Wrapped in rivers and sprinkled with lakes, the Catskills in New York are a swimmer's delight. Head into the mountains on a blistering day and you can wade in woodland creeks, stand under rushing waterfalls or float in spring-fed pools.
Whether you're a hike-head searching for a post-exercise splash or a laidback weekender longing for a beach break, these swimming holes will provide a refreshing escape.
But be warned: some of the region's most magical swim spots have recently become too famous for their own good, prompting New York officials to place restrictions on certain sites. Wherever you wind up, protect the landscape by following local laws. These natural treasures will only remain pristine if travelers treat them with respect.
Peekamoose Blue Hole
Best for legendary Catskills scenery
A decade ago, the Peekamoose Blue Hole wasn't widely known. Today, this area carved into Rondout Creek is an internet sensation. It's easy to see why: the pool is both Caribbean aqua and Canadian cold – a striking combination.
Plunge into the 10ft-deep bath during summer's dog days, and you'll immediately feel rejuvenated. Mossy rocks surrounding the river serve as diving platforms where brave swimmers cannonball into the crystal-clear creek on sunny afternoons.
Dry off under the surrounding canopy of trees before exploring sites further upstream. Buttermilk Falls, a stunning cascade located one mile east on Peekamoose Road, is a less-visited spot where you can escape the Blue Hole hordes for a moment of solitude.
Because of the location’s surge in popularity, visitors must purchase a $10 permit for admittance from mid-May to mid-September. Each pass covers up to six individuals and should be reserved in advance. Early birds get the best parking spots and might even find a moment alone before the crowds arrive.
15 unique things to do in the Catskill Mountains
Diamond Notch Falls
Best for all levels of hikers
This idyllic forest swimming hole can be reached via one of three hiking trails. The easiest starts at Spruceton Road, located 30 minutes from Hunter and Phoenicia, and reaches the cascade in .7 miles.
For a moderate stroll through rocky woodlands, a 4.3-mile roundtrip hike begins at Diamond Notch Road. Experts attempting the multi-day trek along Devil's Path will also encounter the waterfall as they scramble over the highest peaks in the Catskills.
Admire the dueling cataracts from a footbridge above or dip your toes in the creek below. Diamond Notch Falls isn't a large pool that accommodates crowds, but it's ideal for waist-deep wading on warm summer days. Visit in early spring to see the falls at their fullest. In winter, icy river patches make for a crystalline spectacle.
Best for remote mountain top swimming
Minnewaska State Park Preserve, a 24,000-acre wilderness that sprawls along the dramatic Shawangunk Ridge, has five sky lakes fed entirely by rain. The largest of these is Lake Awosting, a 1.5-mile-long pool carved by an ancient glacier. Hike or bike 3.1 miles along a carriage road to marvel at Mother Nature’s artistry.
Those who put in the legwork will reap the rewards. White quartzite slabs slope into the water, and a roped-off area for swimmers extends to a depth of roughly 10ft. Trees line the rest of the shore, and aside from some waterfowl and the lifeguard on duty in the summer, you won't have to contend with large crowds.
For those who don't fancy long hikes, head to Lake Minnewaska's family-friendly beach near the parking lot. Pearl-white cliffs sprinkled with pine, maple and oak trees give this popular swim spot a backdrop even more dramatic than Lake Awosting. Spend time admiring the view, and you might be inspired to hike the park's many paths after all.
Best for river tubing
Follow the Delaware River as it snakes between New York's Catskills and Pennsylvania's Poconos, and you'll find gentle eddies ideal for swimming. The most lively of these spots is Skinners Falls, a family-friendly recreation area located 10 minutes north of Narrowsburg.
Get a healthy dose of Vitamin D on the rock terraces jutting from the water, or splash about in whirlpools protected from the current. Daring folks can float down the area’s white-capped rapids in tubes, rafts or kayaks.
Rent an inner tube from Lou's Tubes to brave the rapids on your own. A rocky beach a quarter-mile downstream provides an easy endpoint for the journey. If you'd like to spend an entire day floating down the Delaware, plan an outing with Lander's River Trips.
Turn a daylong excursion into a full-night affair by taking a short walk upstream and pitching a tent at Skinners Falls Campground. While summer weekdays tend to be quiet, weekends welcome rowdy crowds who howl at the moon until morning.
Best for thrill seekers
As the 26-mile Kaaterskill Creek winds through the Catskill Forest Preserve, it splashes down cliffs and cuts through small canyons to create three of New York's most dynamic swimming holes.
Kaaterskill Falls, a two-tiered cascade that tumbles 260ft, is the Catskill's veritable mascot. Nineteenth-century poets and landscape painters immortalized the area in art, and today, roughly 100,000 people visit annually to see the picture-perfect falls for themselves.
Hike halfway down the mountain to swim in the shadow of the 175ft upper falls. Complete the hike by heading to the waterfall's base and give your feet a break by soaking them in the creek. The steep 1.6-mile roundtrip hike is exhausting but well worth the journey.
Fawn's Leap, a favorite for daredevils, is a 10-minute drive away along Route 23A. When the water is deep enough, showboaters jump off a 24-ft crag into the watery chasm below. Barely a mile from here lies Rat's Hole, a much safer swimming area surrounded by flat rocks practically made for sunbathing.
On summer weekends, expect large crowds at all three locations. Overcrowding is common, parking can be daunting, and travelers should be respectful by taking out whatever trash they bring in.
How to plan the perfect Catskills weekend
Best for boating
Although the town of Bethel is best known for hosting the 1969 Woodstock festival, its raison d'etre is White Lake – a 280-acre body of water that looks like a psychedelic dog bone. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the spring-fed lake teems with activity.
As dawn breaks, fishers in tiny motorboats hunt for largemouth bass and pumpkinseed sunfish. Kayaks and canoes are always close behind. By late morning, motorboats are buzzing by, pulling slalom skiers; jet skis and pontoons make waves by midday.
Payne's Water Sports rents motorboats to visitors, but if you want to join the boat brigade, you're better off bringing your own. A launch in the town of Kauneonga Lake gives boat owners free lake access.
To enjoy lakefront views sans boat, head to Benji & Jakes, a laidback pizza joint that serves creative pies to an endless parade of customers. Java Love, a cozy spot for local coffee, pours cold brew mere steps from the water.
Best for avoiding the crowds
Finding secluded Otter Falls is half of this adventure's fun. Park at the Giant Ledge trailhead, then hike a half-mile west along Oliverea Road (also labeled Route 47). You'll eventually see a telephone pole marked with milepost 167 1/2, and in summer, a clear path will appear along the woodline.
Follow the trail roughly .3 miles, and you'll begin to hear the falls. The meandering series of gentle cascades flow approximately 30ft into a watering hole ranging from 6 to 8ft deep. Come prepared with proper footwear – slippery river rocks and tree roots can be unforgiving.
The water at Otter Falls is an energizing post-hike treat for those who brave Giant Ledge, a 3.2-mile trek leading to panoramic views. Once you've had your nature fix, fill your stomach at Phoenicia Diner. This quirky spot for American comfort food is located 20 minutes away by car.
Vernooy Kill Falls
Best for multiple swimming hole options
Hike this forested 3.5-mile out-and-back trail near Kerhonkson, and you'll find a series of pools and cascades dropping 30ft in four stages. Work up a sweat while walking up the 600ft ascent and cool off with a dip in the water.
The largest of these pools is located at the base and is usually 5 to 6ft deep, depending on the season. Adventurous climbers who scale the cascade's slippery upper reaches will likely find a swimming hole to themselves.
Pack a picnic and lay out on one of the rocks worn smooth by the river's current for a moment of repose. If you cross the footbridge running over the falls, keep your eyes peeled for a two-century-old stonewall – remnants of a time when local farmers brought grain along this trail to the long-forgotten Vernooy Mill.
Best for camping
Disconnect from the world's worries by heading to Mongaup Pond. Spotty cell service means doom scrolling through social media isn't an option. Instead, take a 1.5-mile hike that loops around the lake, jump in the water on a balmy afternoon, or rent a boat to fish for brook trout with the bald eagles that occasionally perch along the shoreline.
With 163 tent and trailer sites – eight of which are wheelchair accessible – you can spend an entire weekend without leaving this remote Arcadia. If you do, drive 20 minutes to Livingston Manor, which is Sullivan County's trendiest town.
Order a pint of Ascension Pilsner at Upward Brewing Company, step inside the boutiques along Main Street, and treat yourself to one of the Kaatskeller's wood-fired pizzas before heading back into the wild.
Best for families
Bethel's Lake Superior State Park is the next best thing to owning waterfront property. With ample amenities offered from May to September, it's possible to enjoy a full beach day without sacrificing home’s creature comforts.
The 1409-acre grounds come equipped with picnic tables, grills, restrooms and showers. Rowboat and pedal-boat rentals are offered throughout summer, and a free boat launch (for electric and manual boats only) attracts folks who love fishing.
Come during the week, and you might get the place to yourself. But come on the weekends, and you'll have to fight for real estate. By late morning, families fill the grassy hill overlooking the lake with picnic blankets, lawn chairs, and coolers packed with grub. If you forget to bring lunch, don't worry. Bethel Market Cafe, a quaint spot with the feel of a family kitchen, is only a few minutes away.
You might also like:
Top 15 beaches in New York
Our favorite New York historic parks and monuments
From Dirty Dancing to Mrs. Maisel: Catskills resorts are having a renaissance