Clothing Optional- Swimming the Colorado Plateau

Mill Creek and Indian Creek

Everyone knows, or at least they should, that the Millcreek swim hole in Moab rocks. Only a mile from the trailhead off Powerhouse Lane., surrounded by slickrock and deep enough to jump into from ledges eight to ten feet above the pool, this easy refuge sees a lot of traffic.  It sees so much traffic, the city of Moab has to spend thousands of dollars rehabbing the canyon every year to keep it the riparian oasis we love and expect.  But despite the fact that every B&B owner in town recommends this hike to their happytopay300bucks constituency, I can’t pass through town on a warm afternoon, or even a not so warm one like today, and not stop.

Sometimes though, I’m too impatient to hike the measly mile. Too eager to get wet and happy. The swim hole is filled with people and dogs, I’ve been climbing all day or just got off a backpacking trip and another mile seems really far.  On these days, I am happy to walk two minutes, drop off the trail at the old pump house, scramble down into a shallow, skin colored gorge, and plunge. Here, water rushes around in a short section of narrows, dropping along smooth shoots from pool to swirling pool before spreading out across a hole locals have built up with rocks from the surrounding cliff banks. Today, the creek is swollen with spring run-off, the dark green pool in which I dangle my feet is neck deep and the foam on the lip of each miniature, tumbling cataract taunts me.  I’ve been awake too long, I’ve been driving all morning, I’m rumpled and creased and smell like stale rental car air, and it’s raining. This alone would not usually stop me from a swim but just as I decide that 54 degrees is plenty warm, lightning shivers the air and thunder cracks directly above me.

From a partially covered ledge, smoothed and shiny from countless feet and high water, I watch the flesh toned walls of the gorge darken from the brownish red of Native American skin, to deep Indian brown.  As the walls darken, petroglyphs both ancient and modern are thrown into relief and I wonder how long a signature must be etched into a wall before it’s considered history.  An anthopomorph with a spiral for a head becomes clear alongside choice four letter complaints, initials and dates, and declarations of love. The rain comes down harder.


By evening, I’m walking along Lockhart Road hugging the cliff side for a breadth of shade. The monsoonal storm has passed, temperatures have risen and Swim Holes of the Southwest has promised me a dip.  As I walk, I pass empty BLM camp sites surrounded by sandy hills of flowers. Feathery princess plume wave gently, disturbed by critters scurrying across sandy banks left by the road grader.  The loudest sound I hear as I wander past sandstone mounds shaped like large disfigured heads is my feet, kicking up dust. For a minute, I am lulled into the sense that I am alone in this wide silence.

Then, just as I reach Indian Creek, a mechanical sharp buzzing tears the air, startling me so badly I actually jump and shake a little with shock. Across the creek, helmeted dozens pour down the hillside on ATVs, dirt bikes, and hanging out of jeeps, whooping and shouting, “Yaaaahhhh! Flippin’ awesome!” They circle up, still whooping, directly above the limestone intrusion I’m headed for.  They wave, I nod, and quickly scurry down the grayish purple sides of a small corridor, opening up in the sandy creek floor.

I don’t find a swim hole. What I do find is a multilayered waterfall pouring all the sand from the surrounding hills and all the sand from every hill nearby into a narrow channel about ten feet high. Despite flooding seen almost everywhere else in the state, Indian Creek is a mere skiff of water. I blame the lush acreage of the Dugout Ranch. Stripping down, I approach the falls and once under it, feel my skin start to peel off, pumiced by the slurry beating down on me. Women in spas everywhere are at this moment paying estheticians and massage therapists hundreds of dollars to achieve the same effect that I am standing here choking, getting for free.

When I emerge from the falls, I look up to discover I am the latest thrill in the day of four ATV riding teenage boys.  They snicker and smile at me. One waves and says hello, trying to appear nonchalant as his buddies shamelessly gawk. I walk back to my pile of discarded clothes, throw on a shirt, glad that for once I wore my suit.                   

Calf Creek

Padding along open slickrock, my weight shifts to match the ebb and flow of undulant stone. The rock along the Upper Calf Creek trail gives everything away; how water has teased and teased it until, all resistance born down, it could not help but succumb and pour down to the lush intimacy of the creek below. Denuded by wind, at the height of summer this revelation of white expanse may blind you.  Now though, with the sun setting behind the Aquarius Plateau, the whole white world turns blue.

At a junction in the trail, I take the high road, leading to a shallow drainage above what is most commonly referred to as “Upper Calf Creek Falls.” This section of the drainage is wide and open; a few ponderosas, Russian olives and willows line the creek but otherwise there is little to interrupt the full spectrum of sun during the day. Here, the creek deepens into a series of pools, beginning with a smallish falls (an “upper upper” falls) feeding a pool twenty feet long and deep enough to jump into from the eight foot ledge above.  Below this pool, the creek bed is pockmarked with holes just big and deep enough for a single person to jump into. Below that, is my favorite pool. Suspended just above the lip of the Upper Calf Creek Falls, the pool is long and shallow with smooth slickrock sides, easing seamlessly from pool to a gently sloping sandstone “beach.” Depressions in the stone beach fit my body just right so that when I’m cold from swimming and need to lie out and thaw, I can fling myself like a beached whale up the pool’s sides and let the sun-soaked rock hold me till I’m warm.

When I reach the upper pools, the water is clear and dark; undisturbed by swimmers.  Crickets have started to sing out into the shadows and night flowers begin to release their seductively sweet and spicy fragrance. I drop my pack and head up to the jumping pool. With my nose full of sweet sand verbena and my head full of stars, I hesitate only a minute before I run full tilt to the edge and jump.




Pine Creek

Above me, Zion National Park is a hive of Memorial Day madness. Little boys with matching red baseball caps poke lizards with sticks, while fathers carry squalling babies call from behind cameras, ordering the boys to get back in the car. Dozens of Tour America RV’s swerve back and forth along the narrow red road, top-heavy and teetering. Dutch and German drivers—having never driven anything larger than a Peugeot until now—hang out of RV windows, video cameras in hand, pausing right in the middle of the road to capture the view.  A French gang of bikers rumbles down the road in a passable imitation of Hell’s Angels, covered in tattoos and replete with doo-rags, muscle shirts and wrinkly tans. Ravishing Bangladeshi women, long dark hair scattered across their dainty shoulders, tiny satin high heels and eyes deep enough to dive into, lean over bridges as their husbands needlessly encourage them to smile for the camera.  Soaking wet canyoneers, wet suits pulled down around their hips, cheerfully thumb for a ride back to the top of Pine Creek.

Just below the lip from all this brouhaha, I lie on my back kicking slowly through the water, arms floating perpendicularly at my sides. Five tall boulders shield me from the canyoneers, struggling to escape the creek bed just up canyon from where I listlessly paddle.  A trickle of water seeps between two of the boulders, echoing a little in this alcove, and providing enough white noise to drowned out all but the loudest motorcycles above.  The exit for Spry Canyon drains just above me, between massive red walls. Along the eroding hillsides, prickly pear blush magenta.

The water below me is green and clear.  Although this pool can sometimes be a zoo—the park sees over two million visitors annually and this swim spot can’t be a secret to all of them—today clouds, wind, and temperatures in the 60’s keep tourists away and leave the locals grabbing for thick fleece jackets. Sunlight breaks through the clouds, shooting shafts of light down into the pool, illuminating boulders at its base.  Swallows chirrup, skimming the water for a drink and nearly clip my head. I plunge my head beneath the surface, swimming until I touch the mulchy bottom.  All sound is drowned out.

More swim holes of the Colorado Plateau…

Highway 24/Capitol Reef

This thundering falls and the deeply sculpted pool at its base are a result of road crew blasts through the walls of Capitol Reef in order to redirect the Fremont River and build Highway 24. Above the falls, the river has sculpted out a narrow channel, making a fun play park during high water.

Calf Creek: Locals hole

If you are lucky enough to find a local who will tell you where, this pool can be reached by dropping off Highway 12’s hogback into Calf Creek at a section rarely visited by tourists.

Willow Patch near Boulder

This swimhole can be reached by hiking west from Calf Creek or down from McGath Point and following the drainage. Hikes a bit thrashy, but I’ve never seen a soul there.


Quail Creek/Red Cliffs Rec Area

Easily reached from the camp ground by walking a few minutes up the trail and veering left around the waterfall. Quail Creek only runs in early spring, so for the best swimming and clearest water, visit the hole no later than May.


Virgin River/Springdale

Located behind the Driftwood Lodge at the south end of town, there is a signed trail leading you down to the river.  Rope swing made from old climbing ropes hangs from huge cottonwoods and lawn chairs and picnic tables line the beach. A real locals spot.

4 Responses to “Clothing Optional- Swimming the Colorado Plateau”

  1. Hi Jessica. Thanks for the info on swimming spots. I’m staying in Moab for 10 days, until 24 July. I’m staying at a bed and breakfast with a very nice pool, but would like to drive my Razor ATV to some natural swimming places. I don’t care if it’s deep, but just want to beat the heat with a little sunbathing, reading and dipping (the skinny type is preferable). My question is primarily “Which swimming holes still have some water in them, since it is now mid-July and pretty dry around here?


  2. God bless you. I’m a Californian in love with the Colorado Plateau, because of the exhilarating contrast of red rock and cold water.

    I keep dragging my friends out to southern Utah to experience it, in the deadly heat of summer. There’s simply nothing like it.

    We are nice tourists, and don’t go to the Teacups on Mill Creek in Moab, though. It’s too accessible and it’s been ruined for the locals. The Moab Visitor’s Center won’t even give directions anymore. I went up there anyway, and yeah: it’s a parking mess.

    just FYI.


  3. PS: I mean, I went there to check it out. I didn’t park or swim. It was pretty ghastly, to be honest.

  4. I really like your imagery. When I read, the words create an image in my mind that that almost seams ad real as the words I am reading. Now I want to go to Moab and swim. Thanks Jessica. 🙂

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