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Trail Guides

Hiking Over Million Year Old Fossils at The Falls Of The Ohio State Park

Guide to hiking in Falls of the Ohio State Park



falls of the ohio state park entrance

A forecast of rain showers would keep most people indoors, but not this weary traveler. I had the perfect place in mind to go hike even on a day like today. Just a short drive away from my home, lies a lesser known treasure trove of museum quality fossils beds that visitors can explore, free of charge!

falls of the ohio state park with louisville skyline

Located on the northern shore of the Ohio River, across from the bustling skyline of downtown Louisville, is Falls of the Ohio State Park. 

prehistoric fossil beds in falls of the ohio state park

The park is comprised of a 387 million year old shallow tropical sea floor that was once a part of an ancient inland sea. Over millions of years, sediments composed of fossil skeletons were compressed from a sandy or muddy sea floor to hard rock as the weight of overlaying sediment accumulated. This rock formation has only been viewable at the Falls of The Ohio, in the last 12,000 years. 

turbulent river splashing onto shores of falls of the ohio state park

The fossil beds are divided into lower and upper layers. The lower fossil beds are underwater for much of the year. They are exposed periodically in the summer through early winter. Luckily for us, we are just in time to catch a glimpse of this area as the high winter tide slowly swallows it up for the duration of the year. 

fossil covered boulders in falls of the ohio state park

The secret to getting the most detailed views of the fossil beds is..... you guessed it, RAIN! Let me explain. A bright sunny day tends to dry out and bleach the appearance of the fossils within the rock. One really wouldn't be able to tell a concrete driveway from the million year old corals you're stepping over. 

ancient fossils in falls of the ohio state park

On the other hand, overcast days give you soft, diffused lighting. Throw in some water to bring out the details in the rock and you'll have a sight that most visitors don't get to experience. 

mastadon skeleton in falls of the ohio state park visitors center

As per usual, I make my first stop at the stunning, 16,000 square foot Interpretive Center to pick up a map and ask the Rangers for any tips on getting the best views. Due to the high winds, the river has swollen over the land bridge connecting the lower and upper layers, so I'll be staying on the Indiana side today. With rain gear on and any sensitive electronics in waterproof bags, I headed down the zig zagging flight of steps onto the river shore.

shoreline of falls of the ohio state park

The first thing you notice, even on a day with turbulent weather, is the amount of abundant wildlife. Deer roamed not to far from the woodland edge and I noted over a dozen of the 270 species of birds that have been noted here. 

caves hidden in shoreline of falls of the ohio state park

Rock shelters big and small provide safe shelter to the abundant animals that call this place home. The fossil beds also contain willow marshes, cottonwood, and prairie grass habitats which make it a great place for bird watching.

fossil covered shoreline in falls of the ohio state park

As you make your way down the beach you'll notice the rocks go from small pebble sized limestone specimens all the way to car sized boulders. Theres hardly a flat surface anywhere and with the added rain, it can be quite treacherous if you're not cautious. 

viewing prehistoric fossils in falls of the ohio state park

The most spectacular part about visiting during a rain shower is that you get to experience the place come alive. Water, rushing down from the woodland hills, makes its way over the limestone cliffs creating mini waterfalls all around you!

falls of the ohio state park

Follow the fossil beds west to find sandy beach alcoves reminiscent of a New England coastal village. Waves crashing up against the shore give you a sense of being on a tropical island, somewhere in the Caribbean.

floodgates protecting falls of the ohio state park

All of this is possible on just a short trip, to a place millions of people drive over every year and barely even notice.

floodgates protecting fossil beds in falls of the ohio state park

These are the little side trips that get me hungry for the even bigger trips that I'll take throughout the year. Are there any special, out of the way places that you like to visit that transport you somewhere else?

fossil beds in falls of the ohio state park




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