Summer Guide: Valley Swimming Holes
The Upper Valley in summer is a paradise for fresh water swimmers. Fresh water —lots of it — is everywhere: the Connecticut River, the White River, the Ompompanoosuc, the Ottauquechee, True’s Brook, Blow-Me-Down Brook, Silver Lake, Canaan Street Lake, Storrs Pond. ... Fresh water swimming enthusiasts know that swimming in overly warm chlorinated water offers a poor substitute when it comes to cooling off on oppressively hot and humid summer days. Like a campfire, swimming in a lake or river or wading through a stream or pond appeals to something basic in our nature. This, we sense, is how people were meant to repair from the heat. Nature’s coolant system.
Everyone has a favorite swimming hole in the Upper Valley. And we suspect that a few of you prefer to keep your favorite place a secret, too, lest it become overrun and end up written about in guides such as this one. The following is a list of some of our favorite fresh water swimming spots. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means, but to represent what we think are some choice locales where those willing to wade in can reward themselves with a respite from the heat.
Don’t forget your moccasins!
n Mink Brook in Hanover. The first thing to know about Mink Brook is it’s not a brook. It’s an easily accessible spot on the bank of the Connecticut River that is reached by hiking down a trail that begins at the end of Maple Street in downtown Hanover. The steep trail runs about a quarter-mile until you reach a secluded inlet. Within a few minutes, because of its rural-like setting ,you’d never know you were almost smack in the middle of town. Shade from pines cools the river’s banks, and wading into the river here is as easy as stepping into a kiddie pool. Despite the central location, delightful view and easy accessibility, Mink Brook is surprisingly devoid of swimmers, although if you’re lucky you may get to see someone tossing sticks into the river for his dog to dive in and fetch. The only downside is the buzz of highway traffic from Interstate 91 that can be heard if there is a westerly wind, offsetting the what otherwise is a pristine spot.
n Silver Lake in Barnard. Unlike some swimming holes in the Upper Valley, you can’t miss this one. And it’s not really a swimming hole so much as a swimming idyll. Entrance to Silver Lake State Park is 0.2 of a mile on North Road from the Bernard Village crossroads. Open every day from 10 a.m. to sunset, this is a favorite place for families, but the lake is large enough so that there is plenty of room for solitude should you want to get away from the flirting teens. Rent a foot-propelled paddle boat or bring your own kayak or other flotation device. Best to go in the middle of the day, as the late afternoon sun begins to cast a shadow over the southern arc of the lake, making the water feel considerably cooler.
n Paine’s Beach in South Royalton. From the town green, drive out on North Windsor Road about a half-mile and on your right you’ll see a small park with picnic tables under a shed along the White River. Paine’s Beach took a pounding during Tropical Storm Irene, and is just now returning to life. Its former pristine condition, maintained by the Heartland Lions Club, is now a bit ragged, the small sandy beach torn up by the detritus from the flood. But it’s still a swimmable spot, and there are numerous places along the river where you can pull over and gain access to the water. Paine’s Beach, however, is free from passing traffic and ideal for little kids.
n Woodstock. Many of the town’s homes abut the Ottauquechee River, providing property owners their own private access to wonderful, fresh-water wading. But two of Woodstock’s three bridges are good entry points, if you don’t mind steep climbs and negotiating rocks to get to the water. At the bridge at the end of Elm Street, cross over to the far side and there is an entryway on the right side. A heavy-duty chain link fence is bolted into the bridge’s foundation to hold onto as you step over rocks to approach the water’s edge. There is a swimming hole under the bridge where you can cool off up to your waist. If it has rained and the river level is elevated, the current over the rocks is likely to be moderately fierce. But wedge yourself between the croppings for stability and it’s like an ice-water Jacuzzi. Another favorite spot in town is at the bridge next to the “new” woolen mill, now called The Little Theater, on the west side of town. Entry is from the parking lot, adjacent to the Woodstock Recreation area. This spot is more open and wider than the bridge on the other end of town, the water again about waist high.
n Taftsville. This one is for the combination thrill-seeker-swimmer. People uncomfortable with high-dives may not be at ease with this swim hole. A half-mile west of the Taftsville Bridge on Woodstock Road there is a rope swing dangling from a tree branch over the Ottauquechee River on Old River Road — although the bridge has been out since Tropical Storm Irene, so the only way to access it is 2.5 miles to the west where Old River Road intersects on Route 12 at Billings Farm. Reaching the swing first requires climbing up wooden ladder bars hammered into the trunk of the tree. Grabbing a leg of the rope, the adventurous pushes off the bar and swings over the river, before letting go and plunging at least 20 feet into the river below. The Ottauquechee can be muddy at this point, but the feeling of exhilaration from having been airborne before splashdown tends to make it all worthwhile.
n Thetford Center, Vt. and Union Village, Vt. We almost didn’t want to draw attention to these two spots because in many ways they are the quintessential swimming holes, the kind of places a Hollywood location scout would pick if a swimming hole were needed for a scene in a movie. The first is called Sandy Beach (there’s a sign, so you can’t miss it), and it’s a half-mile down Buzzell Bridge Road from Route113. Turn right into the parking lot, only a few steps from a basketball half-court-size sandy beach and Olympic-size swimming hole big enough to do laps. The water is so calm that it could be mistaken for a pond. If you want something more daring, drive another 0.6 of a mile down Buzzell toward Union Village to the Chutes. This is also known as “Bare-Ass Beach” (even though there is no sand) because it’s been a favorite among skinny dippers — indeed, a sign is posted that commands “Nude Bathing Prohibited.” Follow the trail down to the river, where the rushing water wends around and over several rock croppings before spilling over a short fall. The spot is down a ravine and encircled by evergreens, providing a degree of privacy and perhaps explaining why the Chutes has been favored by those who prefer to go au naturel.
n Treasure Island in West Fairlee, Vt. Call it the Riveria of swimming holes in the Upper Valley. Treasure Island is an exceptionally maintained swimming spot on Lake Fairlee that is a godsend for those seeking a place to take the kids on a sweltering summer day. Besides a well-groomed beach and on-duty lifeguard, there are two docks to dive off about 25 yards out in the water, picnic tables under shed covers, swings, a volleyball net, play structure and a slide that feeds into the lake water. Best of all, there are clean on-site bathrooms. Day passes are $2 for kids and $4 for adults.
n West Lebanon. From Route 12A, drive 0.6 of a mile on True’s Brook Road and you’ll see a turn off on the right side. Follow the path down a few minutes to a cropping of rocks in True’s Brook known as The Ledges. True’s Brook is no babbling brook — the strong current rushing over the rocks has more the force of a river, and can be a little treacherous for the novice. It’s a popular spot among kids from nearby Kimball Union Academy as well as Dartmouth students. The water is deep enough in spots to fully submerge. Conveniently located for a lunch-time or after-work dip if you happen to work near the 12A commercial strip.
n Springfield, Vt./Charlestown, N.H. OK, we know this swimming spot is at the outermost southern tip of what we call the Upper Valley, but it’s on such a grand scale we think it worth including. It’s more a swimming chasm than a swimming hole. On the Vermont side at the junction of Route 5 and Route 11, just below the Cheshire Bridge that links Springfield and Charlestown across the Connecticut River, is Hoyt’s Landing at the confluence of the Connecticut and Black rivers. During the summer, it can get a bit crowded because it is also a boat launch and popular fishing spot. The Connecticut River is wide and placid here, so there’s plenty of room for everyone. People bring folding chairs and sit under the shade of the trees. The river is easily accessible — just step off the shallow bank, as if you were stepping into a bathtub, and you’re in the water. There’s also a short pier to jump off, or wade in at the boat ramp at the mouth of the Black River.