I was drawn to St. Paul Cliffs after stumbling upon an article that featured the best swimming holes in the country. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, and this year is not proving to be a good year for travel. I noticed that one of the listed swimming spots was within a two-hour drive from Cincinnati, so I decided to check it out.
St. Paul Cliffs is a local favorite place for swimming, but largely unknown outside the small town of St. Paul. It is an old gravel pit that is filled with water. Without seeing pictures, it may sound a little unappealing, but don’t despair. This privately owned swimming hole is as photogenic as many of its patrons. While they do not publish the year that they opened for business, I heard many people speaking of multiple generations visiting there over the years. Indeed, the size of the nearby trees gives indication that it was not an active gravel pit in recent memory.
It is important to note that the facility does not have lifeguards on staff. The signs are clearly posted. To gain entry, visitors must sign a waiver prior to admission. Their website has a printable form so you can fill it out at home and avoid a wait. Due to the nature of the place, there are certain inherent dangers and the management just wants to avoid any lawsuits.
Once there, you will encounter numerous rules that may seem trivial and unnecessary, but, again, it is to protect the owners from lawsuits. The most rigorously enforced is their alcohol policy. First of all, they do not allow any hard liquor into the park. This is understandable considering the layout of the swimming hole. Second, you cannot bring any glass bottles. Any such containers will be confiscated and held until your departure. We found this out the hard way, but to our surprise and relief, each one of our bottles was present and accounted for when we left. Management also strictly enforces the areas where alcohol may be consumed. For those people (our group) who wished to float around with a drink in their hand, this was particularly disappointing. It actually didn’t matter to us because it was confiscated at the entrance anyway.
Once you get past the rules, however, I suggest taking a moment to absorb the surroundings. The crystal clear water possesses a cool blue hue reminiscent of the Caribbean. There is a walking trail around the pit, which is about a quarter mile long. As you traverse the pathway, you begin to realize why the management is so strict, especially with the alcohol rules. The lake is an oblong shape, and the end, closest to the entrance of the park, has the lowest cliff height. A slight upgrade to the terrain makes the walls of the far side of the pit considerably higher. As you walk to the other side, you pass several jumping and diving platforms. At the far end of the pit there is a jumping platform (the signs warn only feet first) that is a 40-foot drop. As you make your way around the lake, you can swing out over the water on a rope and drop in. A little closer to the entrance is a zip line where you also drop into the water. It is easy to understand why the management is so strict on alcohol consumption, while permitting it at the same time.
The easiest way to get into the water is via one of several platforms, especially if you do not fancy jumping from the cliff or dropping from the zip line. The one nearest the entrance is at the bottom of a gentle slope, so there are fewer steps to descend. While the water is not clear by Caribbean standards, it is not completely murky either with about a 10-foot visibility. The lake is fed by a nearby stream via underground springs. The surrounding limestone acts a a filter and lowers the acidity of the water, giving it the distinctive hue.
While alcohol on the docks or in the lake is prohibited, flotation devices are not. The park even provides an air compressor for those who wish to bring larger floats. Lounging on a float or raft at the case of the cliffs in the beautiful turquoise water really does create the impression that you are relaxing somewhere tropical.
While the admission price is a little steep ($12 at the time of writing this article), it is worth experiencing at least one time. Whether this is a place to return repeatedly is an individual choice.