Discovering the Best Swimming Holes in Washington State
I’d never swam in anything but cow ponds and chlorine pools before this spring of 2014. Then I moved to Washington, and through my lucky friendships with naturalists, and a stint with EverGreen Escapes, I’ve dived into more lakes and rivers than exist in my entire home state of Nebraska.
I’ve taken the liberty of listing my favorite swimming holes, divided between the western Olympic Peninsula and the eastern Cascade mountains, but they are only four of hundreds. Perhaps you have your own preferences—secret springs, hot pools, or calm beaches. Feel free to add to the list, or guard your secret closely to keep them lonely, wild, and pristine.
At the northern edge of the million-acre Olympic National Park is Heart o’ the Hills trailhead. It climbs 2400 feet in just over three miles, and from the start you are surrounded by eerily dense young hemlock forest. Let the darkness and the quiet unsettle you a little, but watch the sunlight rest on hammocked spider webs. Let a lone varied thrush whistle sweetly through the trees, and be still a moment before you reach the abrupt valley that cocoons Lake Angeles. The lake there is overrun with life, human and wild, especially in early August. A tall ridge surrounds the lake basin, and it’s a relief to finally be in the open. Laughter and birdsong echo in this great space, and the dichotomy of dark and light, of silence and sound is worth the journey alone. But then the lake!
It’s a perfectly formed teardrop, electric blue at its shallow rim and fathomless in the deep. In early August we found rough skinned newts by the dozens by the banks, apparently in mating season. Their skin exudes a potent toxin, but they’re only dangerous if you intend to eat them. (Don’t!)
Grab a sturdy log and paddle out to the circular island, where you can feast on mountain huckleberry until your lips and fingers stain violet, and then bask on lichen-painted rocks in the sun. You’ll find it’s much quicker to swim back, so abandon your makeshift raft and immerse yourself into the cold water. Perhaps you, like me, were brought up on the plains, and sightless depths unnerve you. But like the dense upward hike, this long swim is a worthwhile mission, and touching land at last is a triumph. Congratulate yourself on this adventure as you break out lunch back at the shore. Your day is wide open, and from here you can return to the Heart o’ the Hills campsite or press on toward the high Klahhane Ridge.
Also along the northern Olympic National Park, this beloved lake is famous for its sky-blue waters. Lake Crescent a beautiful gem curled under a low forested ridge, and it’s accessibility via Highway 101, rare for this secluded park, has made it a major attraction for resort real-estate and wilderness lovers alike. The Olympic Discovery Trail skirts the north shore, so you can hike out to a lonely beach, or jump off the dock at Lake Crescent Lodge.
In early August the water is cool, but not too cold, and incredibly deep—624 feet at its most profound, but a perfect 12 feet for diving near the dock. This is the clearest water I’ve ever seen, much less swam in; like a thin sheet of old glass, warped slightly by age, but absolutely transparent. It recalled childhood memories of swimming in the Mediterranean, and if you have goggles and a snorkel you can spend hours examining the depths, occasionally surfacing to admire the surrounding heights.
If you’re headed east, Highway 2 is a beautiful alternative to I-90. You can follow the landscape from the lushness and moss of Seattle and western Washington to arid highlands. This road winds along the Skykomish River, and as you pass tiny towns with proud names like Gold Bar, Sultan, and Startup, think about the heartbreaking optimism of this country. And mix that with the older sounds of the land: Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers meet up to become the larger Snohomish River, which finally drains into the Salish Sea. Run these words over your tongue. Skykomish. Money Creek. Bald Eagle and Silver Eagle Peak. Highway 2 is a good place to think about things old and new.
Now pull over—it’s true that there are no signs, but trust me—pull over at the turnout a few miles east of Index. Ignore the sign that says “No Through Traffic” and follow a narrow trail down to the river. Countless thaws have carved natural baths and perfect cliff-dives, and the water is crystal clear; you can even see small fish lounging among the bottom pebbles.
There are enough rock formations to choose your own thrill level, whether that’s slipping into still pools or braving the 40-foot drop into the middle of a deep and swift current. But the river slows and widens just northwest of the cliff, and you can float a lazy course to the gentle bank downstream. The water’s cold, even in late summer, but perfect for a hot day. During peak runoff season, the river is too swollen and quick for swimming, so wait for a dry spell.
If you want the serenity of Highway 2 and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness without the chaotic rush of rapids, hike out on the West Fork Foss River Trail that takes you 14 miles past several lakes: Trout, Malachite, Copper, Little Heart, and Big Heart. Copper Lake caught my attention not only because my ambition ran out around the 4-mile mark, but also because of it’s faint turquoise sheen, greener than the late August sky yet clear enough to see the granite shelf drop away into the deep.
This trail is absolutely thicketed with huckleberry bushes, so if you hit the right week you may pluck the juiciest fruits and snack the whole way. But if you can drag yourself away from the berries, scramble down to a low outcrop on the east bank, where there is a perfect slab of granite beneath a high rock wall. This slab sprawls over the lake, and you can hear water echoing in small caves underneath this rock and others like it. It’s deep enough here to dive in. Now swim, if you feel brave enough, out past the dark shelf where your feet tread over seemingly infinite waters, and where the mountains and forests extend for miles and miles, and acknowledge your tiny place in a wild world.