Hidden within the heart of the Hoosier National Forest, lays one of the most spectacular geological formations in all of Indiana, Hemlock Cliffs. With steep rock scrambles, tall waterfalls, and a series of rock shelters and pocket caves to explore, Hemlock Cliffs is a must see stop along any trip through Southern Indiana. Visiting this special place, you’ll find a one mile hiking trail leading down a rock scramble into a box canyon surrounded by groves of hemlock trees and flanked by seasonal waterfalls in every direction. Heading deeper into the valley along narrow ravines eventually leads to a massive semi circular rock shelter that was once home to a prehistoric Native American settlement. Mostly visited during the summer months, Hemlock Cliffs becomes a frozen wonderland for thrill seekers willing to venture out during the bitter cold months of winter.
Hemlock Cliffs Map | Hoosier National Forest
Patiently awaiting for the perfect winter day to visit Hemlock Cliffs, I made my way through the knobs of Southern Indiana, just past Marengo Cave, and into the boundaries of the Hoosier National Forest. Upon exiting the highway, our directions led us through some of the most beautiful rural scenery the midwest has to offer. As soon as the road turned from asphalt to gravel we knew we were getting close. Once we reach National Forest Rd, I made a slight right turn onto the dirt road where the signs pointed down towards the trailhead. Completely covered in nearly a half foot of snow and ice, the going was a little rough, with our big suv sliding at times, but we managed to make the quarter mile drive without driving into a ditch.
From the parking area, you have a choice to enter the 1.2 mile loop to the left of the Trailhead Kiosk or to the right of it. The left entrance is the longer route to the cliffs, passing many small pocket caves and interesting rock formations, and is recommended for those with mobility issues. Heading towards the right entrance will take you straight to the massive rock shelters and waterfalls, but requires a steep rock scramble down a crudely cut path. I was personally more interested in seeing the more notable rock features so I chose to head right.
Something that most visitors to this place might not know is that Hemlock Cliffs is just one area of a much larger complex known as Shooting Star Cliffs. Dedicated as a State Nature Preserve in 1986, it includes three special areas within the Hoosier National Forest: Hemlock Cliffs, Potts Creek, and Oil Creek. Nearby Potts Creek is the site of Potts Creek Rockshelter, used by Paleoindian Clovis hunters throughout the last Ice Age. It is one of only three National Historical Landmarks in the state that protects rock shelters. Just north of here is a hidden arch known as Arrowhead Arch within a popular area with locals known as Messmore Cliffs. Non of these areas have maps or official trails as they are deemed of archeological importance, leaving Hemlock Cliffs as the only accessible rock shelter within this section of the Hoosier National Forest.
The trail immediately begins a steep descent once you leave the parking area, leadinginto a heavily wooded valley with the sound of running water evident right from the start. With so much snow on the ground the trail is somewhat hard to see, but we are able to make out shoe prints from recent hikers and the white diamond trail blazes which we use to guide us. After several weeks of heavy snowfall and ice storms, the last two days have seen bright sunny days with unseasonably warm weather which has caused the snowy path to turn into a giant slushy. Following a short 15 minute hike we reached the entrance into the Hemlock Cliffs box canyon.
Walking down a long wooden staircase, you can make out the valley below with a nearly frozen creek snaking through the heart of it. At the bottom of the stairs is a narrow slit between two rock ledges with a crudely cut staircase running through the center of it all. During the warmer part of the year, this is easily manageable, but at this very moment the entire thing is covered in ice. A small rope tied to a tree above the scramble is the only thing stopping us from taking a nasty tumble down this cliff. Hanging on for dear life, I keep one hand on the rope while the other clutches on to the rock wall beside me. I make my way down, slowly looking for solid ground to place my feet as I try to avoid the large patches of ice and the small stream of melted snow running beneath my feet. I managed to slip a few times, but thanks to the rope I was able to quickly recover and avoid taking a nasty fall.
Once inside the canyon you feel like you are entering a whole other world. The entire cliff wall we just climbed down is covered in small pocket caves large enough for several people to fit into. Stone steps are carved into the rock path leading hikers through this area, giving it an ancient feeling. Much of the rocks we see are honeycombed, caused by the heavy weathering of iron ore contained within the sandstone. Sheets of icicles as big as a grown man hang from every inch of cliff surrounding us. Its almost as if we’ve stepped into a crystal palace made of ice.
From this vantage point alone I can make out at least three waterfalls cascading from the ridge tops down into the valley floor. The closest one is directly ahead of us on the trail heading closer to the bottom of the canyon. During the summer months, this area is dry as a bone and its possible to roam inside of the largest rock shelter here, but at this very moment the entire front of the rock shelter is encapsulated by a frozen waterfall. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Hanging over the edge of the cliff surrounding the rockhouse are sheets of icicles four feet wide by five feet long, with a waterfall streaming down into an even bigger snow cone.
The central chute within the snow cone is big enough for me to stand inside of, but be careful as this is not regular snow or ice. "Frazil Ice”, is the term used to describe small crystals of frozen mist that form near the top of frozen waterfalls and wash down to create the snow cone effect. These crystals are very fragile and often hide a much deeper pool of water below, which an unsuspecting hiker might step through, mistaking it for solid ground. Most people never get to see this side of Hemlock Cliffs.
Archeological excavations done at this site have turned up countless artifacts suggesting that Hemlock Cliffs was once the site of a prehistoric native American settlement some 7,000 years ago. It was not uncommon for groups of people to roam the region seasonally, returning to the same spot to hunt, fish, and gather, while using the natural rockshellters as temporary homes.
Studies of pollen preserved in mud and peat also show that evergreen forests once dominated most of Indiana during the last Ice Age. As the glaciers receded farther north, bringing warmer temperatures to the area, several species of evergreens such as hemlocks remained here while thriving in the cool environment of this box canyon.
With our hiking trail mostly invisible under layers of snow and ice we make our way into the deeper section of the box canyon by following along the frozen creek. Again we use boot prints from previous hikers to get a grip on where the trail might be so as to not disturb sensitive areas.
Clinging to the edge of every cliff are curtains of ice growing longer by the foot. Making our way through the maze of boulders strewn along the creek, we arrive at a small frozen waterfall. The falls are on the edge of another rock shelter curving its way another hundred yards deep into the end of the canyon.
Looking around for the best way to get over on the other side of the ledge, I find a dirt path leading up a pile of boulders along the wall of the rock shelter. This natural tunnel, created by the low hanging cliffs is even more magical with the addition of icicle sheets draping over them.
I trace the creek flowing through this tunnel all the way to the end of the canyon, to an impressive frozen waterfall. Dropping nearly twenty feet from the ridge above is a meandering waterfall, cascading over a dozen small ledges through a vertical tunnel, until finally splashing down into the canyon floor.
Its a truly awe inspiring sight. I took a seat on a frozen log, in the center of the canyon just to take it all in. I’m joined by another couple who decided to brave the cold and wander around Hemlock Cliffs to see it in its winter glory. After a solid two hours I’ve only encountered 4 other people and they were all locals who visit the area regularly. Give it a few more months when the weather warms and the wildflowers begin to bloom and this place will become a zoo with visitors piling in by the dozen.
Once you’ve seen the other side of this place, it’ll be hard not to walk around and remember where the frozen waterfalls were or how the canyon looked decorated in thousands of hanging icicles. This place is special, you can feel it the minute you climb down into it and thanks to The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service, it’ll be a place that we can all enjoy for generations to come!