This past weekend, my wife, three-year-old daughter and I threw our swim suits and towels into a rental car, cranked the air conditioning and abandoned heat wave-plagued New York City for the northern climes of Vermont, in search of some of the best swimming holes in New England.
These natural pools, waterfalls and quarries lie remarkably under the radar. Some are on public land, some on private, but they are usually found by driving slowly enough to spot parked cars hugging the side of a rural wooded road, then asking someone still dripping in their bikini, “Are these the falls?” There are no parking lots, bathrooms, lifeguards or rules, other than good ol’ Vermont common sense and courtesy.
To find the best I asked Dave Hajdasz, the New England webmaster of SwimmingHoles.info (and our chaperone to the first three spots) if he would rank the preeminent spots in his region of expertise. (He is currently writing a book on the subject, Take the Plunge: The Explorers Guide to Swimming Holes of Vermont, published by Huntington Graphics, due out next spring.) His top four New England choices, and his seventh, were all in Vermont, the closest just four hours from New York.
Our first stop was a mile from Stowe ski resort, an area I knew from winter fun and watering holes of the après-ski variety. From the roadside, Bingham Falls are reached by a short trail through fern-blanketed woods, following the sounds of pounding waterfalls and the gleeful shouts of jumpers plunging into the water below.
The main attraction is a 25ft-high waterfall and the clear, deep blue-green pool it feeds. While adventurous swimmers leapt from the top of the falls into a narrow deep spot, I got enough of a thrill jumping from a boulder about 6ft high. My daughter followed suit, jumping off foot-high rocks in a life jacket that buoyed her to the surface.
More intrepid folks will find shooting flumes, swirling pools and a plummet between narrow canyon walls, all at the top of the main waterfall. Before we left, my wife and I each swam after Dave to the bottom of the big falls where we crawled through the pounding water to reach a perch on the other side that had room enough for three. After grinning up into the water shooting down in front of us, we left the only way you can: an exhilarating dive through the falls and back into the pool.
We arrived at BinghamFalls at noon, when the sun illuminates the waterfall and pool. Because of the grey bedrock cliffs and tall trees on either side of the small river, midday is the only hour of the day the swimming hole is not under shadow. Little sun, and the fact that it is fed from the same spring mountain as the ski resort, helps keep the temperature a refreshingly brisk 64F, even on a sweaty day.
The most straightforward route is though the town of Stowe, up Route 100. Stop following ski lift signs when you reach Route 108 and drive just over six more miles.
Dave ranked the top swimming holes in New England based on a homespun algorithm of beauty of the area, special features (like jumping cliffs and waterslides), size and number of waterfalls, and “overall fun from my personal experience”. Warren Falls, with its three waterfalls, three pools, waterslide, four jumping cliffs and “some of the most unique rock formations you will ever see”, was his top pick.
Warren Falls was also busier than Bingham. Rock jumpers from a 10ft cliff (including myself) had to take turns with the folks (and a dog) jumping from the opposing 15ft ledge, to land in the same deep blue spot, just below a small waterfall. Moving up the main levels were more small waterfalls, pools of clear rushing water, a natural water slide, and higher and higher jumping spots with short queues of people.
The size and breadth of options means that all ages and levels of daring are sated. I gleefully slithered down the rockslide into a mid-level pool, my wife relaxed in a small eddy and our daughter jumped, paddled, climbed and splashed until her teeth chattered from the 74-degree water.
Located on the Mad River, Warren Falls is on Route 100, a few miles south of Warren, Vermont. Follow a short trail and descend a ladder of tree roots down to the bottom of the falls.
Lacking dramatic waterfalls or cliffs from which to leap, this chain of pools and cascades is deceptively tame. Once you plunge in you find sections that alternate between slow streams where you can beach yourself against a flat half-submerged rock, and fast currents of waterslide fun.
The whole section is a wide, and therefore sunny, switchback of tiers flowing into one another and exploring is rewarded. My wife discovered a 2ft wide crevasse that worked a cool water massage into her back and, more accidently, a chute we rode by leaning way back and letting the water pick us up. The spot also lacked crowds and had a slightly warmer water temperature (78F).
Circle Current technically did not make Dave’s top ten list. He subbed it for a similar sliding option, the Waterslide in Danby, Vermont, which is accessed by private property and recently closed because swimmers were leaving garbage behind. Warren Falls had been closed for years for similar reasons, according to a site called Waterfalls of the Northeastern United States. So be sure to clean up after yourself or other precious spots could prohibit visitors.
From the town of Bristol, follow Route 116/17 for two miles to Lincoln Gap Road. A trail leads you to easy entry points.
As wide as Bingham is tall, Bristol Falls also feeds an Olympics-sized moss green pool you can swim the length of to climb behind the waterfall. The slippery but otherwise easy clamber leads to a cave that could easily host a small party (and had the day before, judging from the beer cans left behind). On either side of the large pool are tiers of 25ft-high rocky diving boards and a rope swing for the most daring (or reckless).
The first to arrive in the morning, we had the area to ourselves for awhile. The water was a chilly wake-up but worth braving for having such a large area in which to swim by ourselves. After getting our fill we laid out on a wide flat rock at the water’s edge and let the sun dry our suits. Families and warmer temperatures arrived as we left.
The pool is located a couple of hundred yards downstream from Circle Current, along Lincoln Gap Road.
Two features distinguish this swimming hole from the others. It is not on a river and it has a sign; not a commercial announcement, but a historical marker that states you are about swim in the oldest marble quarry in the United States, opened in 1785. Before it closed and an underground spring turned the quarry into a huge natural pool with 360 degrees of diving-off edges, it supplied the material for homes, gravestones and the main branch of the New York Public Library.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, the place was bustling with kids, packs of friendly teenagers and parents sunning on slabs or the small lawn. The space easily accommodated the 100 or so swimmers and sun worshipers. Other than swimming in the deep, dark waters, diving is the only recreation. Marble launch pads range from 2ft-high, perfect for my intrepid daughter, to roughly 25ft, for older thrill seekers. My comfort zone was somewhere in between, even though there was no chance of hitting the bottom.
Located in southwest Vermont, the quarry is on Route 30, between the towns of Manchester and Dorset. It is easy to spot from the road and there is a separate dirt road for parking.
Ice cream, other eats and a B&B
Thoroughly cooled and relaxed, we got back in our rental car, now draped with drying swimsuits and towels, and made one last stop for another cool treat — ice cream — before driving back to steamy New York.
Cow-occupied Vermont is touted for its ice cream so if you want to lower your core body temperature, it runs a close second to swimming holes. Ben & Jerry’s, the godfather of independent ice creamery, has its public factory (with tours, gift shop and scoop shop) in Waterbury, just 15 miles south of Bingham Falls and 20 miles north of Warren Falls. Sama’s Cafe in Middlebury, 15 miles south of Bristol Falls and Circle Current, has a window that scoops reasonably priced cones and soft serve (locally known as “creemee”) until 9 pm. Spiral Scoops (15 Bonnet St, Manchester; 802-362-9944), on Route 30, four miles south of Dorset Quarry, serves yummy standards from the local Wilcox Farm.
The Mad Taco is a great spot to take away a hearty and well spiced torta or cubano sandwich and make a picnic for Warren Falls, less than 10 minutes away. Two Brothers Tavern, in Middlebury, serves an excellent Portobello burger, grilled salmon dinner and refreshing local beers like Switchback ale and Otter Creek’s Summer wheat. Bristol Bakery & Cafe, two miles from Bristol Falls and Circle Current, makes excellent sandwiches and bakes their own bagels and bread (on a weekly schedule found on their website).
The Swift House Inn in Middlebury is about as nice a Vermont bed and breakfast you could luck into on short notice (I got the last room a week in advance). The beds were large and comfortable, rooms nicely decorated and plates of delicious cookies are kept filled for guests. Breakfast, part-buffet and part-a la carte, was filling and served on a large porch overlooking the verdant grounds.