They’re usually cold. They’re usually at the end of a trail. They usually require some exploring. And all of that makes Arizona’s swimming holes some of the most romantically rugged and refreshing respites from the heat.
Besides, there’s something primal and childlike about coming upon water and splashing around in it — especially if it feels like a secret — with no lifeguards, no depth markers and no designated diving board.
We have a favorite spot along 89A, tucked in the switchbacks between Sedona and Flagstaff, where we try to cool off every summer. It requires a lucky roadside parking spot, a brief scramble down a rocky trail to the creek, and a little imagination to create a changing room, because there is very little privacy at the bottom.
But it has this perfectly placed cliff above a perfectly deep pool allowing all of us to get a few jumps out of our systems. Downstream, it flows over rocks and trees — a landscape that changes every year and creates a great backdrop for photos.
From Sedona to Payson to Strawberry, Arizona is stocked with swimming holes, some of which are fed by waterfalls and all of which offer sanctuary from the sun and views more scenic than the public pool up the street.
Swimming holes require a modest road trip, but that’s part of the adventure. Here are a few worth checking out.
Water Wheel Falls on Ellison Creek in Payson. This swimming hole between Payson and the Mogollon Rim inside Tonto National Forest is a popular spot on weekends. Be prepared for company and expect to get wet along the hike to the swimming hole as you navigate a number of ponds and cross a creek en route. The reward after the hike is a waterfall cascading into a pool of cold, clear water. Nearby rocks are slippery enough to be used as slides. Ellison Creek is one of those spots that will inspire a mixed day of exploring and lounging, so pack a lunch and enjoy the view.
Details: The one-mile hike to the falls is just a few miles from Payson. The U.S. Forest Service (fs.fed.us) and azswimmingholes.com offer additional turn-by-turn directions and details. The trail is in a major flash-flood area, so always check the weather forecast before traveling and pay close attention to changing weather. Roads may be closed during periods of wildfire danger.
Grasshopper Point in Sedona. Not far from the popular Slide Rock, Grasshopper Point is another popular day-use area along 89A inside Coconino National Forest. Parking is tight and requires an $8 fee per vehicle, but the area offers picnic tables, restrooms and a day’s worth of beautiful swimming in Oak Creek. Officials discourage cliff jumping at this spot because of varying depths and underwater hazards. Have your camera ready, because this spot is a stunner.
Details: Grasshopper Point is a designated day-use area that is marked and easy to find. From the 89A and Highway 179 roundabout, drive north about 2.5 miles to the entrance of Grasshopper Point on the right, just after a large bridge. The U.S. Forest Service (fs.fed.us) and azswimmingholes.com offer more photos and details.
Fossil Creek near Strawberry. This swimming hole requires a little advance planning because access to Fossil Creek requires a permit. The planning is worth it, because you’ll be able to splash around in some of the state’s clearest, coolest waters. There are a number of different permits, which correlate with specific areas along the creek, so be sure you’re choosing the spot you want to explore. That said, you can’t go wrong. It’s a spot where folks like to jump into crystal pools from the edge of a cliff, dive under the waterfall or simply float in the gorgeous water. Weekends during the summer are busy; consider scoring a mid-week permit.
Details: Permits are required and cost $6. To secure a permit and learn more about Fossil Creek, visit recreation.gov
6 tips for enjoying Arizona swimming holes
- Bring plenty of towels. Everyone needs a towel for changing and keeping warm after the swim.
- Pack out your trash. Bring a full-size trash bag, because you’ll probably find items left behind by others.
- Go early. Parking is always at a premium at these spots, so get a jump on the crowds.
- Wear water shoes. They will be lifesavers on slippery and sharp rocks.
- Test the depths and the current. The Drowning Prevention Coalition of Arizona encourages life jackets — even for kids who are good swimmers — in open water with currents.
- Listen to the weather report. Make sure spots are safe for exploring before allowing kids to adventure, and stay alert to monsoon or rain storms, which can create flash-flood conditions.