Tell us there’s something better than a waterpark. Just you try. Being propelled down a chute by rushing water, swinging on a rope like Tarzan before letting go and plunging into a cool pool, and riding an innertube down a lazy river are all core ingredients in the recipe for an epic summer.
The only downsides? The crowds. The… capitalism of it all. The pricey snacks and hair-in-pools. The chlorine. And now that we list them out like that, these things do sort of drain some of the joy from a waterpark experience.
So what’s better than a waterpark? A natural waterpark. Rock slides, rope swings, and swimming holes. Visiting national and state parks, hiking, and getting wet under the shade of old growth forests. We gathered ten natural waterparks here for your enjoyment. Many of them have waterslides carved into riverbeds by centuries of erosion, but there are also some rope swings and even a quarry with a zip line. They make for a perfect summer day trip if you’re that close. If not… well… summer is the time for road trips!
Johnson’s Shut-Ins (Reynolds County, Missouri)
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is located on the East Fork Black River in the southeastern part of the state. It’s named for the shut-ins — those areas where the scope of the river is altered by hard rocks that fail to erode under the force of the water. This creates a series of small pools and chutes that people ride in swirls of water. Because the rocks in the area are igneous ones that have been worn smooth, you can get going pretty fast when the flow is strong. Take the obstacle course that includes shallow dips, deep pools, and cascading pathways.
People in Missouri literally call this “nature’s waterpark,” so expect it to be fairly crowded. If you get a chance, go early on a sweltering weekday. And be sure to check the park website for the water conditions before you make the drive. They are generally fine, but if the river levels rise to a dangerous extent, the gates are closed.
Sliding Rock (Brevard, North Carolina)
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, people looking to cool off near Asheville line up single file to wait for a turn on Sliding Rock, a 60-foot flat, angled boulder that some people call nature’s Slip n’ Slide. If you aren’t feeling like engaging in the short ride vs. long wait pattern for your visit, opt out and hit the observation decks to watch other people scream and splash into the eight-foot-deep pool at the bottom. That water is 50-60 degrees, so it can wring out some shrieks.
If you go during “off” hours, you can visit for free, but the restrooms aren’t open and there isn’t a lifeguard on duty. It really is better to go between 10 am and six pm and pay the three-dollar entrance. Honestly, the rock is pretty safe, but why risk drowning without a lifeguard present?
The Blue Hole (Wimberley, Texas)
Every state has at least one swimming hole, but Texas has a whole load of them. And they look exactly like the image of a swimming hole that you’ve developed over years of seeing them in popular culture. The Blue Hole is rimmed by old growth bald cypress trees and the surrounding area is a mix of native grasses, colorful wildflowers, and rocky outcroppings studded with central Texas shrubs and trees. It sounds perfect. It only needs one thing…a rope swing.
Guess what? It has two. Swing to your heart’s delight.
It’s worth noting that swimming here is more complicated than rolling up with a picnic and a cooler and snagging a spot for the day. You’re encouraged to make reservations because once the park reaches capacity, no one else gets to go in. Plus, the swimming area isn’t open every day, so there isn’t any upside to forgoing the reservation and driving out there on a whim. Admission to the swimming area is ten bucks (and that’s still less expensive than a waterpark).
Enfield Falls (Ithaca, New York)
Enfield Falls is pretty awesome as waterfalls go. It’s good for pictures and sounding like something you should hear during a massage. But it’s the swimming hole the falls feeds into that is the real attraction. Located in Robert H. Treman State Park, this stream-fed pool varies in depth between two-and-a-half and 12 feet. There’s an awesome diving board that comes off of a rock ledge. Plus, there is an ADA-accessible ramp so that people with limited mobility can still enjoy the area, and the short walkway from the parking area to the swimming hole is wheelchair accessible.
Like most New York state parks, this one charges a vehicle use fee, so bring some friends to make the eight-dollar charge for your car seem mega affordable. The fact that you get to play in one of the coolest natural waterparks in the country and enjoy the presence of a lifeguard and have the area be clean and well maintained is absolutely a deal.
White Rock Park (St. Paul, Indiana)
Many of the entries on this list have an awesome natural slide or a legit rope swing and we will fight to defend how cool those are. But we have to admit that White Rock Park takes the activities to the next level with two ziplines, a rope swing, four cliff diving platforms at different heights (10, 15, 25, and 30-feet), a scuba diving area, and lots of room to swim. You can watch people enjoying these activities from one of the floating docks on the lake. They are perfect vantage points for photography if you need some action shots for the ‘Gram. And the quarry background really does make photographs taken here look dope.
Park admission is 15 dollars per day (cash only), and you need to fill out a waiver that releases the park from responsibility should you be harmed. Oddly, your entrance fee doesn’t go toward the presence of a lifeguard. That’s a shame because people have died here (hence the waivers we imagine). Have fun for sure, but don’t go completely crazy and risk your life or health.
Meadow Run (Ohiopyle State Park, Pennsylvania)
On the southern side of the Laurel Highlands sits Ohiopyle State Park, the home the Meadow Run Natural Waterslides Area. Over time, water has chiseled channels in flat sheets of Homewood sandstone more than 300 million years old and created a simply massive natural waterslide that finishes in a deep pool of water. The length and speed of the slide depend on the water levels, but most people get to ride at least 100 feet. If there are periods of rain, the stream can get pretty aggressive, making for an abnormally fast ride. Though, even on a typical day, the flume will shoot you through the full slide with sprays of whitewater marking your progress. For this reason, leave your flimsy suits and trunks at home. The slide isn’t as smooth as the plastic ones at a traditional waterpark. No siree. This is a wild waterslide and your skin will thank you for shielding it from rough patches by wearing a t-shirt and some shorts.
You won’t have to do any hiking to make your way to this waterslide. It is situated adjacent to a parking area off of Route 381. Be sure to arrive early in the day to make sure you get a spot. Then, follow the signs to a set of wooden stairs that go right to the slide.
Slide Rock State Park (Sedona, Arizona)
Slide Rock State Park is nestled in Oak Creek Canyon, a mere 15 minutes outside of Sedona and 40 minutes from Flagstaff. This proximity to bigger cities coupled with the Slide Rock for which the park is named means that this is one of the most heavily visited parks in the state. As it blends all the red rocks and natural beauty Sedona is known for with the fun of a waterpark, we aren’t at all surprised. The actual slide is an 80-foot long chute that is two-and-a-half to four feet wide. The sandstone channel is also coated in algae, which makes surface slippery and increases the speed at which you can shoot through it. It is a fairly gentle slide as the slope only achieves a seven percent decline. But you won’t feel cheated one bit when you splash into the deep pool at the end of your ride.
If you visit between May 25 and Labor Day, prepare to spend 20 dollars per vehicle Monday-Thursday or 30 dollars Friday-Sunday (and holiday Mondays). That might feel a little pricey, but the park is really spectacular, and the snack stands, gift shop, and restrooms round things out like a theme park would.
Franconia Falls (Lincoln, New Hampshire)
Visitors to White Mountain National Forest need only park in the Lincoln Woods parking lot and enjoy an easy three-mile hike to the falls in order to do some wild watersliding. The adventure starts with a suspension bridge spanning the Franconia portion of the Pemigewasset River and ends with a grouping of swimming holes and waterslides. They come in varying sizes, but the featured attraction is a 20-foot long granite shoot that ejects daredevils into a seven-foot-deep rectangular pool. The water remains chilly even in the summer, so you will probably spend some time parking yourself on one of the large rock slabs in the area and soaking up the rays like a lizard.
If you head about 400 feet upstream of the main falls, you’ll find a three-foot cascade that feeds into a very big, very deep pool. It makes a nice alternative to the slides if they get too busy. You can jump into the water from rather high rocks to get your adrenaline up, but be careful because there aren’t any lifeguards.
White Oak Canyon (Robertson, Virginia)
White Oak Canyon is located in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a part of the state known for its waterfalls, but it is also home to some great natural waterslides. One reason people may not talk about the Cedar Run Falls is that reaching them requires a rather strenuous hike along Cedar Run Trail. It is only about 1.7 miles from the trailhead to the best of the slides, but the way back means a 1,500-foot gain and that can be hard to manage after spending all day in the sun and water. When walking the trail, you’ll come across a small, fun slide about a third of the way into your trip, but be sure to keep going. Farther along the trail are the bigger, faster bad boys, and those are the ones you want to spend the day riding.
There is an entrance fee at this park, so factor that into your trip. If you walk-up or bicycle, it is 15 dollars for you to enter the park. If you show up in a vehicle instead, it is 30 dollars. Obviously, if you are a total badass with a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, your fees are covered.