Hemlock Cliffs Trail | 1.2 Miles
Hemlock Cliffs Trail Map | Hoosier National Forest
Hemlock Cliffs Location | Google Maps
I am always looking for the next opportunity to find some “new to me” waterfalls or even simply to see one that’s normally dry, get brought back to life. After receiving nearly 15 inches of rain over the course of 2 days in the Southern Indiana region, I had a hunch that this would be a great time to chase some waterfalls. I chose to explore the deep canyons of Hemlock Cliffs, as it has one of the highest clusters of possible waterfall locations in a relatively small area. With rain gear in tow, I headed off towards the heart of the Hoosier National Forest for a day of exploration that would make me see this special area with a newfound sense of wonder.
*Before we begin, an important note on exploring sites of archeological importance; Pot Hunting, or the act of digging for archeological artifacts on public/federal lands, wether for personal enjoyment or to sell on the private market is illegal. Not only that, but the simple act of digging in these areas does more harm than good by destroying whatever little evidence there may be of prehistoric peoples and their way of life. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 carries with it some steep penalties of jail time and fines which are no joke! Remember to always practice Leave No Trace Principles when exploring the outdoors.
The plan upon arriving at Hemlock Cliffs was to follow along the main trail and hike up any tributary I found with a sufficient enough water source in hopes of finding a major waterfall. All of that went out the window as soon as I merged off Hatfield Rd onto National Forest Rd while entering Hemlock Cliffs. At that very moment, I happen to turn my gaze towards the cliffs on the right side of the gravel road and nearly slammed on my breaks in disbelief. An entire mile long stretch of this normally dry ravine was completely covered in waterfalls. The bright white streams of cascading water stood out in the dim lighting, acting as a beacon. Not only that, but the glow from these streams were illuminating the entrances of several large rock shelters and cliff overhangs I had never seen before.
Parking on the side of the road, I donned my rain gear and scanned the steep cliffs for a feasible way down. Off trail hiking, while exciting, also adds another element of danger when recreating outdoors, especially during a torrential downpour. With the aid of trekking poles, I slowly made my way into the ravine which lays roughly fifteen feet below the road. Luckily I found myself on the shorter side of the stream as the cliffs on the opposite bank were ten feet taller. Doubling back to where I saw the largest of the waterfalls, I was amazed to discover a rock shelter directly below where I parked my car. Ducking inside to escape the rain, I scanned the ravine directly ahead to spot another rock shelter on the opposite side of the stream. These are just a handful of the 800 rock shelters known to exist in the Hoosier National Forest. A nice stream of water was circling its way around the base of it, emanating from a large waterfall in a smaller ravine behind that.
I MacGyver’d my way across the violent stream to photograph what turned out to be a gorgeous, full flowing waterfall measuring ten feet wide by 6 feet tall. Due to all the mist and rainfall, the photos had a terrible amount of lens distortion which could not be saved. It’s part of the game of Russian roulette you play when you venture out to photograph in the pouring rain. Walking back to the opposite side of the ravine, I found another robust stream cascading from the road. This wide, fanning waterfall reminded me a lot of the waterfalls you find in Tennessee such as Burgess Falls and Denny Cove Falls. At one point, the rate of flow became so intense that it knocked a fallen tree down into the ravine, turning the nice clear stream into a murky brown color.
Hemlock Cliffs Falls
After spending an hour getting my shots and scouting some areas for future trips, I got back in the car and continued the drive into Hemlock Cliffs for the next part of the journey. Beginning my hike from the south entrance of the 1.2 mile loop, it didn’t take long until the thunderous roar of a large waterfall could be heard in the distance. Climbing down the stone carved steps into the canyon was especially tricky on this trip considering that a full fledge stream was flowing over the top of it. In fact, every cliff seemed to have some type of small waterfall emanating from it. It truly looked like a waterfall paradise. Just down the trail, I could finally see the source of that loud crashing sound, Hemlock Cliffs Falls. Teetering near flood stage levels, the entire canyon of Hemlock Cliffs was completely engulfed in water.
Hemlock Cliffs Falls
The walk down to get a closer look at Hemlock Cliffs Falls must have looked like an old Three Stooges skit. Grabbing ahold of anything to use for leverage, I would immediately slip, fall, slide down the hill some, finally get back up covered in mud, and repeat the process all over again. If you’ve never been in an area experiencing the effects of a hurricane before, standing in front of a 40 foot waterfall at full flow will give you a taste of what it’s like. The most popular rock shelter here, right behind this waterfall was completely inaccessible. Finding some of the shallower spots to cross the calf deep creek, I crossed over to enter the narrow slot canyon opposite Hemlock Cliffs Falls. Even with a well established path, this area is often overlooked by new visitors because it involves several creek crossings. It is without question one of my favorite places to explore and on occasions I travel to Hemlock Cliffs just to sit within its walls and admire its beauty.
During spring, this canyon can be a small secluded haven for quiet contemplation, but today the chaos of a two day deluge has the canyon buzzing with activity. There are two known waterfalls in this particular canyon, feeding the stream that joins that of Hemlock Cliffs Falls. The first is about five feet tall by four three feet wide and cascades off a ledge at the mouth of an expansive horseshoe rock shelter. Due to the large boulder field in the center of the slot canyon, the rock shelter appears more like a tunnel. Three different trails involving a scramble must be traversed to reach a large waterfall at the back of the canyon; a rock climb directly at the mouth of the rock shelter next to the waterfall, a scramble up the boulder field in the center of the canyon, or there’s the mud bound trail on the far left canyon wall. All are particularly troublesome under the present conditions.
Taking the middle route, I climb into the tunnel and seek shelter under the large cliff overhang. The normally dry stream bed running through the tunnel is now four feet wide and ankle deep. Looking out at the cliffs across the way, one could see a myriad of small cascades along with the main waterfall engulfing the area with water. This just isn’t something you see every day. Walking out into the center of the canyon I get my first full look at the most interesting waterfall in Hemlock Cliffs. This chute style waterfall travels through a narrow, almost vertical channel. Due to the immense pressure of the constricted space, chute waterfalls are known for being messy, noisy, and frothy. The entire area is covered by a heavy mist, giving it a magical aura. After trying out a few different comps and getting all of the shots I needed, I headed back to the main trail for the last leg of the journey.
With the stream flowing through Hemlock Cliffs being at flood stage, major portions of the main trail were submerged under two feet of water. On previous trips I’ve often noted several large trees that are downed directly across the creek and now I know why. These lay just above the high water mark and are used as bridges to cross from one bank to the other in times like these. With the aid of trekking poles to balance myself out, it took three separate crossings to reach the entrance of the main slot canyon at the far north section of Hemlock Cliffs. This area of the trail loops up the canyon and through the heart of an expansive horseshoe shaped rock shelter known as Indian Cave. Cascading marvelously over the front of this is Messmore Falls.
Messmore Falls & Indian Cave
Indiana has over 47,000 recorded archeological sites and 2,000 of them lie within the Hoosier National Forest. Though rock shelters have long been suspected of containing potentially important sources of archeological information, it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the state took an earnest interest in investigating them. During that time, excavations throughout Hemlock Cliffs and in this cave in particular, unearthed evidence of prehistoric occupation by woodland period peoples going back almost 12,000 years. Due to conflict between Native American tribes which often caused large scale migrations and integrations of smaller groups into larger ones, direct evidence of which specific tribes inhabited this site is elusive. During the time of European exploration into the American heartland during the mid 16th century, this region was inhabited by the Fort Ancient Culture, which would later transform into the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Potawatomi. Mortar holes (also called hominy holes) in some of the large boulders found at this site offers everyday visitors an opportunity to see some of this history.
One thing that Hemlock Cliffs, Messmore Cliffs, Arrowhead Arch, and Yellow Birch Ravine have in common is that they all lead out to the Governors Trace. The Governors Trace is a hard packed trail 20 feet wide created by migrating buffalo that is so old no ones yet to accurately date it. Humans were naturally drawn to set up camps in the natural rock shelters and caves near this route where they could accurately time the arrival of large game animals that would provide enough meat to last an entire season. The trace was also used by early Native Americans as a complex system of trails to travel from villages across the entire state. It’s a much shorter version of the more famous Buffalo Trace Trail, only a few miles north of here, that runs from Vincennes to the Falls of the Ohio.
Leaving Messmore Falls, I finish the last 0.75 miles of the loop by examining some of the smaller shelters, caves, and cliff overhangs tucked into the cliffside. The most notable find on this trip is a large rock shelter hidden in the far end of a ravine normally obscured by heavy foliage. A furious stream of water cutting through the hillside led me to a new to me waterfall streaming over the top of it. It was the icing on the cake of an already memorable trip. It just goes to show that a little rain in the forecast is nothing to fret about and can even lead to some fun experiences when venturing outdoors. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!