Much like sibling rivalry within a family, each state of our union has a tendency to bash its closest neighbor. If you're from Kentucky, chances are you've grown up hearing a lot of Indiana bashing, so it gives me an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised to discover something wonderful just across our shared border. Clifty Falls State Park, along with The Falls of The Ohio State Park, are such places. Imagine for just a minute, some ancient mythical god-like being, taking a gigantic backhoe, and carving out a roughly 2.5 mile long canyon, that is 300 feet deep.
Then directing the flow of a dozen or so creeks into this canyon, creating impressive waterfalls over massive sandstone and limestone cliffs. Then it was covered up by a dense forest and left hidden in a tiny forgotten corner, of a boring state, no one cares to visit. This is really a tale of beauty and the beast. The rugged and jarring Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve, on the eastern half of what most visitors, coming to enjoy an afternoon picnicking, would otherwise note is a quiet and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Of course I didn't know any of this until one fateful morning, when I decided to take the Ohio River Scenic Byway northeast to Madison and stumbled across it. The southern entrance to Clifty Falls State Park is off of IND S.R. 56 directly across from the Clifty Creek Power Plant. Theres not a chance you can miss it as the smoke billowing from the immense power plant holds a daunting presence over the area, much like Mt. Doom in middle-earth. As you make the drive up the sloped road and across the suspended bridge, you're greeted by a waterfall spilling off a distant wooded ridge into Little Crooked Creek. An hors d'oeuvre, to start your visual buffet.
Following the main road, I passed the sprawling Clifty Inn, on my way to the Nature Center just up the road. Here I gathered a map of the park and took note of the trail closures. The rugged .75 mile hike along Trail 1 starts in this parking lot, traversing a meadow ridge, just past an old Forest Service fire tower. With the weather calling for sleet and darkened skies approaching quickly I decided to drive along the main road, stoping to take shorter hikes to the scenic points. As I was about to find out, there are no "easy" hikes here as the map fails to note changes in elevation.
The main road follows a ridge above Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve on the western half of the State Park, with all of the trailheads heading down into the steep canyon.
I drive to the Trail 3 parking just past the Poplar grove Shelter, taking the steep wooden stairs down a rocky slope until I reach the trail. The heavy leaf litter from beech and sycamore trees hide the ancient looking stone steps doting the slopes along this valley, tripping me every few feet. Gray squirrels skipping through the forest floor, create loud rustling sounds as they rummage in search of a last meal before winter.
I've seen only one other person on the trail so far and the company of these small rodents is somewhat comforting as I hike the last .25 mile of the 1.0 mile trail towards the fall. Every several 100 yards, there are wooden bridges, each one with its own personality, crossing over several ravines feeding into the Hoffman Branch of Clifty Creek. The little water I see meandering through the rocky slopes tells me that its been a dry week and finding the actual location of the falls might be a bit of a guessing game.
After crossing the a-frame style bridge, I start to make my way back up the ridge, zigzagging through a maze of limestone boulders, following the wood railing. There is nothing subtle about this place. An overlook perched atop one of these boulders offers the best view of the bowl shaped canyon making up Hoffman Falls.
The falls are nothing more than a trickle. I strain to even make out the sound of light trickle crashing on the rocks below, but the view of the cliffs and the Coopers Hawk soaring above, leave me excited to see more of this place. The ruggedness of the canyon is jarring.
This Clifty landmark can be found along Trail 5, on your way to see Tunnel Falls following the main road. Alternatively, the tunnel and falls can be reached via hiking the maze of connecting Trails 1,2,3,4, and 5. Leaving my car at the Trailhead 5 parking strip, I made my way down the steep cliff, descending the weaving set of stairs. Any feelings of guilt from skipping the gym the night before were wiped away after spending my morning on what feels like natures stair master.
Following the steep ridge along Trail 5, you get incredible views of the canyon and valley below. Peering over the cliff, I can make out several hikers below, trudging along Trail 2 following the length of Clifty Creek. Noise carries far within the depth and vastness of the canyon, having heard the hikers probably an hour or so before actually seeing them. This places reminds me a lot of hiking The Red River Gorge.
The opening of Broughs Tunnel is perched atop a hill, with boulders spewing out the entrance, creating a staircase of sorts. Seeking to shorten travel time between Indianapolis and the docks in Madison, a plan was devised to build a railroad bisecting the area. Work in the Clifty Canyon become so difficult that the project was abandoned altogether. This rubble is the remnant of that failed, 2 year attempt in the mid 1800's, to create a 600' access path cutting through the soft shale rock underneath the tough limestone.
As anyone who has studied Earth sciences might know, nature abhors a vacuum. Not long after the project was abandoned, wildlife adapted to cave and underground niches took up residence in this man made cave. Big Brown Bats, (yeah thats their official name), along with several other species of bats are regular visitors here, choosing to hibernate in the depths of this dry cave. The tunnel is closed from November through April to protect these hibernating creatures, which are endangered all throughout the state. Even though my rebellious self is not opposed to breaking a rule here and there I chose not to venture farther than the entrance as the combination of being alone, cloudy and foggy conditions, and having watched way too many scary movies deterred me from such action.
Continuing along Trail 5, you hike around the cliff through which the tunnel was cut through, getting a view of each end of Broughs Tunnel. Somewhere before reaching the other end, you'll stumble into a connecting path to Trails 2 and 8. The climb is steep and not for the fain of heart. At this point I can hear the sound of water gushing all around me. Creeks making their way down into the valley are pouring over the cliffs above creating waterfalls. Some gush over the top in dramatic fashion while others caress over the limestone cliffs creating a shifting curtain of water.
Take great caution crossing these streams as they rush through the trail and over the cliff towards Clifty Creek. The rocks here are hella slippery and there is no railing to keep anyone from taking a tumble towards certain death. Tunnel Falls is is a bit fuller and more active than Hoffmans Falls. The fast moving creek emptying into the falls was slowed to a trickle by logs and leaves creating a makeshift dam. An overlook positioned beside the falls gives you a decent view, but even with most of the leaves fallen, its hard to get a clear picture. Following the creek traveling downstream, are remnants of an old stone bridge that once spanned over Deans Branch.
From here the choices to continue are pretty arduous regardless of direction. You could retrace the trail back to wherever you parked and make an exhausting climb back up. Take the scaffolding set of wooden staircases here, up to the main road and follow it back to your car. So far non of these options sound pleasant.
Orrrrr make your way to the Trail 2 and 8 connection, climb way down the canyon, traverse Clifty Creek, then climb way back up the canyon onto Trail 8. Subsequently while you're down there, the hike along Trail 2 following Little Clifty Creek north to Clifty Falls and Little Clifty Falls, might sound fascinating to the masochist in you. Pick your poison, either way your rump will be sore the next day.
Having made the climb out of the canyon,I proceeded to drive north towards Clifty Falls. So far, the hiking here has felt like a HIIT workout, as the mix of short spurts of cardio and heavy lifting up and down the canyon, have me feeling short of breath. I'm thinking its time for lunch. As the grumble in my belly grew with intensity, I pulled off onto the gravel roadside, parking in Lookout Point. Sitting atop a wooden bench, gazing out into the canyon, I scarfed down an all to familiar trail lunch of smoked turkey on whole wheat, munchies, and an extra special treat of dark chocolate covered almonds.
Two fellow hikers, appearing from trail 7 just below lookout point, joined me for a quick lunch. Having begun their day at Hoffmans Falls, they were determined to hike the canyon to view Clifty Falls, and make the return trip along the main road back to their car. Seems like a common thing to do. Living in a nearby town, they make this outing several times a year, and highly recommend I return to dedicate an entire day to hike Trail 2 along Clifty Creek. Mid spring would probably be my best bet to see the full glory of the falls crashing over the high cliffs. I love meeting fellow outdoorsy people out in the sticks, they're usually some of the kindest and funniest people I've met, along with having pertinent information on trail conditions and vistas worth visiting.
With a belly full and my sense of adventure refreshed, I reckoned the moderately rugged 1.25 mile loop of Trail 7 would make for a good cap stone to the afternoon. Descending the canyon along the last section of Trail 6, you inevitably reach a fork in the road at Trailhead 7. Left is a quick shot to both Clifty and Little Clifty Falls, right is the longer route following the banks of the creek.
I chose to save the short route for my return trip and moved forward along the western banks of the creek. This hike did not disappoint, as the trail is perched above a deep ravine formed by thousands of years of wear and tear on the landscape. As the soft shale stone below is worn away by the flow of water, it erodes at the base of the limestone cliffs, creating ledges and shelters along its banks.
Chiseled stone blocks, in varying shades of green and grey, litter the hillside where small buildings once stood. A few pillars appear to be the footings of a, long gone, mid-century bridge. Making my way past a children's play field and the rustic Clifty Shelter, I found myself at a chiseled stone overlook peering down at Clifty Falls. The worn stone of the waterfall, taking on the appearance of a grand staircase, gently leads the water down and over the cliff. Even with its grand appearance, there is something soft and gentle about it.
To get an even closer look, you can follow the trail down the 100th set of stairs you'll encounter at the park leading down into the gorge. One of the coolest features I've found in any park is the man made cliff overhang here, carved through the soft shale beneath the tough limestone above. Its like having your own veranda, with waterfall views. I could babysit a cold beer, kicking my feet up on a comfy chair, all day long here! Nevertheless, I have one more sight to explore.
Little Clifty Falls
Last, but not least on my itinerary is Little Clifty Falls. Climbing back out of the cliff overhang, you'll find a network of rambling trails on this wooded peninsula, jotting out into the canyon. Teeter-tottering over the edge of the cliff is Cave Rock. This natural landmark is the size of a small two-story cottage and yet hangs on by a thread to the sloping ridge, until the eroding hillside eventually gives way, causing it to take the 300 foot tumble into the canyon.
Following the trail, I reach the network of wooded planks and bridges stretching across the ravine making up Little Clifty Falls. Why they chose to name it "little" is beyond me. The views of the canyon and creek below are nothing short of inspiring. The mostly dry riverbed, gives you an intimate view of the layers of stone that have been eroded away over thousands of years, to create the falls.
Much like the area surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park, water continues to shape the landscape above and below Clifty Falls. The Ohio River valley has been in a slow, yet continuous transformation since the early Ice Age, with the river cutting its channel 500 feet down into existing shale and limestone bedrock.
Geologists etimate, that in its one million year life span, Clifty Falls has eroded over two miles upstream from the banks of the Ohio River. It continues today, receding at the rate of one foot every fifty years.
Even in the dim, foggy light of late fall, visiting this canyon will leave you awe struck. This upcoming spring, I plan on returning to hike the rugged, three mile Trail 2 along Clifty Creek. With the spring rains, fresh greenery and return of the canyon wildlife, I'll get a chance to experience a different side of Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve within Clifty Falls State Park. Now I have to remember where I left my car!
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