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See Nature in a Whole New Light with Gorge Swimming

The surreal experiencing of swimming in a natural gorge will redefine the way you look at nature.

By: Jacalyn Beales + Save to a List

At the risk of putting Harrison Ford out of a job, just about anyone can explore and adventure out into the wilderness. And, if you can find a gorge to take a dip in, even better. 

A "gorge," better known as a narrow valley with water running between two hills or mountains, is the perfect place to cool off after a long, sweaty day hiking in the summer sun. Gorges exist both large and small across the US and Canada (and Europe as well) but it's taking the opportunity to experience swimming in a gorge that is rare. After all, not everyone has a gorge within hiking distance and many are found in remote landscapes.

There are a number of natural forces which cause gorges, the most common being rock erosion from running water which, over time, creates the deep valleys wherein mountains or hills can hold water. Because gorges are nature-made, you might hesitate to swim in one due to the fact that, for the most part, the water quality in natural gorges is not tested unless the gorge exists within a conservation area or park where annual, if not daily, testing is done. 

Photo: Michael Matti

Nevertheless, gorges have become a popular destination for both tourists and locals who want to experience a more coveted way of cooling off. Gorges - aka "swimming holes," as they're more popularly known - are almost ethereal in a way - unlike lakes, rivers or streams, gorges are more private, bound off by mountains and valleys, not vast and endless but just wild enough to be romantic and fantastical. They give the illusion that you're staring up at mountains and tree-lined hills that could reach up and touch the sky through the clouds. The water in gorges can range from a myriad of blues and teals, to shimmering blacks and rich browns thanks to the environment around them. Gorges take hundreds, if not thousands of years to form, giving them this magical quality of being ancient yet standing perfectly still whilst the rest of the world moves and shuffles around them. 

Photo: Steve Yocom

Why should you go swimming in a gorge? There's no one precise answer to that question. The first time I tried gorge-swimming (totally not a term, but roll with it), I had that heart-pumping fear of being swallowed up by this teal-blue bowl of water at the same time that I felt in awe of the mountains surrounding it, and me. It was as if they had parted to form a pool that, on the surface, appeared as reflective and angelic as a stain-glass window in an old church. It's scary not knowing how deep they go, what's beneath the surface, what happened to make it so. But to be perfectly honest, it was a life-changing experience. You'll never swim in a regular ol' pool without flashing back to that time you swam in a gorge. These vistas are a part of history - gorges have existed for centuries, still and never-faltering, the wildlife and landscape around them growing and flourishing while these nature-made pools stay constant. Some are meant for diving, others for floating; some have water so black that you feel as though you could walk on it like a paved road, others so blue and clear that you can see your toes moving idly beneath you as you swim. Some fade from brown to black to grey, others remain a consistent blue-green reminiscent of sea glass. You may even spot a few fish, new flora or wildlife you can't see "at home." What swimming in a gorge does is offer you a look at nature that says, "Here it is, in all its glory. What will you do with it?" You can hike trails and camp on a mountain, but floating aimlessly in a body of water which carved mountains centuries before you, your view of nature, your perspective of it, changes. 

What is essentially a naturally-occurring pool is not only a great way to relax and cool down after hiking or camping in the summer's sweltering temperatures. Gorges offer a unique look at nature, a flashback to a time when it was undisturbed, unencumbered by man. They make you feel small, like a speck in the more wild, grander scheme of things. But really, swimming in a gorge is a surreal experience, like a hidden getaway, a magical escape. It's stunning views, beautiful water, an unadulterated view of nature at its best. 

And, just in case you need a little gorge-swim inspo, check out these recommendations: 

Cover image: Michael Matti

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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