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In the Swim

Soaking Up the Primeval Pleasures of Maryland's Swimming Holes

ROCKS STATE PARK

Rocks State Park is somewhat of a drive from the city, in northern Harford County, but it is absolutely, positively worth the trip. The entire park, which meanders along tranquil Deer Creek, is basically a series of swimming holes, one right after the other. On warm weekends, roadways in and near the park are lined with vehicles, and the river is peopled with happy locals swimming and tubing. And by locals, I mean just that: Everyone Iíve talked with during my frequent visits to Rocks has been from the immediate area, while few folks in Baltimore appear to have even heard of the place.

St. Clair Bridge Road, the parkís main artery, follows Deer Creek, and itís easy to tell where the good swimming spots are locatedóthere are pull-off areas for parking and clear paths down to the water. Some of the deeper swimming holes have rope swings, others offer rocks or ledges for jumping into the water. The Hills Grove and Wilsons picnic areas ($2 per car fee on weekends Memorial Day-Labor Day; free if you park along the road) are ideal for families. There are rest rooms, picnic tables with grills, and playground equipment, as well as easy access to an especially slow and wide portion of Deer Creek with sandy beach areas. (A third area, Rock Ridge, is worth checking out for its easy access to the King and Queen Seat formation, a stunning rock spire that was once a ceremonial gathering place of the Susquehannock Indians. A great, easy side trip). Nearby Rocks Chrome Hill Road is home to the park office. It tracks alongside Knopps Branch, a tributary to Deer Creek, and is home to some very different topography. The water here rushes between large boulders, which form natural chutes and slides. This waterway is more about being manhandled by nature than actual swimming, and though itís fun, visitors should use cautionóthe current can be very strong.

Water, Water Everywhere: A series of swimming holes at Harford County's Rocks State Park are ideal for families

FALLING BRANCH

Five miles north lies an adjunct of Rocks State Park, a designated wilderness area known as Falling Branch. I canít believe I am willing to breathe word of this fantastic placeís existence to people I am related to by blood, much less publish it in the newspaper for perfect strangers to see. But since a major Hollywood movie has already been filmed here (Tuck Everlasting), Iím hardly letting any cats out of bags. Of all the swimming holes I have ever visited this is by far the most wonderful. To reach this heavenly place pilgrims must hike about half a mile, first through open meadowland, then marshy bottomland, and finally deep forest. Itís an easy trail, just long enough to heighten the anticipation of pleasures to come.

The crystalline waters of Falling Branch meander through dramatic rocky ravines, culminating in Kilgore FallsóMarylandís second-tallest waterfall. The falls tumble into a large natural pool, which seems to be at least 12 feet deep. Deep enough, anyway, for local daredevils to go plunging 30-plus feet off the cliffs surrounding the waterfall, and occasionally the waterfall itself, to land with a terrific splash in the stream below. Beyond the waterfall, Falling Branch gradually widens and becomes shallow enough for pleasant swimming, wading, and play away from the turbulence of the plunge pool, so those of us less willing to risk our lives for fun get to bask in the ambience without being pummeled by the current. There are broad, flat rocks for sunning and picnicking, and the creek is surrounded by open, shady glades. (There are also, alas, caches of snack wrappers and abandoned beer cans about, so be a good citizen and bring a trash bag to cart out your own crap as well as a few bonus items others might have left in this otherwise pristine wild area.) I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say that, on a hot summer day, this place is heaven on earth.

Take the Plunge: The tall cliffs at Falling Branch provide a thrill for daredevils and teenage boys.
Falling Branch is home to dramatic waterfalls and huge flat rocks perfect for sunning.

HOBO BEACH

York Road, at Big Gunpowder Falls, Parkton

Though neither the largest nor even most scenic of local swimming holes, Hobo Beach is absolutely the most pleasantly situated. A broad swath of soft green grass, shaded by gigantic walnut trees, slopes gently down to the riverís edge. On sunny afternoons the lawn bustles with picnicking families gathered on blankets and folding chairs overlooking the children splashing in the Gunpowderís clear, chilly current. The scene is utterly pastoral, reminiscent of a Seurat painting.

This is a popular spot for beginning or ending a tubing trip on the Gunpowder, but it is an admirable swimming hole as well. There is a deep spot across the river from the lawn, with a large rock and rope swing, where adolescent boys spend a lot of time daring each other to jump in. Little kids cluster along the shore, digging in the coarse, gravelly sand and splashing in the shallow, frigid water. Hobo Beach is the coldest swimming spot I have ever experienced; it can be literally painful to step into the river, and on especially torpid days a fog often will hang above the water. Local wisdom holds that the temperature is so cold because nearby Prettyboy Reservoir feeds the Gunpowder Falls and the water is drained from its chill depths. It is also one of the most popular swimming holes around, probably due as much to extreme ease of access as its picturesque setting, which can lead to relatively crowded conditions on summer weekends. (If itís too crowded here for your taste, backtrack south on York Road to Bunker Hill Road and follow that down into the park; there are a couple of smaller, less known swimming holes right off the parking lot.)

Hobo Beach at Gunpowder Falls State Park is one of the most popular swimming holes in the region, despite its icy-cold water.

GUYTON ROAD

Guyton and Bottom roads, near Bagley

Like so many locally favored but regionally unknown swimming holes, this wide spot in the Little Gunpowder Falls has no official name; itís just where folks in the greater Fork/Bagley/Margate area go to swim. This is one of those instant-access spots: The tiny parking area is immediately adjacent to a sandy crescent of shore. The water is much warmer here than at Hobo Beachóshallow Little Falls soaks up the sun much faster than its bigger siblingóand makes for very pleasant swimming. Thereís a wide area of ankle-deep water over sand and gravel where kids delight in chasing tiny little fish around. Toward the opposite shore the bottom gradually slopes down to about eight feet deep, perfect for jumping or sliding off of one of the three large boulders that nature has so thoughtfully provided. Itís a fairly remote spot and takes a little finding, but the setting is lovely and a marvelous day could be whiled away here. Youíll likely be joined by only an occasional few other swimmers. Some of the locals claim that there are snakes in the water beyond the rocks, but sometimes I wonder if thatís just a bit of hyperbole to discourage outsiders from flocking to this idyllic spot.

Guyton Road at Gunpowder Falls State Park is a quiet, remote spot that appeals to locals.

SWEET AIR

Dalton Bevard Road, Baldwin

At 1,250 acres, the Sweet Air section is one of Gunpowder Falls State Parkís larger enclaves. Itís popular mainly with equestrians and mountain bikers, but itís usually very sparsely occupied. This is a great choice for those who enjoy an appetizer of a challenging hike along with their swimming-hole main course. Follow the white blazes from the parking lot along two miles of steep trail, winding up and down through both the Little and Big Gunpowder Falls valleys, before the path settles in to follow the Big Gunpowderís meandering course. There are any number of terrific swimming sites hereópick one and name it after yourself!óbut the one I keep coming back to is well-marked with a bench and a plaque bearing a John Muir quote; apparently Iím not the only one who loves this particular spot. Thereís a fascinating freaky tree to one side of a long, shallow waterfall, with a sort of natural sitting area for laying back and letting the water sluice over you. Itís very private and, aside from the occasional mound of manure along the trail, pristine. The water tends to be shallow along this section of the Gunpowder and is rarely more than waist deep; this park is more for watery lounging than active swimming.

The Sweet Air area at Gunpowder Falls State Park contains several well-hidden swimming sites that can only be reached by hiking into the woods.

JONES FALLS

Round Falls (also called Horseshoe Falls), Falls Road near Chestnut Avenue

OK, so you might not actually want to swim here, but people do. Mainly young teen boys from the surrounding neighborhoodsóHampden, Remington, Woodberryówho are drawn to the drama of jumping off the dam into the surging waters of the deep pool below. Swimmers seldom linger in the water here, though I have often seen younger kids playing on the sandbar and in the shallow water just downstream from the falls. (Everyone Iíve met at Round Falls tells me that the real swimming spot on the Jones Falls is a half-mile or so north, under the JFXís Falls Road exit ramp, but Iíve never met anyone swimming there. Locals call it ďDead Manís Cave,Ē apparently because every few summers there is a drowning at the site).

The main risk of swimming in the Jones Falls in the city comes not from current or rocks but rather the water itself, which, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, is ďimpaired by nutrients, suspended sediments, zinc, copper, lead, and chlordane.Ē (ďNutrientsĒ being a nicer term for ďleaking sewage.Ē) Basking in the tranquil surroundings of Round Falls itís hard to believe the transparent, sun-sparkled water harbors such nasty ingredients. Itís a beautiful spot, an arboreal oasis in the midst of the city where the air is cool and smells of earth and green growing things. The roar of the falls overpowers the roar of traffic on the very nearby highway. The Jones Fallsí sister river, the Gwynns Falls, looks like an urban waterwayóitís choked with shopping carts, anonymous metal hunks, and large pieces of masonry, and its banks are festooned with a truly stunning strata of trash, layer upon layer of washed-up plastic bags and snack wrappers (although people swim there, too). Along many of its upper stretches, however, the Jones Falls itself resembles an unsullied rural waterway. Itís easy, on a sweltering summer day, to understand the appeal of a quick dip in its cool, clear waters. I, however, have never personally taken the Jones Falls plunge. Caveat natator.

Town and Country: Round Falls in Baltimore City is a popular swim spot despite its less-than-pristine water conditions

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 8/4/2004

Marylandís oddly shaped outline encompasses all manner of lakes, streams, reservoirs, and rivers, not to mention that big old bay and our token sliver of the Atlantic Ocean. It stands to reason that in this state there are many places to get wet. Why, then, does it seem so difficult to find a truly wonderful place to swim? I donít mean swimming pools, those big chlorinated cement boxes. Iím not even talking about places like Milford Mill or Beaver Dam, swim clubs derived from flooded but ultimately domesticated old quarries. Such piscine places have their purpose; theyíre safe and convenient, and utterly predictable. What Iím talking about are swimming holes, those all-natural places for (possibly au naturel) off-the-hook splish-splashing.

I have spent this summer tracking down accessible, enjoyable swimming holes that are open for public use. Itís harder than I thought it would beómany of the leads I followed up on led to muddy backwaters choked with mosquitoes and stinging nettles. In the course of my research Iíve been bitten, scratched, poison-ivied, sunburned, and bee-stung. It was absolutely worth the effort: Ultimately, I discovered some truly marvelous places right here in the Greater Patapsco Drainage Basin, mercifully free from most of the aforementioned afflictions. These places are beautiful, free, and you can bring your dog. Thank me later.

This is far from a comprehensive listing. Itís more like a scant beginning, definitely an ongoing research project for the remainder of this summer and many to come. My sights are already cast to potential sites I couldnít make it to before deadline. I hear of a terrific spot in the Patapsco Valley near Sykesville, another out in Carroll County, even more out in Western Maryland that will require serious road trips. The following, however, are all within an hour of the city, most only 30 minutes or so away.

Some of the swimming holes I found are literally right by the roadópark and be in the water 60 seconds later. Others require some hiking. (If you have skinny dipping in mind, plan on a long hike.) The very best combine most or all of these important elements: luscious arboreal setting requiring just enough of a pleasant hike to work up a little sweat and whet the watery appetite; clear, cool (but not chillingly cold) water, with a shallow area for young or timid bathers and a deep area large enough to satisfy more adventuresome swimmers; a rope swing or large rock for jumping (never diving, dig?); a just-right bottom of sand or gravel, not mud or slime or rocks; and, finally, not too crowded or, even better, utterly private.

Yes, I have thought about this a lot. Maybe some people genuinely donít care where they swim, pool or pond, but to me itís a crucial distinction. The difference is between confinement and freedom, artificial and organic, formality, restriction, and rules vs. pure adventure. You donít swim in the same river twice: things change between visits. Sure, swimming holes generally take a little effort to find. They can also mean bugs (always), poison ivy (sometimes), and the occasional water snake, but like the man says, you got to pay to play.

The payoff is in sheer primeval pleasure. The shady forest setting, light dappling the river as the wind stirs the trees. The hypnotic, repetitive murmuring of water over rock. The mineral scent of untreated water and its silky feel on the skin. Nothing compares to this. Swimming holes are what summer is all about. This is where summer lives. More important, this is where summer goes swimming.

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