They may sound like something you’d only find in a Mark Twain novel, but swimming holes are real, and Michigan has a lot of them.
MICHIGAN — These days, when a Michigander mentions going swimming, they’re more likely to be talking about a public pool or a Great Lakes beach, but long before pools were a public commodity, the Mitten State provided plenty of natural pools in the form of swimming holes.
A swimming hole is generally regarded as some kind of natural body of fresh, moving water. Usually, this means rivers and springs. Both authors and artists alike made swimming holes a 19th-century trend in the United Kingdom. By the turn of the century, “wild swimming” became popular in the United States, as well. A century ago, the favored pastime of many a Michigander involved goin’ down to the ol’ swimmin’ hole.
Since Michigan has more than 11,000 lakes and ponds and over 36,000 miles of streams, we’re a premier destination in the United States for swimming holes.
In general, swimming holes provide more challenge—and more danger—than pools and even beaches. Prospective swimmers need to be mindful of the water’s current, depths, and natural obstacles like rocks and other debris. But many a wild swimmer can attest that the experience is well worth the risk.
We’ve rounded up a few of the best options for swimming holes in Michigan.
The crown jewel of Detroit’s many parks is Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. Swimming is just one of many activities visitors can enjoy at Belle Isle Park, all for the mere price of a Recreation Passport if traveling by car. The primary swimming beach, Belle Isle Beach, is the only public beach in Detroit.
There are a few other swimming holes on Belle Isle, though, especially along the Blue Heron Lagoon Trail to the north. Hipster Beach, an unsanctioned parcel of sand, is one of Michigan’s worst-kept secret beaches (the secret’s not so well-kept, the shoreline is fine). While Belle Isle Beach is more popular among families, Hipster Beach is so named because of its popularity with young adult visitors. A short distance away is also Cocker Beach, a swimming hole just off the trail.
Michigan has a few waterfalls, but Ocqueoc Falls is the largest one in the Lower Peninsula. It’s also billed as the only universally accessible waterfall in the country, allowing even visitors in wheelchairs to enjoy the park safely.
Ocqueoc Falls is also one of Michigan’s best and most popular swimming holes by far, particularly due to the relatively shallow water beneath the falls. The gentle rivers of the Ocqueoc River keep the swimming hole relatively clean, even in the height of its summer popularity. Visitors report only a 5-foot depth at most, with relatively smooth rocks, making it an ideal swimming hole spot.
The second most expansive inland lake in Michigan is also one of its most gorgeous and most popular swimming destinations. The waters of Torch Lake are so beautifully turquoise in color that Forbes compared it to the Caribbean. But this is a swimming hole with a real party atmosphere in the summer.
Despite its size, Torch Lake does not have a lot of beach. In fact, the most popular hangout is the Torch Lake Sandbar. This sand bar is located near the southern end of Torch Lake and is a popular place for boaters to park and wade. But those who come from inland usually have an easier time swimming at the access points.
Torch Lake has several swimming beaches, most located near the sand bar to the south. The William Good Day Park—also known as Torch Lake Township Day Park)—is to the northwest and has a shoreline. Family Day Park—also known as Forest Home Township Park—along the eastern shore is another great option, though there are more rocks and less sand.
Located in the Upper Peninsula, Tahquamenon Falls is not only Michigan’s largest waterfall but the largest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Also called “Root Beer Falls,” Tahquamenon Falls technically includes two waterfalls: an upper and a lower. The lower falls are the best option for swimming as the upper falls, though visually impressive, have a dangerous 50-foot drop.
The lower Tahquamenon Falls are so well-suited for swimming that official sources refer to it as a natural outdoor water park—a family-friendly one at that. These falls have a total of five cascades around an island in the Tahquamenon River. It’s often possible to wade to the island but could be unsafe on any given day depending on the strength of the current and depth of the water. Most visitors rent a rowboat if they want to explore the island safely.
This lake may be artificial, but its central location near Lansing makes it a great travel experience. Lake Ovid is surrounded by Sleepy Hollow State Park and was created through damming Little Maple River. As a result, the park makes for a great swimming hole experience.
Lake Ovid covers 410 acres of land, with plenty of twists and turns for a unique swimming experience. The official swim beach is located near the parking lot to the northeast of the lake and provides the best swimming experience. You’ll find picnic shelters and a disc golf course nearby. There are other access points around the lake as well, including the boat ramp to the southwest.
This urban park in Grand Rapids is much more of a swimming hole than you might think. For no more than $4 a person, you can easily enjoy a beach day at the cozy little swimming hole in Millennium Park. The beach covers only six acres of a 1,500-acre park, but it never feels too big. The VanAndel Beach House makes changing in and out of your swim trunks a breeze. You’ll find a concession stand and bathrooms as well.
For those so inclined, you can also find watercraft rentals, a playground, and even a splash pad that smaller guests absolutely love.
A favorite tubing spot for University of Michigan students, this river primarily winds through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The total length of the river, though, is 130 miles. The river is shallow enough with a gentle current that it’s safe to swim in many spots throughout the Ann Arbor area.
Thanks to a multitude of parks along the river, it’s pretty easy to get from a parking lot to the river’s edge in no time flat. The most popular park in Ann Arbor is likely Gallup Park, which has an accessible boat dock with rentals. Another popular swimming location is Bandemer Park and Argo Nature Area, especially around the boat launches. Keep your eyes peeled for watercraft from the Ann Arbor Rowing Club. Island Park is located on an island in the middle of the Huron River. Three of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks are located upstream: Delhi Metropark, Dexter-Huron Metropark, and Hudson Mills Metropark. Barton Nature Area is located near Barton Pond, which feeds from and back into the Huron River.
Located in northern Michigan near the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Platte River is a river that’s charmingly lazy—enough so that Michiganders and tourists alike prize it for canoeing and kayaking. And there’s also several spots perfect for swimming.
The Platte Point Beach is located right at the mouth of the Platte River, where it feeds into Lake Michigan. This beach is quite popular among tourists. The rest of the Platte River takes up 30 miles and passes through 10 different inland lakes, all moving toward Platte Point Beach. The Lower Platte River is the more leisurely stretch of the river, overall easier to swim. The nearby Loon Lake doesn’t have much beach but makes for a great swimming hole spot, especially near the boat ramps or along the northern reaches of the lake where the water is shallow.
Located in Tecumseh Park in southern Michigan, this little pond might be one of the smallest swimmable areas in Michigan. At only 25 acres, the pond called The Pit isn’t much, but this little spring is one of the more popular swimming holes around. The manufactured pond provides a cozy swimming experience beneath a sparse tree canopy, but it also has plenty of beach day must-haves. You’ll find picnic tables, restrooms, a playground, a sand-volleyball court, and a shelter for when the weather isn’t cooperating.
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