Hemlock Cliffs is a treasure trove of history within the Hoosier National Forest for its abundance of archeologically important sites that are open for the public to explore. The scenic 1.5 mile trail travels to Indian Cave and its adjoining waterfall Messmore Falls, which was once home to prehistoric Native Americans as far bas as 10,000 years ago. Traveling under hemlock groves spanning back to the last Ice Age, visitors get to experience a natural landscape that offers uniquely different points of interest during every season. With so many caverns, waterfalls, and side trails to explore along this easy scenic trail, Hemlock Cliffs has become a family favorite spot to spend a weekend afternoon admiring the beauty of Southern Indianas’ rolling landscape and prehistoric past.
Hemlock Cliffs Trail | 1.5 Mile Loop
Hemlock Cliffs Location | Google Maps
At over 200,000 acres, the Hoosier National Forest in south-central Indiana hides many incredible gems, but non as special as Hemlock Cliffs. After spending much of its early life within the forest on private property, it is one of a few sites of its kind to be opened to the public for off trail exploration. This area was originally part of a 1,300 acre parcel owned by the Indiana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Named Shooting Star Cliffs, after the rare plant found here, it consisted of Hemlock Cliffs, Oils Creek, Potts Creek, and Saalman Hollow. In the 1980’s, the non profit organization turned over the land to the Hoosier National Forest for permanent protection, while maintaining the grounds of Saalman Hollow private and open by permission only.
While the trail loop is only 1.5 miles, one can easily spend an entire day checking out the ravines, bluffs, and caverns tucked within this place. On our previous article, Hiking Through Frozen Waterfalls In Hemlock Cliffs, I discussed my visit during the middle of winter to explore this frozen wonderland. The only downside to coming here with snow on the ground is that the trail all but disappears, making it difficult to navigate much further than the first 0.75 miles where all the waterfalls are located. During a steamy summer afternoon, I could think of nothing more than immersing myself into the cool gorge of Hemlock Cliffs and getting another look at its beautiful features.
This place is easy to find and I typically use one of my favorite map applications to lead the way. With the 1.5 mile trail being a loop, there are two ways to begin this journey. If you begin at the southern entrance near the road leading into the parking lot, this path takes you directly to the main rock shelter, Indian Cave. The north entrance at the far end of the parking lot leads to the waterfalls area first, but requires a steep scramble down a boulder lined path that might be difficult for those with physical limitations. Both begin with a steep descent and end with an equally steep ascent back to the lot, so the differences are really quite minor.
As always I chose to enter along the north entrance first because its the most dramatic. Walking down the wooded slope for 0.15 miles, first timers would be confused as to what the big deal is surrounding this place. It’s not until one reaches the wooden steps overlooking the gorge 150 feet below, the tallest descent in the state of Indiana I’m told, that most visitors’ excitement perks. This is especially true once I traverse the cliff scramble to enter the canyon, which is much easier during the summer when it’s not covered under an inch of ice. With the rope that’s usually here missing, you just have to hold on to the cliff while walking down to stabilize yourself.
Now that you’r inside the upper rim of the gorge, the views just open up. It’s shocking for first timers to discover that below the canyons rim are a series of elongated pocket caves big enough for several people to crawl into. The trail crosses over stairs carved right out of the bedrock to the next big overlook above one of the bigger rock shelters here and the 60 foot Hemlock Cliffs Falls. On my winter visit, this rock shelter had a 10 foot tall snow cone with a waterfall streaming into the center of it. Even with the little bit of rain the area has seen recently, the falls were nothing more than a light trickle. To get into this area hikers can either slide down the muddy hill straight in through the rock shelter or take the hill path a little further down the trail.
Due to the erosion caused by the waterfall and creek, it’s hard to tell that a trail cuts its way through here or that it even exists at all. Plenty of visitors return back up to the top of the hill after visiting this rock shelter and waterfall, completely missing out on what I think is the best 0.25 mile of trail in Hemlock Cliffs. Standing below the waterfall looking away from the cavern, trace the creek straight into the narrow box canyon up ahead. When the water is low enough, you can just walk along the banks without having to worry too much about submerging your feet into the creek.
Once inside of the canyon, you should be able to spot the trail emerging from the creek, crossing over a boulder line path towards another small waterfall spilling from inside an elongated natural tunnel. During periods of heavy rain, both rims of this canyon are lined with numerous waterfalls that freeze over during the winter months, creating sheets of icicles 20 feet long along the entire rim.
Though it appears that the trail ends at this waterfall, it actually crosses the creek once more to the center of the canyon and climbs up over the fern covered boulders to the other side. Atop this hill one gets a birds eye view of the jagged waterfall at the far end of the canyon that feeds the main creek cutting through Hemlock Cliffs. Cascading over the canyon rim, it funnels into a natural pool before traveling through the end of a rock shelter to the small waterfall we just passed. During the depths of winter, this tunnel will be entirely enclosed by sheets of ice, resembling something you might find in the far north. This is easily my favorite spot in the whole area, especially when the creek is running at full capacity. Just on the other side of this waterfall, at an undisclosed location is one of Indiana’s largest natural arches, Arrowhead Arch.
The trail out of this little alcove picks up below the bluffs, back out to Hemlock Cliffs Falls and the main trail. Walking down the steps that run parallel to the creek, look out to the cliffs across the way and you should be able to spot numerous caves and small springs on the rock wall. A small side trail below the cliff allows access to some of these spaces, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone attempt these on days when the rocks are slick. One misstep and it’s a long way down to the bottom of the gorge. A little further along the main trail there are other caves that are a lot easier to access. Right around the 0.75 mile mark, we reach the entrance to the hidden cove containing Indian Cave, also known as Hemlock Cavern. If it weren’t for the small trailhead and signs, most people would unknowingly walk right past this small ravine not thinking anything of importance lies within it.
This trail starts at a single point and then splits into a 0.2 mile loop with the right path heading to the ravine below Messmore Falls. I take the left path which makes a steep climb to a narrow trail just below the canyon rim. This trail has areas that are washed out and it takes a little patience to traverse safely, so as to not fall off into the gorge below. Following the sound of rushing water, it is not long until Indian Cave appears in the distance. To say that this cavern is big is an understatement. Stretching from one end of the canyon to the other, it holds a commanding view of the entire area approaching it, making this an ideal place for people to inhabit.
There are signs everywhere reminding visitors that digging for artifacts is against the law and considered a federal offense. Indian Cave is one of the main archeological sites in Hemlock Cliffs, with evidence of prehistoric people residing here stretching back to the first inhabitants of North America 10,000 years ago. If you look closely at some of the large boulders near the back of the cavern, you’ll be able to find shallow mortar holes along the rocks surface. These crevices were at one point stuffed with grains, seeds, and nuts which were then pounded with wood or rock pestles into a coarse flour used for cooking.
Some of the artifacts discovered in the surrounding area includes; arrowheads made of stone and antler, clay pots, and shell beads. This gorge has seen the transformation of humans progress from the hunter-gathers of the Ice Age, to the development of early complex civilizations of the Hopewell and Fort Ancient Cultures. It’s believed that as these early cultures vanished, their culture became the bedrock for the modern day tribes of Delaware, Miami, and Shawnee that continued to inhabit this region.
After examining Indian Cave, I exited the rock shelter through the opposite end and made the scramble down to the bottom of Messmore Falls. Much like Hemlock Cliffs Falls, the 60 foot wet-weather waterfall is nothing more than a light trickle and is best viewed during spring or winter. During periods of heavy rain, you would get a better sense of how the splash back from this waterfall was able to create the massive rock shelter behind it. Even with a dry creek, gazing up at the cavern positioned midway up the cliffs, one can’t help but be in awe of this natural formation and the life it must have had thousands of years ago.
Some may think that since you’ve just visited the main attraction of the area that the rest of the hike will be pretty boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you’re done exploring Indian Cave, just head back to the start of this spur trail to join back with the main Hemlock Cliffs Trail. The remaining 0.75 miles to the parking lot explores further down this gorge through areas riffled with small trails leading off to hidden rock shelters and springs worth taking some time to explore. During spring, this is the best section to catch a glimpse of the beautiful wildflower display littering this woodland floor. Even the trees put on a show with the large yellow tinted blooms of tulip poplars appearing mainly on this stretch. Pay this same trail a visit during fall and you’ll be blown away by the vibrant leaf display captured here against the tan sandstone cliffs. Hemlock Cliffs is one of those places you can visit repeatedly and continue to enjoy for years to come.
I hope you’ll enjoy your visit to this special area as much as I have over the years, making your own discoveries and cherished memories. With that being said its important to follow Leave No Trace Principle by leaving this place better than you found it on each and every visit. Up next, I’ll be embarking to one of my favorite place in the United States, Western North Carolina. The Land Of The Sky, as it’s otherwise known, is filled with some of the southeast regions best hiking destinations. From scenic mountain views, to lush temperate rainforests filled with cascading waterfalls, this is a nature lovers paradise. Stay tuned for our upcoming series of articles and until next time, see y’all on the trails!