So this past winter I was diagnosed with skin cancer. This unfortunate turn of events means that I am hyper aware of sun protection. And the more I am aware of the sun, the hotter I get, and the more I want to lather up with some Hawaiian Tropic spf 5 oil like I did as a kid. The more I think about how I can’t be in the sun, I want to be on the beach, or on a boat, or laying out on the dock with a book for endless hours. This is what summer is made of.
The more I think about these things, the more I realize that the kids and I have visited dozens of cooling off spots that are pretty darn cool, places most folks don’t know about or don’t visit. So here is our comprehensive list. It’s long. Buckle Up. I do think there is much to learn here.
- This list is not necessarily in order of preference (although subconsciously it might be).
- This list does not list many places on the Bay. We tend to not get in the water too much around Sandy Point, one of the most polluted areas on the Bay, or Terrapin on Kent Island, both two popular beaches.
- This list is a nod to the fact that much of Anne Arundel and Calvert counties have hundreds of miles of waterfront property, most of it privately owned and inaccessible. That makes us a little sad but has also made the challenge of visiting other cities and counties even more exciting.
- This list doesn’t include Assateague, Rehoboth, Ocean City, Virginia Beach or other Atlantic beaches. That’s another post for another day.
- This list doesn’t include waterside restaurants, bars, etc. That’s another post too.
- This list includes water holes as far away as 4 hours, so not all are day trips.
- This list is organized by National and State Parks, by City facilities like fountains and parks, and by Inns/Resorts, which I will break up into separate posts.
- I have a ton of photos, but the site gets overloaded when I use too many, and anyway the post gets way too long, so message me if you want visuals.
Dans Mountain State Park, Allegany County, MD
Why this park is not mentioned more often we just don’t know. Maybe because it is off the main road? Sort of hidden? We aren’t sure, but we do know that it is so cool and costs just $4/day.
Follow a long, shady and just beautifully green road around Dans Mountain. At the end of this curling road, you will find an Olympic sized pool with a waterslide, big recycled tire playground, picnic pavilions, expansive green lawns and a fishing lake. Nearby Dan’s Rock Overlook affords a panoramic view of the surrounding region from a height of 2,898 feet.
Open 7 days per week, with a lifeguard, bathrooms and snack shack, Dan’s Mountain is about 3 hours from Annapolis and truly a world away. A perfect stop-off en route to Deep Creek Lake.
Point Lookout State Park, St. Mary’s County, MD
Maybe its because it is way down “deep in the county”, or maybe its because it is one of the most haunted places in America, but Point Lookout State Park is typically lightly traveled. Truth be told, the DNR website says it is very popular, and we haven’t been here during peak season, but even then the park is large enough that I can’t imagine it actually feeling crowded as in Ocean City or Miami Beach clustered.
I would definitely classify this as a Hidden Gem. The water here is beautiful, you have all the amenities of a State Park and you have the added bonus of an incredible history and the potential to see any sort of ghost sunbathing next to you. There is a pet beach, a lighthouse, a pier, camping facilities ( my kids are BEGGING me to stay here overnight but that is a NO GO), watercraft rentals and even a winery on the way in.
INSIDER TIP: mosquitoes galore, bring spray.
Other cool places in St. Mary’s County include St. Clement’s Island, Broome’s Island, St. Mary’s State Park (it has a great mountain bike trail and lake paddling), Myrtle Point Beach on the Patuxent River and Elms Beach on the Chesapeake Bay.
Hart-Miller Island, Baltimore County, MD
Hart-Miller Island is a Maryland State Park accessible only by personal boat. The closest launch is Rocky Point State Park.
Located at the mouth of Back and Middle Rivers, Rocky Point boasts an expansive view of the Chesapeake Bay, Hart-Miller Island and Craighill Light and one of the nicest beaches on the upper Chesapeake.
Information: (410) 592-2897
Chesapeake Ship Graveyard at Mallows Bay, Charles County, MD
Mallows Bay lies on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and is home to the largest shipwreck fleet in the western hemisphere. In fact, it is the first marine sanctuary in Maryland.
See how many different species of wildlife you can spot (print out the handy Charles County Water Trails pdf before you go) and imagine the ride across the Atlantic or through the bays and rivers of the Chesapeake in a ship as you glide over more than 200 mysterious remains.
The area is contiguous with the Lower Potomac Water Trail, Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail and the Charles County Water Trail. View of video of kayaking here.
Access Mallows Bay with your kayak, paddleboard or canoe via public boat launch in Charles County. Kayak rentals and guides are available.
Kentmorr, Kent Island, MD
If you want an authentic Chesapeake afternoon, head by bike, jetski, car or boat to one of our highly recommended favorites, Kentmorr Restaurant and Crabhouse. This in-the-know, mostly locals spot is over the Bay Bridge, down Route 8, on the right side of the road past the airfield.
Park in the small lot or pull right up to the marina, then head straight to the beach. Snag a hammock amidst the palms and read a book whilst watching your kids play on the beach. Take a break to head to the Tiki Bar or go into the restaurant for a fine meal. This is the ideal place to watch the sun set over the bay, with the Bay Bridge in the distance, over a big stack of crabs or some delicious local rockfish. Great burgers as well.
Historic St. Mary’s City, St. Mary’s County, MD
When you are so hot and tired from exploring St. Mary’s City under the inevitably blistering southern Maryland sun, visit the quiet and absolutely stunning St. Mary’s River waterfront most people don’t even know exists. To access our favorite spot, the o to end of the cemetery next to Trinity Episcopal Church. Head downhill toward the river via dirt paths. Follow the water, exploring along the way, just a few yards, to the large wooden cross that looks out over a small bay, usually in use by students of St. Mary’s College. Here you will have several yards of shoreline to explore, as well as a tidal stream and wetlands.
Flag Pond, Brownie Beach and Calvert Cliffs, Calvert County, MD
These three parks all take advantage of a sandy beach and shallow wading. All are famous for family fun, including sunbathing, swimming and all sizes of shark teeth. Flag Ponds Nature Park and Calvert Cliffs State Park offer a remarkable variety of natural environments—from sandy beach, to freshwater ponds, to wetland swamp to the forested heights of Calvert Cliffs. We go here at least once a month April-November. We especially like to go after big storms, when we hope that shark teeth and other fossils have been exposed.
Flag Pond includes a short, half-mile hike from the parking lot brings you to the sandy beach where there is swimming and fossil hunting. A bathhouse is available. There are also observation platforms at two ponds, a fishing pier on the Chesapeake Bay and a visitor’s center with wildlife displays.
Calvert Cliffs has a longer hike down a sandy, mostly flat trail to a wide and narrow sandy beach where there is swimming and a small freshwater streamlet to play in. There are bathrooms (portapotties) near the beach and at the parking lot. There is a large playground at the parking lot. Many people overlook the fact that there are many other trails in the beautiful little park.
Brownie Beach a/k/a Bayfront Park about a mile outside of Chesapeake Beach has a short walk down a paved trail from the parking lot to the beach. There is a freshwater stream, a shallow beach that extends far out into the water and a wide stretch of sand under the shadow of the cliffs where fossils are abundant. No bathrooms and tight parking—you may have to park along the road opposite the park entrance.
IMPORTANT TIP: In each of these parks, it is very important to not attempt to climb on the cliffs, to always be aware of the cliffs above or behind you and to obey park rules. The cliffs are known to slide after storms and you don’t want to be seriously injured when you could be enjoying a day at the beach. There is a cost for each of these parks (Flag Pond and Brownie Beach in season, Calvert Cliffs year round). Also beware jellyfish and other water creatures.
Brownie’s is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Entrance fees for out-of-Calvert-County residents are $16 for those ages 12 to 54; $9 for children ages 3 to 11, seniors and active military; free for children 2 and under. Entry is free for North Beach residents and discounted for Calvert County residents. More info: 410-257-2230,410-586-1477. or Chesapeake-beach.md.us and calvertparks.org/fpp.html
North Beach, Calvert County, MD
This is not our favorite beach, mostly because it’s blazing hot with not an ounce of shade, it’s occasionally dirty, the water isn’t especially clean and there is a fee for parking, for getting onto the beach and for anything you don’t bring (ie chairs, etc). On the other hand, those fees support the city of North Beach, a tiny enclave on the Anne Arundel County/Calvert County line. There is a long pier here with fishing and some vendors, a great farmer’s market on scheduled days and some fun events like car shows and outdoor movies.
Cascade Falls, Patapsco State Park near Ellicott City, MD
One of our most favoritest places to cool off is Cascade Falls, a series of small falls easily accessible along the 2-mile Cascade Falls trail and close to the parking lot, bathrooms, picnic area and playground. Enter through the Orange Grove/Avalon area.
Children can hike up the river (not up to 48 hours after a rain storm due to water pollution) to the main falls, which have a shallow pool and a “beach”- which is really a landing area for shoes and backpacks and rocks to climb on. There is plenty of shade along the entire walk.
Because your kids are having endless amounts of water play, the hardest part of this excursion is getting your kids to go back down the trail for home.
Everyone has their favorite spot along the trail: ours is a small outcrop of rock that has formed an interesting geological bend in the stream as well as some shade and that makes for great shallow waterplay with rocks, sticks and everything you need for a manmade dam.
Cunningham Falls, Frederick County, MD
The beauty of Cunningham Falls is that you can go at any time before noon and still be home in time for dinner. Also, my kids love the giant boulders and fairy-town ferns that characterize the trail from the lake to the falls.
The William Houck Area has a lake, a trail to the falls and camping. Swimming is allowed in three designated areas of Hunting Creek Lake that have sandy beaches, but swimming is not allowed at the falls (you can wade and you can climb, but the falls are extremely shallow and slippery so caution is advised). Arrive early as the park often reaches capacity by mid- to late-morning on weekends and holidays, and visitors can be turned away.
INSIDER’S TIP: it is not unusual to see copperhead snakes in this area. Naturally shy, they will generally stay away if you leave them alone. Walk with a stick and make plenty of noise, or hike after early morning when the snakes know that people will be on the trail. Stay on the trail as the snakes like to hide in the leaves and brush.
Lifeguards on duty at the lake daily, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission: $3 per person during the week, $5 on weekends and holidays, Memorial Day to Labor Day. 301-271-7574
Deep Creek Lake State Park, Garrett County, MD
Everyone knows about Deep Creek Lake, the largest, deepest and maybe coldest lake in Maryland. You can do just about everything here, from boating to jet skiing, fishing, SUP, and everything in between.
We like the state park beach because it is a one-mile stretch of sandy, well maintained, clean sand with bathrooms and is close to nearby restaurants, gas and convenience stores.
You can rent kayaks if you get bored of swimming, or launch your own watercraft. The state park nature center is unsurpassed for hands on education about the area.
Shenandoah National Park, Rose River Falls from Fischer’s Gap off Skyline Drive, VA
There are many places to cool off in Shenandoah National Park, but we are especially partial to the Rose River Loop Trail. We’ve hiked it four times in the past 6 months.
Park at Fischers Gap, cross Skyline Drive and walk the fire road down to Dark Hollow Falls. Take the Rose River trail to your left. This trail is rated as easy, and is very doable by young kids; however, keep in mind that it is rocky with roots and slippery portions.
INSIDER TIP: To be honest, having taken my 70 year old mom on this trail, a walking stick or hiking poles would be a good idea if you have balance or endurance issues.
Your pay off is more than a mile of small falls, pools and shade. Plan to stop every few yards to let your kids explore. Trout fishing is great along this stretch of the river and if you see a fisherman, be sure to give them room and courtesy (esp. if you are upstream). Follow the trail down and over the small bridge, where you start to gain elevation.
About ½ mile up from that turn, Rose River Falls will be on your right. This is a gorgeous waterfall with a deep pool. It’s icy cold and very refreshing. It empties into a smaller, shallow pool, then cascades over another falls. Afterward, you should be just refreshed enough to hike up the remaining mile or so to the car, a walk that is all uphill but much smoother than fire road entrance.
This is a 3.7 mile trail that takes us at least three hours because we are constantly stopping to explore. Again, great for young kids and even my 70 year old mom, but not necessarily easy.
INSIDER TIP: If you want a falls that you can get playtime in AND want a short but pretty hike with easy in and out, just do Rose River Falls. The entrance is clearly marked where the Fire Road intersects with Skyline Drive, on your left as you reach the yellow gate that blocks cars from going on the fire road.
CAUTION: we have seen and heard bears on this trail and all over Shenandoah NP. In fact, this area has the highest concentration of bears on the east coast. Stay away, do not feed the bears, do not try to approach the bears. They are wild animals and no matter how cute, they are not your friend. If you need to hug a bear, go visit the lovely guy in the lobby of Big Meadows Lodge.
City of Annapolis Pocket Parks, Annapolis, MD
The pocket parks in Annapolis, open to the public and located at the end of quiet residential streets in Eastport, Murray Hill and West Annapolis, are nearly always empty, leaving us to call them Hidden Gems that you should definitely plan to visit.
There’s not much better than letting your kids play in the Eastport park, a sandy beach located at the end of Chesapeake Ave. at Horn Point. Navy Station Annapolis with the tall towers of Greenbury Point is across the water and the Bay Bridge is in the distance.
Other parks, including Amos Garrett, Jonas Green, Tucker Street launch and Truxton Park all offer free water fun and are great for just a picnic, some outside play, fishing, crabbing or launching a kayak, canoe or SUP.
Rocky Point State Park, Baltimore County, MD
This park features a 300-foot beach, swimming area, bathhouse with a first-aid station, fishing pier, pavilions, shaded picnic groves and playground. Lifeguards patrol the area from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Labor Day. Group or individual sailing lessons are also available at the park through the Baltimore County Sailing Center. Park closes at sunset.
Beaver Dam Swimming Club, Baltimore County, MD
Old-timers and locals complain that this swimming hole gets smaller and smaller and not nearly as adventurous, but Beaver Dam Swimming Club remains one of the most popular swimming holes in the state. The flooded marble quarry averages 40 feet deep, and is surrounded by rocks, trees and grass, making it feel very natural and a world away from nearby Baltimore and surrounding suburbs. Be sure to check out the rope swing — a favorite for generations of thrill seekers. Basketball and volleyball courts are also on site, as are picnic tables and grills. Two pools are also available.
$15 for ages 12 and older on weekdays, $16 on Saturdays and $17 on Sundays and holidays. Always $12 for children age 11 and under or 410-785-2323
Cascade Lake, Carroll County, MD
The 6-acre, spring-fed lake in Carroll County includes a roped-off swimming area, a 150-foot waterslide and platforms. Nearby the “spray ’n playground” provides geysers, bubblers and water tunnels for little ones, nonswimmers and those who just want a break from the lake.
In the lake, swimmers between 8 and 21 years old must pass a swim test to go beyond the 5-foot depth markers. Picnic tables and grills are scattered across the property, and paddleboats are available for a fee. A vendor/cafe sells burgers, sandwiches and snacks.
$15 for adults and children over age 7 and $12 for children ages 1 to 7 on weekends and holidays. On weekdays before 2 p.m., admission costs $10 and $8, respectively. Infants are free.
Overall Run, Shenandoah National Park, VA
Best known for having the tallest waterfall in the park, at 93 feet, this stream is usually a trickle in summer months. Still, the flow is enough to fill a series of three interconnected swimming holes two miles downstream—one pool can get more than seven feet deep. The creek runs over a smooth, sloping rock wall that works as a fantastic water slide. The sun-filled area is a popular spot—especially with local teenagers trying to beat the heat. Even in August the water can be surprising and refreshingly chilly.
The swimming holes are reached via a long (8.5-mile), moderately difficult loop hike through the park, on the Overall Run/Beecher Ridge trail or on a moderate one-mile hike from a parking area on Thompson Hollow Road.
Seneca Creek Swimming Hole, Montgomery County, Poolesville, MD
In a town called Poolesville, there has to be a swimming hole, right? There is. On River Road in Maryland, a hundred feet west of its intersection with Seneca Road, Seneca Creek passes under a bridge where a natural, shaded hollow makes for a delightful and secluded spot to take a dip. Though shallow, the stream includes large, flat rocks that let you sit or lay in the cool, clear flowing water.
No need to hike to this swimming hole—you can park at the lot for the Farm & Home Service store, walk across a grassy area (where there are picnic tables), and you’re at the creek. If you want to float in the creek, bring some rope and tie your “floatie” to a tree so you don’t drift away. There are some nice cafes en route, so you can pack a picnic or buy some treats along the way.
Buzzard Rock Hole and Elizabeth Furnace area, Front Royal, VA
Passage Creek in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest offers several spots for water lovers to play. The most popular swimming hole is next to the Elizabeth Furnace campground, but it can be quite busy on weekends. Less crowded is the Blue Hole. Take Route 55 west from Front Royal for five miles and then turn south onto Fort Valley Road. After a couple of miles, park in the small parking area next to the creek. Be sure to wear water shoes or old sneakers because the riverbank and bottom are rocky.
The best of the park’s swimming holes, Buzzard Rock Hole, is directly below Buzzard Rock cliffs—a popular rock-climbing and hiking area. It’s only another quarter-mile south on Fort Valley Road, then a short walk from a paved lot. This deep hole is bounded on one side by a sun-drenched, sloping rock face. After a dip, you can lie out on the rock to dry off and catch some rays, just like you did when you were a kid. Bring a cooler, maybe some coolers (which are haute again) and settle back for old-fashioned fun.
Gunpowder Falls State Park and Hereford area parks, Hartford County, MD
Gunpowder Falls S.P. is comprised of several separate parks where you can access the Gunpowder Falls River. The Hereford area is up I-83 north of Baltimore. It includes several river access points and trails, most with decent if not shallow swimming places. Try Guyton Road and Hammerman Beach. People love to float on this river, but you need to plan how you will get back to your origination. Bring life jackets if you plan to float, or rig an anchor for your floaty and drift the day away.
Hammerman Beach at Gunpowder Falls State Park
The small riverfront beach and the prospect of swimming in the cool Gunpowder River makes this destination (about 1-1.5 hours from Annapolis) a popular spot. There are lifeguards, grills, bathrooms and picnic areas. A cafe offers a typical food for reasonable rates. The recycled tire playground is a favorite spot for hide and seek and other classic outdoor games. Arrive early to ensure entry, especially on the weekends. Hours are 8 a.m. to sunset through October. Admission for Maryland residents is $5 per person on weekends and holidays and $3 on weekdays. Children in car seats are admitted free.
INSIDER TIP: Arrive early to ensure entry, especially on the weekends. This place is very popular with folks in the Baltimore, Carroll, Hartford and Howard County areas.
Hours are 8 a.m. to sunset through October. Admission for Maryland residents is $5 per person on weekends and holidays and $3 on weekdays. Children in car seats are admitted free. More info: 410-592-2897.
Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia
Just 1.5 or so hours from Annapolis, Harper’s Ferry is such a wonderful little town—its run-down, haunted atmosphere is exactly what you might expected of a town so characterized by events that have happened here, from the start of the Lewis & Clark expedition to John Brown’s raid, to the many horrific Civil War battles that happened nearby, to its location on the C & O Canal and the juxtaposition of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. Just 286 people lived here on the 2010 census, but in the summer you wouldn’t know it.
One of our favorite things to do after hiking Maryland Heights or the AT, or after exploring the expansive parkland and historic buildings in the National Park, is to rent tubes from Harper’s Ferry Adventure Company. They have everything you need, including life jackets and a shuttle back upriver. They also have a zipline and white water rafting. There are many companies in the area that cater to people trying to cool off in the river, so I suggest you Google for reviews and Groupons.
INSIDER TIP: There are concerns about significant agricultural run off and other pollution in this area, so you may want to avoid after heavy rainfall.
Swallow Falls State Park, Garrett County, MD
There are two waterfalls in Swallow Creek State Park; Swallow Falls (on the Yough. River) and Muddy Creek Falls (on Muddy Creek). There are several very fine swimming holes just below each falls and more in the creek and river downstream of each falls.
Do not be tempted to leap from the falls at Swallow Falls, where you might see youngsters proving their mettle this way. It is extremely dangerous and people have died doing so. Enjoy the water, be reasonably cautious and respect Mother Nature.
Insider Tip: to access Swallow Falls, you take a lovely little trail from the parking lot. Continue along this trail and you will find a quiet and stunningly beautiful small falls that has created a shallow pool perfect for young families. If no one else is there you might think you have discovered your own piece of mountain paradise.
Insider Tip: There is a playground at this State Park on a grassy knoll that is a great way to start or end the day. Nearby is Herrington Manor State Park, which offers cabin and tent camping as well as a manmade lake and a lovely short hike. Lots of goose poop, but a lifeguard and tranquil views.
Rocks State Park, Hartford County, MD
We’ve mentioned Rocks State Park on other posts, so you must know that we love it. In the fall you can’t beat the view from the King & Queen Seat, playing in the leaves or the adorable and creative playground. But in the summer you can take advantage of the beautiful park areas along Deer Creek. This shallow stream is perfect for picnicking, wading, fishing, swimming and tubing! Reports say there are 3 1/2 miles of tubing, but we haven’t only gone as far as we can walk back. Deer Creek is unsupported—no lifeguards, bathrooms or vendors. There is a class 3 rapid that most people walk around rather than tube and several swimming holes, 10′ – 12′ deep, reachable by tube or from parking lots at picnic areas along the creek.
Kilgore Falls, Rocks State Park, Hartford County, MD
Maryland’s second highest free-falling waterfall, Kilgore Falls was once a meeting spot for Susquehannock Indians. This land was privately owned until the early 1990s but is now open to the public. Situated down the road from the State Park HQ in gorgeous farmland, the falls are located in the Falling Branch area of Rocks State Park. There is a quick, easy hike in from the (usually crowded) parking lot.
Insider Tip: Arrive early. Difficult to understate how this place is much loved. Even so, it is well worth a visit, especially when the falls are running high in early summer. Bring water shoes to better navigate the rocky bottom of the stream.
No amenities. Carry in, carry out.
Greenbrier State Park, Washington County
A 42-acre, man-made lake located about 3 hours away in the Appalachian Mountains offers swimming, sunbathing, boating, fishing, camping, boat rentals, flat water canoeing, hiking trails, picnic area and a playground area. This is not our favorite spot because the bottom of the lake is a little muddy and the goose poop can be excessive, but once you are in and having fun these things don’t seem to matter as much.
Lifeguards on duty 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Admission: Weekdays, $3 per person; weekends/holidays, $5 per person Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends. Out-of-state residents add $2 to all day use service charges. 301-791-4767
Elk Neck State Park near North East, Cecil County, MD
Elk Neck State Park is located in Cecil County on a peninsula, formed by the Chesapeake Bay on the west and the Elk River on the east. The park boasts over 2,188 acres of varied landscapes including marshlands, heavily wooded areas, white clay cliffs, and sandy shorelines. Camping, swimming, fishing, boating, and hiking, are popular pastimes. Visit Turkey Point Lighthouse, launch your own boat at the Rogues Harbor Boat Launch facility and make sure to take a walk on any of the many trails.
Breezy Point Beach and Campground, Calvert County, MD
With a half-mile of bay-front sandy shore and a netted swimming area, plenty of space for sandcastles and shark-tooth hunting as well as a playground and picnic area, the park is a definite kid-pleaser. There is a 200-foot pier for fishing and crabbing, a camping area, charcoal grills, restrooms and showers perfect for cleaning off before piling back into the car.
INSIDER TIP: water shoes recommended. Entry to the park is cash only.
Open 6 a.m. to dusk. Admission is $10 on weekends and $6 on weekdays for adults; $6 on weekends and $4 on weekdays for children ages 3 to 11 and for seniors. Those age 2 and under are admitted free. More info: 410-535-0259
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