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
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 Bingham
Falls 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
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
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
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
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
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.