Jeffreys Cliffs Conservation & Recreation Area is a 230 acre Nature Reserve in Hancock County, Kentucky. Situated along the southern bluffs of the Ohio River, this nature reserve contains towering cliffs, caves and several rock shelters, including Kentucky’s largest, Morgan Cave. Having first gained public attention with the discovery of the Jeffry Cliff Petroglyphs in the late 1980’s, the area has long been a favorite destination for treasure hunters and adventure seekers alike. Hiking along the 2.1 mile Lower Trails Loop takes visitors on a journey exploring the areas most significant rock formations, including Morgan and Tobacco Cave.
Lower Trails Map | Jeffreys Cliffs Conservation & Recreation
As one of the newest nature reserves in Kentucky, it has garnered the attention of every outdoor enthusiast throughout the tri-state region. Open only on Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays, the trails get full early so plan your trip accordingly. We arrived shortly before noon on one of the sunniest days we’ve had all winter long, to take up the last spot in the parking lot. Walking up to the trailhead, we got our first glimpse of the areas trail system. Two large map print-outs of an AllTrails hike, highlight the two distinct routes. While the Upper Trail focuses on climbing and hiking the upper bluffs surrounding Jeffreys Cliffs, the Lower Trail follows along the base of the cliffs.
Following the contours of these incredible, white sandstone cliffs, the trail dips in and out of two small forested valleys where the large rock shelters are located, making two small loops attached to one larger loop. In order to reach the cliffs we first have to hike out of the bottoms near the parking lot and get up on higher ground. We noticed while leaving our car and walking up to the trailhead, that the surrounding forest was flooded almost up to the road.
From here, we are only several short miles from the Ohio River, in an agriculturally rich area known as Skillman Bottoms. Seasonal flooding is the norm around these parts, contributing to the agriculturally rich soils that have made this area attractive to inhabitants for thousands of years.
After trekking up the hillside onto dryer ground, the cliffs emerge slowly as if growing out from the ground until they are just smack in front of you. Right away we encountered the trail intersection leading to Tobacco Cave and Mossy Gap, with Morgan Cave located straight ahead at the end of a cul de sac. Walking alongside these massive structures its hard not too notice how different the cliffs appear than those on the far eastern half of the state in the Daniel Boone National Forest. In fact, this area has more in common with the southern halves of Illinois and Indiana than it does with the rest of Kentucky.
As part of the Caseyville Formation, the rocks here are made up of thousands of layers of built up sediment from what was once the bottom of an inland sea. The ripple marks that give the rounded knobs their iconic shape were created by waves swiftly passing over the rocks as the sea began to disappear.
During that period, the landscape was faced with millions of years of erosion creating the deeply dissected dip slopes and high knobs we see today. On the way to Morgan Cave there are a few side paths that lead to smaller cliff overhangs and boulder pileups worth exploring if you get the chance.
At a certain point the trail seems to just disappear behind a mound of dirt as it takes a dip into a small ravine. Curving around several trees, you work your way down into a creek with a wet weather waterfall streaming right beside the trail. Suddenly the ground beneath your feet transforms from muddy-brown dirt to heavy red sand. If I didn’t know any better,
I would have thought I was in the deserts of the Southwest, not Kentucky. The approach to Morgans Cave is partially hidden by the creek and boulder field on your right and the cliffs on the left, but when you first see it, it’ll leave you dumbfounded. The scale and enormity of the rock shelter is hard to describe without seeing it firsthand. Pictures don’t do it justice.
The best example I can think of is imagining someone taking a scoop out of the side of a cake with their bare hands. At approximately 240 feet wide, 180 feet high, and 150 feet deep, it is regarded as the largest rock shelter in the state. It is said that the entire Hancock County Judicial Center Building could easily fit inside of this massive cavern. Checking out some of the large boulder piles in the center of the room, we noticed what looked like mud nests stuck to the front of several rocks.In fact these nests belong to Mud Dauber Wasps.
The female wasps gather mud to build their tube shaped nests with several chambers inside for her eggs and food. They’re not aggressive, but will attack if threatened so keep your distance. While the central area of Morgan Cave is a giant sandbox, a small trail following the cave walls, weaves in and out of a complex maze of rubble from one end to the other. On either side are smaller chutes leading to tiny cave rooms deeper within the structure.
During the Civil War, nearby Hawesville was a hot bed of action between Union troops and small bands of Confederate fighters. Devolving into guerrilla tactics of hit and run skirmishes, Confederate troops led by Captain Bill Davison, burned courthouses and terrorized areas in western Kentucky all along the Ohio River between 1864 and 1865. During that time, legend has it that they used Morgan Cave as a hideout to evade pursuing Union troops. With so many smaller caves and shelters in this valley to squeeze into and disappear, its not hard to see why they chose this place. On our visit, there were hikers spread out in all directions exploring the many small, man-sized chutes surrounding the entrance to this rock shelter.
Leaving Morgan Cave we retrace our steps back to the Mossy Gap intersection and hang a right up the hill towards Tobacco cave. Making your way up and over this ridge, follow the blue arrow trail markers until reaching the start of the Tobacco Cave Loop just at the bottom of the ridge. The trail is small so keep an eye out for the wooden sign or you’ll walk right past the intersection. If you make it to the footbridge, you’ve gone too far.
There are numerous small caves along this trail to squeeze into and explore as well. Some are only two feet deep while others lead straight through to the other side of a rock pile. Its a popular spot to find kids playing as the caverns are the perfect size for them to wedge their tiny bodies through. We weren’t sure if any of these were Tobacco Cave, so we kept trekking along following the blue arrows hoping to see some sort of sign.
Following a few uphill climbs we reached the top of a boulder pile to find the tobacco curing racks of Tobacco Cave, a hundred yards ahead of us. Its location, at the end of this box canyon, lies below a massive cliff overhang with two caves and a rock shelter. As this area is prone to flooding, part of the trail is made up of foot bridges spanning some marshy areas. The first rock shelter you pass is about 6 feet high in the center, by 32 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Its deceptively large and could easily host a large group of people. With evidence of prehistoric settlements all throughout this area, theres no doubt in my mind that early peoples would have used the safety of this cavern as shelter.
Walking into Tobacco Cave, its impressive to see such a simple structure built on such a large scale. Extending from end to end and nearly halfway up the rock shelter, this curing rack would have been an essential instrument in the production of Kentuckys’ most valuable cash crop. Tobacco is as American as baseball and apple pie, becoming first domesticated in the New World.
The tobacco production technology you see here was originally derived from that used by Native peoples throughout the Americas. Despite the official narrative describing English settlers fleeing to North America in order to escape persecution, a lot of them were coming as entrepreneurs seeking to establish businesses exporting tobacco.
From the early pioneering days to the middle of the 20th century, nearly everyone in Central Kentucky grew tobacco. It was a crucial side hustle to the business of running a farm. Some of that rich history still exists in rural Kentucky, including here in Jeffreys Cliffs. Just past the curing racks is another small cave that reaches back about 10 feet, before coming to a dead end. The last stretch of the Tobacco Cave loop is filled with numerous side trails and opportunities for rock scrambling. There are a lot of hidden alcoves within this area that can be reached by climbing under, over, and through the various rock formations. During one of the many paths we took, I stumbled into a small space with a marked gravesite dating back to the 1800’s.
Once finishing the loop, you can chose to continue up the ladders to Mossy Gap on the right or head straight to finish off the rest of the 2.1 mile loop back to the parking area. Wanting to explore some of the rock features I first encountered on our way in, we turned back to retrace our path from Morgan Cave back to the car. Visiting Jeffreys Cliffs was so much more than I had expected, from hiking the trails to getting a chance to explore some of the local history. This place has a little bit of everything for everyone. So bring some water, pack a few snacks and prepare to lose track of time as we did, marveling at the unique landscape of Jeffreys Cliffs Conservation and Recreation Area. Until next time, see ya’ll on the trails!