Temperatures in the South can be downright unbearable during the summer months: The heat and humidity have the potential to send even the most dedicated outdoor lovers fleeing toward the nearest air-conditioning. But in the dog days before AC, locals living in warm climates beat the heat during the hottest months with a dip into a cool body of water.
That simple strategy is, of course, still a perfect way to cool off on too-hot days—and an old-school throwback to simpler times. With record-high temperatures already making their mark this season, here'a a refreshing roundup of the best lakes in Alabama for a summer dip. Some also feature hiking trails, camping, and other adventures—and working up a sweat beforehand all but guarantees that slipping into the water will feel even more heavenly.
Turning off from the main drag on the way to this lake northeast of Tuscaloosa, you can almost feel the stress dissipating from your body upon spotting the brown sign pointing the way. “Welcome to Lake Nicol,” the sign says, and with it comes a slight drop in temperature with the elevation change as you spot the sky and trees in the reflection of a large body of fresh water.
The cliffs along Lake Nicol's edge make for scenic spot for lounging or sunbathing, while the crystal clear water is a remarkable contrast to the summer temperatures. Students and locals alike take advantage of the hammocks along the lake’s rim, fishing off the docks, and hiking the wealth of trails at the lake. Join them, as often as you can.
Insider tip: Don't rely on directions from Google maps, which are inaccurate. Here's how to get there: From the intersection of McFarland Boulevard east and University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, proceed north on McFarland for 1.6 miles. Exit onto Rice Mine Road, and follow Rice Mine Road northeast for 2.6 miles. Turn right on New Watermelon Road (CR 87) and follow for 4.6 miles. Turn right onto Watermelon Road (CR 47) and continue for 0.7 mile, turning right on Nicol Park Road, which dead-ends at the park in 1.2 miles.
Little River Canyon
Even though little Little River Canyon isn't a lake, as far as top-notch conditions for a summer dip, it's a must-do. (It even earned a shout-out on a worldwide list of top swimming holes in The Huffington Post .)
The scenic highlight of the Little River Canyon National Preserve in northeast Alabama, the canyon beckons with large, sandstone rock formations around pools of water that are perfect launching pads or lounge areas. (Don't forget to check the depth of the water prior to any cannonball.) In addition, there are waterfalls, scenic vistas, plentiful swimming areas—and did we mention rope swings?
The southern portion of the state has many locations that are perfect for cooling off with a refreshing swim. Lake Shelby, found within Gulf State Park, is one of the best in the area and offers visitors everything from bike paths to zip lines to white sand beaches.
The 900-acre freshwater lake is extremely close to the gulf, which also means that it is possible to spot alligators and other reptilian wildlife. Gulf State Park can be reached via Highway 135 east of Gulf Shores. While primitive and RV camping are available, there are many other options when it comes to overnight rentals and lodging.
A small entry fee is charged, but it's well worth it for to soak up the blissful lakeside relaxation sure to follow. This location also caters to family-friendly outings with picnic areas and a no-alcohol policy.
Lake Martin (Wind Creek State Park)
Wind Creek State Park boasts the largest state-run campgrounds in the United States. But the real bonus is that many of the 586 campsites are located on the waterfront of Lake Martin , a 41,000-acre clear water reservoir perfect for aquatic activities. If the beach life is calling to you (and a trip to an actual beach isn't doable), Lake Martin is just the spot to beat the heat this summer.
The park is located south of Alexander City on Highway 128 north of Montgomery and Auburn. A map is available through the Alabama Parks website and details the many campsite locations, beaches, and trail networks.
One particularly popular destination within the greater Lake Martin area is what locals call "Acapulco Rock." This graffiti-covered outcrop of stone juts out from the water nearly fifty feet, and some risk-taking youngsters have been known to leap from its edge into the water. It's highly recommended to think twice before making this leap of faith, as there have been documented incidents of serious injury, but it is worth checking out as a site for socializing and sightseeing.
Another popular destination is known as "Chimney Rock," which is often confused with Alcapulco Rock. Chimney Rock, which resembles a chimney, is located on a small island near the waterfront and is also worth checking out. (But refrain from the high dives.)
Named after the first and only female governor of the state of Alabama, Lurleen Wallace, the park is conveniently situated a short drive from downtown Tuscaloosa. Wallace is known for having played a crucial role in helping sustain state parks across Alabama, and this park is a fitting memorial to her public service. In addition to the beaches and paddleboat rentals along its 250-acre namesake body of water, Lake Lurleen State Park is also home to good mountain biking trails and hiking —a great way to really earn your swim.
Whether you bring a tent, fishing pole, or just a group of buddies, sublime summer adventures await here. Bonus for those who'd rather just relax: plenty of hammocks, ideal for swaying in the shade with a good book.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.