When you think about scuba diving, do you imagine white sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and sparkling blue water? If so, you aren’t alone. Plenty of divers focus all their attention on tropical exploration. But there’s more to this adventure sport than coral reefs and warm water.
Today, more and more divers are taking the inland plunge: diving in freshwater environments far from the coast. These often challenging and rewarding destinations deliver unique opportunities for underwater photography and once-in-a-lifetime adventures in otherworldly landscapes, sometimes surrounded by dramatic backdrops like alpine forests and barren deserts. Read on for a rundown of some of the best lakes for scuba diving, plus pro tips for making the most of your time in the water.
Emerald Bay — Lake Tahoe, California
Covering nearly two hundred square miles of the borderland between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is home to dozens of diving areas. But Emerald Bay is, without a doubt, its most impressive underwater attraction. Divers here can explore plummeting granite walls, the remains of old cabins and submerged trees, and purposefully placed underwater artifacts along the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail.
The Rubicon Wall is Emerald Bay’s most famous site, beloved for its towering stone precipice. Explore this submerged rim’s massive boulders and gaze down into the abyss, with a sheer drop to over 1,000 feet. But, don’t forget to keep an eye on your depth here. You’ll be diving at altitude, where the effects of deep water on your body are magnified.
Spread across four dive sites in total, Emerald Bay’s Maritime Heritage Trail hosts a collection of historic recreational watercraft, launches, and barges, as well as interpretive and informative panels introducing them. The site of the old Emerald Bay Camp is also home to fascinating and forgotten objects from the past, including piled tires, sinks and toilets, and a Model A Ford. This area’s gnarled tree roots are a favorite subject among underwater photographers, thanks to the eerie effect of light cascading down through them.
Ginnie Springs, Florida
Northern Florida is often referred to as “cave country” by divers in the know, and this world-class freshwater site is one of the region’s most spectacular cavern diving attractions, with options to suit every skill and comfort level. Ginnie Springs is also an excellent choice for divers hoping to log multiple days in the water, with tent camping and cottages for rent and a full-service dive center on the property.
Ginnie Cavern is a massive and open underwater formation that even newly certified divers can safely explore. In the upper chamber, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of naturally illuminated and highly reflective limestone. Head a bit deeper to “the ballroom” for fascinating sponge-work — a swiss cheese-like underground formation that collects divers’ bubbles for a mesmerizing mercury-like, moving-ceiling effect.
The nearby Devil’s Spring System is home to three separate natural springs: Devil’s Eye, Devil’s Ear, and Devil Spring, often referred to as “Little Devil.” Here, certified cave and cavern divers can use lights to explore deep below the earth’s surface, with breathtaking views, intricate underwater formations, and a highly unique stained glass hue created by the mix of fresh and tannin-stained river water.
These two sites are connected by the Santa Fe River, the park’s only drift dive. Search the riverbed for supersized fossils, including Pleistocene-era giant ground sloths and other massive prehistoric mammals.
Thunder Bay, Lake Huron, Michigan
Sometimes referred to as “shipwreck alley,” this massive underwater marine preserve in Michigan is home to over 100 shipwrecks, dating from the 1850s through to the 1960s. Most were lost to collision or accidental grounding, and today tell the story of this region’s shipping and mercantile past, spanning centuries. Divers here can tour sunken hulks ranging from wooden steamboats and schooners to modern steel freighters, with depths and dive site conditions for all skill and certification levels — including technical exploration hundreds of feet below the surface. Lake Huron’s visibility can top out at over 80 feet, making it a beloved wreck diving destination for underwater photographers and videographers.
The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is best dived by boat, making it easy to hit all the park’s best wrecks in just a few days. Some of the most desirable sites here include the ruins of the Windiate, Kyle Spangler, Defiance, and Audubon — each well worth multiple tanks for internal and external exploration. You’ll find several dive centers here, each offering guided exploration and scuba courses, plus rental equipment and tank fills. And, plenty of the wrecks are easily viewed from the surface, with options to canoe, kayak, or even snorkel from shore.
Don’t leave Thunder Bay without visiting the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. The exhibits, artifact galleries, and archaeological conservation lab are loaded with insights into the region, wrecks, and history. The nearby town of Alpena also hosts a free visitor center with extensive information about the marine sanctuary, shipwreck alley, and more.
Santa Rosa Blue Hole, New Mexico
This deep sinkhole is a geological anomaly in New Mexico’s high desert, famous for its stunning azure hue. It’s an excellent location for training dives with outstanding visibility and varying depths — ideal for learning and exploration by divers of all skill and comfort levels. Like most cenotes, this spring-fed pool enjoys cool water all year round, maintaining an even 63 degrees Fahrenheit even on the hottest days of the year. This makes it the perfect place to beat the summer heat.
As you descend along this cavern’s near-vertical walls, take note of its many limestone layers. This karst system formed at the end of the last ice age, when New Mexico was covered by the ocean. Sea levels dropped, exposing the coral reef and allowing it to transform into fertile land. Then, over the course of millions of years, its porous bedrock was slowly dissolved by the combination of carbon dioxide and rainfall. The result was a collapse of the earth’s surface, leading to a deep well of freshwater.
Advanced open water divers can descend to the Blue Hole’s floor for a look at the massive slabs of limestone that litter the bottom. Or they can peer into the massive vent that blocks access to the labyrinth cave system below. On your way to the surface, relax and enjoy a hover-free safety stop on one of the training platforms, and gaze up for a fascinating look at the world above water.
Clear Lake, Oregon
Have you ever dreamed of scuba diving in a submerged forest? Some of the underwater landscapes found at this mountain lake are absolutely otherworldly, allowing divers to weave around towering tree trunks, cross fields of green, grasslike algae, and peer into “potholes,” which are ice-cold springs pumping water from deep below the earth’s surface. And, with visibility well over 100 feet, you’re nearly guaranteed to take in a few stellar views.
Diving at Oregon’s Clear Lake is easy, involving just a short walk from the parking area to a convenient shore entrance and a few minutes’ surface swim out to the dive site. You’re also likely to enjoy a restful and relaxing underwater experience, as there are no motorized watercraft allowed on the lake. In addition to its fascinating topography, this site is home to freshwater fish and shrimp, with curious trout often approaching divers for a closer look.
This is one of the coldest destinations on our list, with average daily temperatures in the 30s and 40s, Fahrenheit. Drysuits and regulators designed for cold water diving are mandatory here. But, free flows and freeze-ups can still happen. So be sure that your scuba skills are sharp before taking the plunge. You should also keep in mind that this is an altitude dive, so the effects of depth on your body are more powerful.
Dutch Springs, Pennsylvania
This spring-fed, 50-acre lake in Pennsylvania is home to a wide variety of submerged attractions, including sunken vehicles and aircraft, underwater training platforms, and unusual artifacts from the site’s mining and concrete-making past. This thriving aquifer is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, with local species like bass, perch, rainbow trout, and palomino trout, often curiously approaching divers for a closer look. And, thanks to its differently designed areas for students and certified divers, everyone can explore well within their comfort zone.
Visitors at Dutch Springs are in for a pleasant surprise when it comes to planning their stay. On-site camping and RV parking make it easy to roll out of bed and onto the morning’s dive site. And, with equipment rentals, tank fills, dining, and heated changing rooms right by the water at Dutch Springs, you’re guaranteed to find all that you need without ever leaving the park. This is a nice destination for groups with non-divers, as self-guided watersports like kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkelling are available all day long.
While the visibility and surface conditions are generally good at Dutch Springs all year round, students will still need to keep weather and water temperature in mind. During the coldest months, this quarry can deliver quite a chill with some sites dipping as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit at depth. This makes regulators rated for cold climates and drysuits all but mandatory.