By: Barbara Gibbs Ostmann | AAA Auto Club
One of the best cures for the COVID-19 blues is to get outdoors and get moving. August might be too hot and humid for hiking, but it’s the ideal time to cool off in or near the water. Here are 10 rivers and swimming holes where you can jump in for some end-of-summer fun.
For the perfect combination of swimming hole and paddling river, Echo Bluff State Park in Eminence, Missouri, is hard to beat. Sinking Creek is a shallow, crystal-clear stream that flows through the park, past the namesake Echo Bluff. Swimming holes of various depths abound, both within the park and a quarter-mile away where Sinking Creek flows into the Current River.
The contrast between the relatively warm water of Sinking Creek and the bracingly cold water of the Current River is most evident at the junction of the two streams. It’s a popular stopping point for floaters who sit or wade in Sinking Creek before returning to their kayaks and canoes to continue floating down the Current River, which is part of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
Lake Taneycomo in Branson, Missouri, provides more paddling therapy. Although it’s called a lake, it looks and feels more like a river, flowing 23 miles from Table Rock Lake Dam to Powersite Dam near Forsyth, Missouri; it is actually a manmade reservoir on the White River. The cold water comes from the depths of Table Rock Lake, making Taneycomo an ideal trout-fishing lake and a refreshing summer swimming and paddling spot.
If warmer, calmer waters are your preference, check out Table Rock Lake and Table Rock State Park. With almost 800 miles of shoreline, Table Rock Lake offers many places to swim, sunbathe, scuba dive, snorkel, or paddle.
The lower Cache River in southernmost Illinois. (Ryan Donnell/Illinois Office of Tourism)
The Shawnee National Forest in southernmost Illinois holds many wonders for adventurous travelers. One of the highlights (well known to locals but less so to others) is Bell Smith Springs Recreation Area near Eddyville.
Take the path from the trailhead and descend the steep stone stairway that was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to find yourself in a wonderland of rocky streams and scenic canyons with high sandstone bluffs.
The large boulders of Devil’s Backbone dot the creek that is a popular local swimming hole. Follow the yellow-marked Natural Bridge Trail or wade through the shallow creek to the nearby natural bridge, the largest in Shawnee National Forest with a span of 125 feet and an arch of 30 feet. Enjoy a panoramic view of the area from the top of the bridge.
“Bell Smith Springs is one of my favorites,” said Jennifer Randolph-Bollinger, a naturalist at nearby Giant City State Park. “It is a little on the remote side, but it’s well worth the drive down bumpy gravel roads.”
The Cache River State Natural Area is another favorite. “It's such a hidden gem,” she said. “Definitely a must-see. The Heron Pond (upper Cache River) is gorgeous and offers a boardwalk through the swamp. Just don't forget your insect spray.”
The lower Cache River lets visitors experience the still waters of a southern cypress/tupelo swamp. Whether you paddle the water trails or opt for the boardwalks or foot paths, you’ll see ancient trees and abundant wildlife. Don’t miss the state champion bald cypress tree and water tupelo tree, both of which are more than 1,000 years old.
Cool off in Kansas
Tuttle Creek State Park located five miles north of Manhattan offers a sandy beach and kayak rentals when you’re ready to beat the heat. Swim, float, or paddle (hourly rentals Thursday–Monday) in the River Pond unit. The 12,000-acre Tuttle Creek Lake boasts 100 miles of wooded shoreline, setting the scene for a pretty paddle or relaxing afternoon.
Take out a kayak or swim at a beach inside Tuttle Creek State Park. (Courtesy Kansas Office of Tourism & Travel)
Tucked away in the Lee Creek Valley in the Ozark National Forest of northwest Arkansas, Devil’s Den State Park is a hidden jewel of both natural and manmade beauty. The park, a National Historic District, is known for the rustic wood-and-stone architecture made famous by the CCC in the 1930s.
An extensive network of hiking, backpacking, mountain bike, and horseback riding trails leads to the heart of the park along Lee Creek, where a CCC-constructed rock dam forms the eight-acre Lake Devil, ideal for fishing and paddling.
On hot afternoons, the shallow waters below the dam are suited for wading or just lounging in lawn chairs in the cool water, said Brenda Baker of Springdale, Arkansas, who has been bringing her family to the park every Memorial Day weekend for the past 45 years. Swimmers often prefer deeper water upstream by the Arkansas Highway 170 bridge. However, the park’s swimming pool, canoe, and kayak rentals are not available due to COVID-19.
Wade in the water of Lee Creek at Devil's Den State Park in Arkansas. (Kirk Jordan/Arkansas Tourism)
Beat the heat in Louisiana
On the north shore of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, you can experience Cane Bayou and the Bogue Falaya River.
Cane Bayou transports you to the swamps of Louisiana, complete with alligators, egrets, blue herons, otters, and other wildlife. The bayou, which empties into Lake Pontchartrain, is in Mandeville.
"The bayou is an easy paddle, with no rapids or fast-moving water," said Christina Cooper, vice president of communications for the St. Tammany Parish Tourist Commission. "It's my peaceful place."
Cooper recommends Bayou Adventure outfitters in Lacombe. At their shop, pack your cooler with Louisiana food favorites from its Bayou Kitchen (egg rolls filled with crawfish boudin, anyone?) or from the food truck.
If the bayou is a little too much wilderness for you, consider the Bogue Falaya River. Cooper likes to float with Canoe and Trail Adventures, which launches from the boardwalk at The Chimes restaurant in Covington. Paddle in one direction and you'll reach the Bogue Falaya Park where you can get out and explore, she said, or paddle the other way and you’ll pass under scenic bridges and have a choice of sandy beaches.
“The river is shallow and clear in spots, and you can see schooling fish,” she said. “It's a very different paddle than Cane Bayou, but both are wonderful.”
Remember, these are natural/wilderness areas and any water recreation is done at your own risk. Always wear a personal flotation device (life vest) in canoes or kayaks.
Paddling Cane Bayou with Bayou Adventure. (Courtesy Bayou Adventure)