Forget Water Parks – Show Your Kids The Beauties of Wild Swimming
Pools, slides, palm trees and floating rings pretty much sum up water parks but they usually come with brutal heat, crowds, strict rules, germ baths and chlorine. Swimming holes, on the other hand, offer fresh water pools, total adventure, rocky slides, big boulders and local trees but they also come with cold water, remote access, some risk-taking and no facilities. Last week we did a water park day on the coast followed by a swimming hole day in the mountains. Both days we met up with other families who had kids my girls’ ages. At the end of both days, my girl were adamant – swimming holes rock! In my 7-year old’s words, swimming holes are clean, you get used to cold water and it’s fun to hike and swim in the wild with friends. My 9-year old loves jumping and diving from rocky ledges and the cold water doesn’t bother her. I won’t argue with that. Here are a few more notes from a nature parent’s perspective.
Swimming holes are free. Water parks admission cost an arm and a leg and sometimes you also have to pay for parking. Inside the water park, lockers and reclining chairs add up extra fees too. Budget-wise, swimming holes nail it.
Adventure & Policies
Water parks are as much fun as your community pool. If you try to do anything that looks remotely “risky” with your kids, you hear a loud whistle and need to stop. A dad was roughhousing with his 9-year old girl on his shoulders in the wave pool next to me and he got the whistle treatment. No kids on shoulders. I swam with my 8-year old to the end of the wave pool and I got the whistle treatment. No kids in the deep end of the pool (my 8-year old swims perfectly well by herself, mind you). No diving or jumping off the edges either. Kids started running around the water slides and got the whistle treatment. No kids running around the waterworks. You can eat junk food all you want, though, or go on hour-long lines under a blazing sun with no drinking fountains around – that’s your freedom of sorts.
Around the swimming holes, our kids got to:
- jump off rocky ledges
- climb boulders with their bare feet and hands
- dive from wherever they wanted
- run around the canyon, high and low – and almost tumbled into a pool but didn’t
- laugh their heads off jumping again from higher points
- slip on mossy pebbles and fall in the stream, no harm done – much to their enjoyment
- scramble down steep canyon slopes between trees to reach the best swimming hole
Point is, they were having the time of their life far away from whistles and policies.
To get to the water park last week, we drove an hour away from home, got into traffic jams closer to the coast, circled three times to find a parking spot on the street and got into a pay parking lot running out of other options. Once we were at the theme park doors, we put down our bags and every single ride/water pool was within a half-mile radius over flat walkways. The only effort of the day consisted in lifting a 3-person tube to the top of the slide. Getting on a tube on a lazy river is the water equivalent of watching TV – you don’t have to do anything for the scenery to change.
To get to our swimming hole, we drove an hour away from home on country roads, found an easy parking spot at the trailhead (free) and started walking with friends. The canyon we hiked up was a long succession of swimming holes but the lower ones closer to the parking lot had reinforced concrete walls and were already taken by other families. Not our pick. Since we wanted our swimming hole with no crowds and more nature, we hiked about 3 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain and reached the perfect spot with nobody around. The kids in our party were 2, 5, 7, 8 and 9. Apart from the young’un who was on his dad’s back, all the other kids had no problem going up the trail even if it was fairly steep at times. In fact they moved as a posse and we had to catch up with them a few times. In their words, “hiking together was fun!” Ah, music to my ears.
It’s definitely easier to move around a water park but for kids who are growing up and need to burn energy, it’s not challenging enough. Hiking to a swimming hole includes a travel-magazine quality scenery with a great workout.
Crowds vs Getting Away From It All
I visited the water park on a busy and sunny August day. When I bought my tickets to get inside the water park, the clerk tried to dissuade me from going in. “It won’t be fun for the kids,” she said, “The park’s at capacity, you’ll have to wait 90 minutes for each slide and it’s awfully crowded.” Turns out she was right – think thousands of people inside – but I was meeting up with a friend and her 4 kids so I went in anyway. Indeed, the water park was extremely busy (pool, play structures, lazy river, restrooms, you name it) and though we stayed 3 hours inside the park, we could only do one slide – 50 minutes of line, 25 seconds of fun. The rest of the time was spent at the wave pool, lazy river and two water playgrounds. Quite unsatisfactory.
As I mentioned earlier, the swimming holes in the lower area of the canyon were already taken when we reached the canyon by mid-afternoon. By “taken” I mean that there were 2 or more people by swimming hole. Not hundreds, not thousands. When we reached our swimming hole, we were alone. No other sound than our kids’ laughter and the echo of our splashes in the gorges. And splash we did.
Gross vs Clean Factor
Water parks have a vested interest in maintaining their water quality at safe levels so I’ll assume chlorine kills most germs even if I’m wrong. However what they don’t get rid of is the gross stuff that floats around. Old band-aids, ice cream cones fallen on the wayside, candy wrappers, pee and other bodily fluids – shallow warm water in water parks is not a pretty sight. My girls were totally grossed out by the foot baths at the entrance of the water park rides. I was too.
Water in the canyon swimming holes was crystal clear and tasted sweet. The stream comes out of a protected wilderness area (no agriculture upstream) and tumbles down a series of gneiss boulders forming waterfalls, shallow pools and deep pools lined by oak and chestnut trees. It did not even cloud up when we moved around in the shallow pools. You know when there’s a lot of sediment at the bottom of streams and walk through it, often it disturbs the mud and the water clouds up really quickly. Not in our case. In fact I was surprised to feel sand under our feet between pebbles. I guess gneiss breaks down into sand. Definitely super clean.
Will you believe me if I say that wild swimming holes beat water parks any day? To find a swimming hole near you, visit the website Swimming Holes that lists 1,200 natural and beautiful places to dip in the US and Canada. For the UK, visit the website Wild Swimming. Trust me, save your theme park bucks for Disneyland. That’s what my girls asked me.