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10 refreshing swimming holes in the Midwest and South

Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park Beat the heat at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, a natural water park in southeast Missouri. | Photo courtesy

When the dog days of summer settle in, sitting on the couch with air conditioning might seem like the best way to keep cool. But a host of rivers and lakes across the Midwest and South beckon for a refreshing dip. Pack the sunscreen and a beach ball and check out these 10 fun swimming holes—including several with beaches—and always remember to wear a personal flotation device for safety.

1. Echo Bluff State Park

Eminence, Missouri

Sinking Creek

Laze away summer days in Sinking Creek, a clear stream that flows through Missouri's Echo Bluff State Park, near Eminence. | Photo courtesy Missouri State Parks

For the perfect combination of swimming hole and paddling river, Echo Bluff State Park is hard to beat. Sinking Creek—a shallow, crystal-clear stream—flows through the park and 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 Sinking Creek’s cool water and the Current River’s bracingly cold water is most evident at their junction. 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.

2. Table Rock Lake

Branson, Missouri

Table Rock Lake

From docks, boats, and a popular beach, swimmers will find plenty of places to cool off at Table Rock Lake. | Photo courtesy Explore Branson

If you prefer warmer, calmer waters, check out Table Rock Lake, in the family-vacation mecca of Branson. With more than 800 miles of shoreline, the lake offers many places to swim, sunbathe, scuba dive, snorkel, or paddle.

One of the lake’s most popular places to play in the water is spacious Moonshine Beach Recreation Area, located close to Table Rock Dam. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the sandy beach includes picnic areas, grills, a restroom, a playground, and a volleyball court. Arrive early because the beach can reach capacity on warm summer days.

3. Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

Middle Brook, Missouri

Black River East Fork

Jumbled boulders create a maze of chutes, rapids, waterfalls, and pools on the East Fork of the Black River at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park. | Photo courtesy

There’s no need to pay admission to a fancy man-made water park if you’re in southeast Missouri. Just head to one crafted by Mother Nature at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park. Jumbled boulders make up the “shut-ins” area, where the East Fork of the Black River is constricted into a maze of chutes, rivulets, rapids, and small pools.

The cool, clear waters invite visitors to wade, splash, and slide, but take care when navigating the rocky area. For great views of the canyon-like gorge, follow a walkway that leads to an observation deck overlooking the shut-ins. Don’t miss the Black River Center with its interactive exhibits. Overnight guests can choose from a campground and 6 camper cabins.

4. Finger Lakes State Park

Columbia, Missouri

Finger Lakes State Park

Rent a canoe or kayak at Finger Lakes State Park, near Columbia, or seek out its sand swimming beach. | Photo courtesy

After Peabody Coal Company removed more than 1.2 million tons of coal in the mid-1960s from a strip-mining operation about 12 miles north of Columbia, barren piles of earth and numerous water pits were left behind. Reclaimed in the early 1970s, the site was reborn as Finger Lakes State Park, and now the rugged landscape buzzes with off-road motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles on more than 70 miles of trails. There’s also a mountain-biking trail with a pump track next to the trailhead.

For less strenuous pursuits, seek out a path of water that stretches more than 1.5 miles on the park’s eastern edge. A series of small lakes left by the mining company were linked via dams and canals, and a sand swimming beach with a change house highlights this aquatic treasure. You can also explore the park’s water trail in a kayak or canoe rented from the park.

5. Rend Lake

Benton, Illinois

Rend Lake

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, lovely Rend Lake is an outdoor lover's oasis in southern Illinois. | Photo by R. Patrick Jennings / Alamy Stock Photo

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Rend Lake welcomes outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy its 19,000 acres of fresh water and 162 miles of shoreline in southern Illinois. Well-known among anglers for its white and black crappie, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and bluegill, the reservoir is surrounded by 20,000 acres of forests and meadows accessed by hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.

To cool off after a morning of fishing or a brisk hike, slip into the water at 2 beaches, which both have buoyed swim areas, playgrounds, picnic sites, shower houses, and places for boats to beach. The larger of the 2, South Sandusky Beach, nestles on the lake’s west side. And on the east side, North Marcum Beach allows leashed pets in most of the area.

6. Patoka Lake

Birdseye, Indiana

Patoka Lake beach

A beach on Patoka Lake's southern shoreline entices southern Indiana residents eager to cool off each summer. | Photo courtesy Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Bordering the heavily wooded Hoosier National Forest, Patoka Lake sprawls over 3 southern Indiana counties. At 8,800 acres, it’s one of Indiana’s largest reservoirs, and you’ll find plenty to do in the water, including swimming at a spacious sandy beach on the lake’s southern shoreline a short drive from the Patoka Lake Marina and the Patoka Lake Modern Campground.

In addition to aquatic activities, explore the area on several trails—one known simply as Trail 4 showcases rock overhangs and a pine forest. You can also sip a glass of wine at the Patoka Lake Winery and embark on a sightseeing cruise of the lake, located just south of the historic towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs and just east of Jasper. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

7. Tuttle Creek State Park

Manhattan, Kansas

Tuttle Creek Kayaking

Boat rentals, a sandy beach, and courtesy docks highlight a relaxing visit to Tuttle Creek State Park. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

With 12,000 acres of water and 100 miles of wooded shoreline highlighted by tall cottonwoods, Tuttle Creek Lake sets a lovely scene for a relaxing afternoon in or on the water. Kick back on the sandy beach at Tuttle Creek State Park, located about 7 miles north of Manhattan, before or after you glide through the water in a canoe or kayak rented from the park. Boat ramps and courtesy docks are available for those who bring their own boats, and visitors will also find shooting and archery ranges, an 18-hole disc golf course, and about 20 miles of trails.

8. Big Piney Creek

Dover, Arkansas

Big Piney Creek

You'll find a number of swimming holes on northwest Arkansas' Big Piney Creek, which is a National Wild and Scenic River. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Tourism

Designated a National Wild and Scenic River for its beauty, recreational opportunities, and geology, Big Piney Creek in northwest Arkansas flows along sandstone bluffs and stands of oak, hickory, and pine. Paddlers find stretches of whitewater along its 67-mile route, but interspersed among those rapids are number of swimming holes—including the popular Long Pool Recreation Area.

People laze on the banks of the river around the large natural pool, paddle around on rafts, jump off rocks, and dive under the cool, turquoise water. Tucked in the heart of the Ozarks, the recreation area includes a campground and restrooms.

9. DeGray Lake

Arkadelphia, Arkansas

DeGray Lake paddleboarding

Stand-up paddleboarders explore Arkansas' DeGray Lake, which is also popular for snorkeling and scuba diving. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Tourism

The cool waters of the nearly 14,000-acre DeGray Lake, formed 50 years ago after the Caddo River was dammed, are clear enough that snorkelers and scuba divers routinely explore their depths. You’ll often see fishing boats near the dam and around islands on the hunt for largemouth bass, striped bass, and more.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park hugs the banks of the lake, located in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. Resort guests and locals are drawn to the lake’s Caddo Bend day-use area like a magnet to enjoy a sandy beach with a swimming area that’s off-limits to all watercraft. After frolicking in the sun, retreat to shaded picnic tables. A playground and restroom facilities are nearby.

10. Bogue Chitto River

Franklinton, Louisiana

Bogue Chitto River

Drift down Louisiana's Bogue Chitto River on a tubing excursion and stop at beaches and swimming holes along the way. | Photo by Kevin Garrett for

Louisiana summers can be extremely hot and humid, so finding a place to cool off is essential. Along the curving Bogue Chitto River in the state’s Northshore area, you’ll find plenty of sand-and-pebble beaches and swimming holes during tubing adventures. You can lie back and enjoy the ever-changing view as you meander through Washington Parish or stop along the way to picnic and take a dip.

Among several outfitters that will put you on the water, Louisiana River Adventures in Franklinton offers 2- and 4-hour excursions. Wear water shoes, sunscreen, and sunglasses or hats, and bring plenty of water and snacks. If tubing isn’t your cup of tea, rent a canoe or kayak.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Missouri. AAA Explorer Regional Editor Dennis R. Heinze contributed to this report.

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