Distance: 2.1 miles
Elevatin Gain: 240 ft.
There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: Summer is here.
Sweltering temperatures and high humidity have arrived, turning the scenic beauty of the northern Cumberland Plateau into a broaster oven. The hikes are no less beautiful now than they were in the spring, but hikers who are participating in the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge can appreciate a hike that involves water now that the temperatures have turned hot.
That’s where the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole comes into play.
Located outside the historic Victorian English village of Rugby, this relatively short loop trail is located along the Clear Fork River, and it visits the same spot the second sons of English gentry who once settled this quaint village visited in the late 19th century.
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole/Meeting of the Waters trail is rated moderate, but that’s mostly due to uneven footing along the river and a short but steep climb from the river’s edge back to the top of the plateau. This hike is much shorter than last week’s, and most of the others featured on this challenge, and it offers ample opportunities for hikers to take off their shoes and wade into the water — or to cool off completely by diving into the swimming holes along the way.
For what the hike to Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole lacks in terms of length or challenge, it makes up for in sheer scenic beauty. The Clear Fork is an exceptionally beautiful stream, and it’s easy to see what attracted colonists of Rugby to this place well over 100 years ago.
Throw in the historical connotations, and the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is a trip you don’t want to miss out on. Be sure to stop by the visitor center in the village before you head out to the trailhead at Laurel Dale Cemetery, where you can pick up a free illustrated trail guide. The trail has numbered sign posts that correspond with the booklet to describe points of interest — such as Witch’s Cave, an old grist mill site, and the two watering holes along the route.
From the cemetery, the hiking trail quickly descends into the gorge, which is blanketed with a beautiful forest of hemlock, rhododendron and big-leaf magnolia, parallels the river for a mile, then makes a steep climb back to the top of the plateau and follows an old road bed back to Laurel Dale Cemetery.
The Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole is less than half a mile into the hike. There, you are likely to see a few people enjoying the clear, clean-flowing waters of the small river — men and women alike.
But if this were the 1880s, when Rugby was still an idealistic colony for the younger sons of English gentry, the women would’ve been doing their swimming elsewhere. Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole was just what its name suggests: a place where the young men of the village went to bathe. When the ladies went for a dip, they walked a separate trail to a separate hole of water, which was located upstream.
Getting There: Take U.S. Hwy. 27 south to Elgin, then take S.R. 52 west to Rugby. After turning into the old highway that leads through the village, look for the sign that points the way to Laurel Dale Cemetery. Drive to the road’s end. Hike the trail in a clockwise direction, and be sure to stop by the visitor center at Rugby for a free trail guide.
Fun Fact: When the Rugby settlement began in 1880, it didn’t take the young men of the village long to discover the hole of water in the nearby river. As related by Russ Manning in his book, “100 Trails of the Big South Fork,” Rugby founder Thomas Hughes — the author best known for “Tom Brown’s School Days” — visited the colony that same year and was awakened by the sound of men gathering to make the trek to the river.
“They had heard of a pool 10 ft. deep,” Hughes wrote. “And what a delicious place it is, surrounded by great rocks, lying in a corpse of rhododendron, azaleas and magnolias.”
Nearly as quickly, the need for separate bathing holes was realized. Former Big South Fork ranger Howard Duncan related the story in his book, “Hiking the Big South Fork.” The Rugby newspaper in 1881 noted that some of them en of the colony refused to swim in British fashion, instead preferring to bathe “à la française” — which is to say, nude.
“There is to be a ladies’ bathing place on the Clear Fork,” the newspaper wrote. “It will be a great improvement for when bathing is as good as it is here, it seems horribly selfish for the male animal to engross it all.”
Be Careful For: A steep ascent. After prolonged periods of heavy rainfall, Clear Fork may climb out of banks and cover the trail in places.
Look For: A short distance into the hike, look for the “Witch’s Cave” — a rock shelter that was so-named by the colonists of Rugby in the late 1880s. It is marked by sign post No. 7.
Make it Better: Take along your swimming gear for a dip at the Gentlemen’s Swimming Hole! Be sure to explore Historic Rugby, perhaps having lunch at the Harrow Road Cafe, before you leave the village.
Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and Instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be eligible for a drawing.
Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, please pack it out!