeps, try immersing yourselves in the original social medium, the untamed waters of a "secret" swimming hole or a secluded beach.

The exhilaration of cold water on a hot summer day and the sense of shared adventure is the kind of bonding experience that can create lifelong memories for friends and families.

But chill out, play it safe and follow the rules. Here's a guide for anyone ready to take the swimming hole plunge this summer.

Liability? We don't need no stinkin' liability.

It's all yours. Our intrepid water-winged reporters are not necessarily recommending that you take a dip at these swimming holes, they are merely pointing them out; Even True's Ledges, the water hole owned by the town of Lebanon, has a sign that reads "Swim at Your Own Risk." Good advice all around.

Swimming Hole 101

Nothing compares to the freedom of taking a plunge in a swimming hole; cool water and fresh air without the dampening presence of authority figures. But with freedom comes responsibility. It almost goes without saying that safety comes first.

  • Always swim with a buddy and let someone else know where you are going.
  • Wear sneakers or water shoes to protect from rocks and broken glass.
  • Bring a picnic (nothing builds up an appetite like swimming outdoors) but follow the "whatever you take in, take out" rule, and no glass bottles!
  • Don't trespass onto private property.
  • Avoid rowdy behavior.
  • If you want to get in touch with your inner Huck Finn, there's no point in getting on someone else's nerves; be considerate to others. (Nobody came to the swimming hole to share space with a drunken loudmouth with a boom box and short-shorts!)
  • Never use a rope or "Tarzan" swing without testing its strength.
  • Don't jump in until you've checked the depth and current; river bottoms in particular are known for their constantly changing currents, so always be aware of what you're getting yourself into.
  • Remember, like the iceberg that took out the Titanic, a majority of the obstruction may be underwater, so check for debris, tree limbs and rocks before attempting any dives - and never dive in head-first!
  • If you are swept away by the current, don't panic, fight the current or try to stand up - float feet-first downstream on your back and let the current carry you until you can paddle to safety.

Some Swimming Hole History

When Ursula Cote was 5 years old, she and her sisters, Sugar and Bunny, headed down to the end of Verona street in Nashua on hot summer days and waded into the cool waters of what was unofficially but ubiquitously called "Baby Hole," just one of a dozen or more crystal-clean swimming spots on Salmon Brook that served as a kind of recreational spine to the city of Nashua for most of the 20th century.

That was 80 years ago. Baby Hole and its sister swimming holes, like Third Bridge, Suds and B-A-B (Bare Assed Beach), are clogged with trash, weeds, trees and, in the case of Harbor Pond on Main Street, actually filled in and paved over as a supermarket parking lot. Those dog days in the water are imprinted on Cote's memory, and while her swimming holes may have gone the way of the weeds, the tradition of seeking out, sneaking in and backstroking through swimming holes is still alive and well in New Hampshire, thanks to our 17,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1,000 lakes, 3,000 ponds, 18 miles of seacoast and countless other spots where wade-worthy water gathers in pools.

Oh! the old swimming'-hole!
whare the crick so still and deep

Looked like a baby river
that was laying half asleep.

- James Whitcomb Riley

OK, now you're ready to get your feet wet, so how do you find the swimming hole?

Note: Detailed directions to every swimming hole mentioned in this story - plus a few more - can be found on the map we've put together.


View Guide to Swimming Holes in a larger map

Let's face it, most locals would have to be waterboarded to give away the location of their favorite swimming spot. When we asked a young woman languishing on a blanket beside a gin-clear natural pool in the Monadnock Region if it was OK to swim, she quickly replied, "I'll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone else." Many swimming holes have been in use for generations; chat up a local at the general store, a gas station or fast food restaurant. Turnarounds on roads near rivers or streams are evidence of repeated use and are often indicative of a trout pool or swimming hole. If you would rather let your fingers do the walking, log onto the Internet and check out swimmingholes.org or newenglandwaterfalls.com. The book "Waterfalls of the White Mountains" by Bruce, Doreen and Daniel Bolnick also offers several tips.

Sculptured Rocks
Photo by Susan Laughlin

Rocks

It's a study in contrasts. The Granite State is literally laced with pristine rock-bound pools.

  • The Cockermouth River thunders through a 30-foot-high gorge in Groton to create the roiling backdrop for one of the state's most dramatic swimming holes. The waterfall creates a mist above the kettle pools scoured out of solid rock to create an otherworldly succession of pools where locals picnic and paddle and the more bold dive. Follow signs for Sculptured Rocks.
  • The Emerald Pool is a little off the beaten path, an easy hike of about mile off Rte. 113 in Chatham on the Baldface Mountain Trail about 14 miles north of Fryeburg, Maine. It is a small pool formed where water rushes through a cleft in the rock and a ledge creates the perfect platform for jumpers. Even on a midsummer's eve the water is as cold as a Slurpee.

Bridges

How kind of our forefathers (and budget committees) to construct so many perfect diving platforms that also provide shade for swimmers.

  • Livermore Falls on the Pemigewasset River in Campton has a sandy beach frequented by families, but be careful, the white sand can get very hot. A second swimming hole downriver has a deep hole overlooked by a railroad bridge with a rope swing, There are also several rock overlooks. Local lads with more courage than sense often dive off the rocks and some even perform acrobatics off the bridge, about 50 feet above the river,
  • Locals have gathered in the shadow of the Smith Covered Bridge in Plymouth to soak their toes in the Baker River for more than 100 years. The current structure on Smith Bridge replaced the 19th-century bridge that burned in 1993. There is ample parking and plenty of room for the families that gather with picnic lunches to bask in the gentle stream.
The Smith Covered Bridge in Plymouth is also a great put-in area to explore sandy beaches along the Pemigewasset River.
Photo by Susan Laughlin

Waterfalls

Even expensive waterparks do not surpass the thrill of a natural waterfall.

  • Maxfield Parrish's winged wood nymphs would feel at home at Diana's Baths, a succession of boulder-strewn pools carved in granite by Lucy Brook off a half-mile hike from West Side Road in Bartlett. The area was once known as Oonahgemessuk Weegeet, or "home of the water fairies" by the local natives. The shallow pools are particularly popular with families with young children.
  • Profile Falls on the Smith River off Profile Falls Road in Bristol has its own parking lot and even picnic tables. The falls has about a 25-foot drop, which creates a sparkling curtain of fresh water in which to splash and frolic.
The popular Diana's Bath in North Conway. Expect to pay for parking and sharing the site with others on a nice day. Off of West Side Hwy. Easy .6 mile walk.
Photo by Norm Lathrop

Rivers

A sandy beach beside a wild river is like a timeshare in eternity.

On warm summer days youngsters frolic in the icy pools of the Ammonoosuc River just a beach ball's toss from downtown Littleton. It might be a stretch to call it swimming; the pools are more suitable for wading than the breaststroke, but it sure looks refreshing. Visitors to the Littleton Grist Mill and the covered bridge on the river walk often pause to gawk at the giggling aquanauts.

  • Lower Ammonoosuc Falls off Lower Falls Road in Carroll is a wide circular pool that looks more like a man-made resort than a work of nature. Its gentle banks are particularly friendly to children and old-timers.
  • You might strike it rich while soaking your tootsies on the Wild Ammonoosuc River. Prospectors pan for gold in the pools that locals frequent on the river along Route 112 in Bath.
  • Just a softball toss from Souhegan High School in Amherst is a canoe and kayak ramp and several swimming pools on the river that gave the school its name.
  • On the Ashuelot River in Gilsum just downstream from the Stone Arch Bridge is The Deep Hole, a popular swimming spot with a deep pool at the bottom of a steep ledge. A boulder overlooking the water is a favorite of jumpers.
  • There are many pools and beaches along the Pemigewasset, Swift and Saco Rivers.
There is easy access to Swift River just off the Kancamagus Hwy.
Photo by George Griswald

Lakes and Ponds

Discovering a mountain lake after a long, hard climb is proof positive that someone up there loves us.

  • Lonesome Lake is a 12-acre water hole about 2,760 feet above Franconia Notch on the trail to Cannon Mountain. It is one of the prettiest pools in the state if not the country. It's well worth the 1.6 mile hike to enjoy the waters of the remote lake where hikers take a break to soothe sore muscles. It's like floating on a cloud surrounded by mountains.
  • Center Pond off Rte. 9 in Stoddard is a spring-fed swimming hole with a sandy beach and boat landing. Rumor has it that it's rarely crowded.
  • The boat ramp on Dublin Lake off Rte. 101 is posted off limits for swimming, but it's a rare sunny day that you stop by and don't find somebody taking a dunk in front of the "No Swimming" sign.
Sawyer Rock on Sawyer Brook half-mile on Rte. 302 past the Silver Springs Campground.
Photo by Ian Paterson

Ocean

Think you know every swimmable inch of our ocean coastline? Think again.

  • Because of our spectacular but short coastline, most of the saltwater swimming areas are public beaches or private property. But there is one place off the beaten path - in fact, off the mainland - that qualifies and that's the stamp-sized beach at Star Island in the Isles of Shoals. If you take the tour boat out and back to the island, you can take a quick dip and enjoy the secluded island scenery.
The Pelicans who work at the Star Island Hotel take a dip from the dock.
Courtesy of Star Island Corporation

Past Treasures

The sparkling waters of our lakes, ponds, streams and natural pools have not only been a draw for overheated children and feisty teens, but also the rich and famous.

Ah, the glories Squam Lake has known. Its clear water has cooled the cockles of no fewer than three Oscar-winning actors, including Jane Fonda, daddy Henry and America's acting royalty, Katharine Hepburn who, along with the Fondas, insisted on doing her own stunts, including swimming during the filming of "On Golden Pond" in 1981. According to Jane Fonda, the water level in Squam Lake was so low during the summer of production that her father could have stood during the scene in which he was supposedly clinging to the rocks for fear of drowning. She wrote that the September water was barely knee-deep, but it was cold enough that he had to wear a wetsuit under his clothes. Hepburn, on the other hand, dove into the water without the aid of the wetsuit because she wanted the scene to keep its authenticity.

President Grover Cleveland was a known lover of outdoor sport - a crack angler, and as a youth, a competitive swimmer. In fact, while staying in his summer home in Tamworth, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States went fishing on Duncan Lake - the smallest lake in the state (some call it a pond) in the town of Ossipee, and loved it so much he built a fishing cottage on the shore. After a hot day on his boat, the life-long and rotund outdoorsman tickled his toes and was said to have taken a dip in the soothing waters in this secluded spot.

One of the most iconic images in literary history is an elderly Mark Twain, sitting on a rocking chair on a front porch in 1906. It was taken in Dublin, where Twain spent several summers. But what you don't see is Dublin Lake, a big draw for Twain and other early 20th-century notables, including President William Howard Taft, poet Amy Lowell, aviatrix Amelia Earhart, actress Ethel Barrymore, novelists John P. Marquand, Henry Adams, artist John Singer Sargent, art patron Isabella Stewart Garden and many, many others who summered, swam and schmoozed on the private, pristine pool.

Forbidden Pleasures

When it comes to quarry dipping and diving, some sensual summer seductions are best left to the imagination.

Rock quarries are the forbidden pleasure of the swimming hole world. Old-timers fondly remember the pleasures of taking a dip in Pease and Lovejoy quarries in Milford. There are still many throughout the state. If YouTube videos are to be believed, bare-chested daredevils are still getting cheap thrills by leaping more than 80 feet into at least one quarry in Concord. But the pleasures are far outweighed by the dangers of rock outcroppings and other underwater obstacles, So, if you were to ask us how to get there we fall back on the swamp Yankee truism "you can't get theyah from heyah."

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