Charleston State Park, IN 9/07/19

Trails: Trail 3, Rose Island (Trail 7), Trail 6

Length: 5 miles

View Photo Gallery

Originally this wasn’t a planned stop, but as I got into town a little later than planned, we decided to put off Clifty Falls State Park until the next day, and save another state park for a later date. The third largest Indiana State Park, Charleston State Park is situated just across the Ohio River from Louisville, KY, and barely a half hour from where we were camped at Deam Lake Recreation Area. The state park is reasonably new, established in 1996 after the state of Indiana was gifted land that was formerly part of the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant. The park is bisected by Fourteen Mile Creek, one of the oldest unglaciated stream valleys in the state. It’s home to a number of waterfalls and Rose Island, an abandoned amusement park that’s only become accessible in the last decade or so. Rose island is also steeped in older legends , being situated on the Devil’s Backbone, a rocky bluff that rises more than 100ft above the Ohio River. Tales say it was home to a stone Welsh fortress built by explorers led by Prince Madoc from the 12th century. There’s nothing to substantiate this claim, but one thing that can be substantiated is the presence of Native American tribes, as many artifacts and a camp area were found while expanding the boat ramps and constructing a riverfront walking trail (likely Trail #6). The more we researched it, the more interesting this state park became, so I’m glad we made the choice to visit. The only downside is the park office has extremely weird hours, and isn’t open on the weekends at all.

At 5,000 acres, it’s a sprawling state park. The trailheads here are quite spread out, and there’s a lot of driving down roads with forests that seem oddly young on either side. I suspect that’s from where mother nature is doing it’s thing re-wilding it all. We had plans to do Trails 3, 4, 7 (Rose Island) in kind of one big loop, and maybe tack on Trail 6 to see the supposed waterfalls. Once I took a closer look at the mileage and the remaining daylight I knew that wasn’t feasible. With the first half of Trail 3 paved, I’d hoped maybe that would help us some. The trail starts out as a wide paved path, not unlike most bike greenways I’ve seen, easily wide enough for a vehicle to drive, which is probably what it was originally: an old road bed. We quickly passed the trail junction where Trail 4 joins in before the trail weaves to the right. Thick patches of ragweed, ironweed, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, goldenrod and what looked like white snakeroot soon appeared in a far off clear spot, though maybe more interesting was the tall barbed wire fence rusting half hidden in a line of cedars. There were still lots of no trespassing signs around, and some of the land here in the state park is still off limits for safety reasons. We passed another old road bed joining up on the left, and I photographed older mature trees now nothing but dead trunks protruding above impenetrable undergrowth.

Another open area produced more wildflowers, with beautiful bright purple thistle in bloom, and what looked like St. John’s Wort, but was likely more likely Jerusalem artichoke under drought stress. The trail began to wind back to the left, and increased in slope pretty drastically. There were views well off in the distance from here of far ridges, and occasional views down into a stream drainage, with no way to access them. The trail became so steep that I was glad for once that it was paved, even though this is always rough on my feet. I knew then we’d have to skip some trails; the hike out on this wasn’t going to be fun if the other end of the trail was this steep. Passing a group, we chattered with them about the trails, and they cautioned the other side was as steep, and gravel too. I pretty much knew then we’d retrace our steps. We stopped for a break where there was a great view down into a a valley area, but it was too thick with vegetation to see if there was flowing water in the streams here. Ahead at the really only hard bend in the trail, we stopped at a picnic table to eyeball a social trail that looked to lead down to the river, and to look at the nearly 6ft tall yellow jewelweed. Back in Alabama, most jewelweed I come across is orange or orange-red, but seldom is it yellow. It really likes this part of the state park, though.

Continuing downhill, there were glimpses of Fourteen Mile Creek to our right, and a tall sloped hillside to our left. Lobelia started to pop up with it’s brilliant blues, and a low wet area was dotted with it and goldenrod. This area originally led to an old bridge crossing we’d find later, and the suspension bridge that was destroyed long ago which prevented access to Rose Island. We could see the “new” bridge ahead, really the old 1912 Portersville Bridge that was relocated here. Trail 3 branched off to the left up through the woods on a natural path, but our path for now was forward, across the bridge where the Rose Island Trail began. We stopped to look at a tall metal pole with a flood line marker about 10ft in the air from the devastating 1937 flood which destroyed most of the old amusement park and caused catastrophic flooding along the Ohio River. Louisville saw tremendous damage from the event. The informational sign attached to the pole spoke more about how people once accessed it, which was mostly by steamboat or ferry. The area we were standing on, and the whole little low area to our right was formerly a parking lot, and folks crossed by foot on a suspension bridge here. It was surprising how much noise the bridge made as we crossed, which Joel remarked on too. Downstream on Fourteen Mile Creek kayakers were making their way up the deep creek, cloudy from Ohio River backwash. The old concrete pilings from the suspension bridge destroyed in the flood were visible from here too, and I was hoping to find a way down to them to see what other relics were around.

Across the bridge, it looked like one end of Trail 7 (Rose Island Trail) ventured off to the left while the main path wen straight. We wandered up to an interesting kiosk, more monument with the way it was constructed, paying homage to the stone column and metal beam entrances people were greeted with when the park was in operation. For the map nerd, there’s a really nice aerial photo of the layout of the place, and almost all of the buildings pictured here, the grand hotel, the cafe, the cottages, the pool, are all supported with a little kiosk of their own and a marker showing how high the water got then. The amount of work and dedication they put into preserving the history place is pretty great, and well beyond what I expected. There’s brief mention of it’s history before David Rose bought the land and renamed it Rose Island too. It was known as Fern Grove, a local picnic, and even featured a hotel called Fern Cliff. There’s little other information regarding that era. In addition to the aerial photos, there’s also a much needed map here, which shoes an additional bisecting trail not listed on the park map. We opted to hike the exterior “alternate path” as it was longer and then planned to reroute down the main trail. The wide gravel path bends to the left here, back into the forest, or really, rather, entering a true forest environment for the first time this hike. The area is dominated by deciduous trees of all kinds, and save the areas back at the start in full sun, not many wildflowers to speak of at the start.

We quickly came to the first marker, denoting where the suspension bridge joined the island. There’s two small concrete squared posts in the ground here still, and a washed road bed of sorts where the supports stood for the bridge. There was a path here, as bordering the suspension bridge was s boat landing, and old stone still line the path most of the way down to the water. It looks it makes for a great fishing spot now on Fourteen Mile Creek. Back on the main trail, we stopped to look at an odd concrete structure, about five feet long and open ended on the top. Research after the hike showed this to be the base of a fountain, and the water was said to be kept cold by placing a block of ice in the bottom of it. It’s not the better known fountain located closer to the dance hall. Behind it, we discovered a trail leading out somewhere, and though it wasn’t marked, deduced this was the outer “alternate path” we were wanting to explore. It’s worth noting than until now we’d been on high ground the water marks from the 1937 would have been more than ankle deep until this point. As the trail led downhill, we spotted another marker out into the woods that marked it as a former cottage site. The water level here would have been almost 10-12ft deep. Stepping off into the brush, there was some evidence of the old foundations here still, but little else. Soon we were at the junction of Fourteen Mile Creek and the Ohio River, and there was a huge dirt area below we wanted to get to, but the cut bank here was 10-15ft high and no easy way down. The views of the river were nice from the point above at least. We backtracked a hair, finding a social trail or game trail that got down low enough for me to make a small hop, but Joel decided to wait and let me scout out things first. Despite very little recent rain, the floodplain here stays pretty wet and pretty weed covered, so it’s hard to see where you’re putting your feet. Unfortunately, the route around to where we wanted to go was blocked by this thick mud and fallen trees.

Back up top, the trail makes a hard left obviously because of the river, and the trail parallels the river, offering occasional views of the water, and wildflowers like goldenrod and woodland sunflowers where trees had fallen. Of interest to me was a number of shrubs sprayed with a blue-green substance, some attempt to eliminate invasive species I suppose. There were lots of little areas I wanted to get down too to explore next to the river but never an easy way. I managed to get close enough to the high bank edge to photograph skullcaps in bloom, the first I’d seen all year. Scattered throughout the woods were just a few old growth trees, several of them dead but appeared to be used by woodpeckers as a home. Soon I caught view of another tall metal pole uphill. The water depth from the 1937 flood was about 20-25ft from where we were standing at the steamboat port. The original three stone columns remain, but the sign is long gone. The one at the front entrance looks very similar to the photographs on the sign, though. We made our way down to the water’s edge, where the concrete of the old port is largely broken these days. There was a large iron pipe in the water here, but with the water so murky, it was hard to tell really what it was for. Someone had also placed a wooden stake with flagging to mark the spot. The view down river toward Louisville was quite nice, being able to see around the bend of Fourteen Mile Creek. In the far distance the bridge suspension towers for the Lewis & Clark Bridge, the Interstate Highway 265 bypass around Louisville, were just visible.

Now back walking on a gravel path uphill, we noticed a long series of columns and curved iron bars atop them lining a path through the woods, which is the main trail through Rose Island. To the right was another metal marker and series of informational signs about the hotel, and cliffs just beyond. I walked a social trail out to a point where piles of bricks were laying around. It was close enough to see the large cliffs, something I wasn’t expecting to find here. The hotel itself was spared floodwaters, as it was located on much higher ground at the base of the cliffs, but this spot with the signs was inundated with about 10ft of raging flood waters. There’s little visible evidence that the hotel ever existed, though. There were old photos from the hotel’s veranda here too, showing the path ahead known as the “walk of roses” and how different the area once looked. We attempted to match up existing trees today from those in the photos, but I couldn’t spot a single one that matched up. I don’t think the concrete columns here are original to the site, or at least the original ones pictured. The long concrete plaque at the start of the path naming it the walk of roses wasn’t apparent in the old photo either. The whole area here was of a wide flat grassy area, with just enough trees to provide shade along the gravel path itself and few older ones around. An area like this would make an amazing botanical garden, especially in conjunction with the history of the area, but it’s location and proneness to flooding I guess has proven that not a worthy investment.

The other half of the outer loop leads uphill here possibly to a marker we missed about the golf course, about the only thing I noticed on the aerial photo that we didn’t see information about. At the elevation it would have been constructed at, flooding would have been a non-issue. Instead we decided to follow the center route down the walk of roses to a spot where a row of 20 cottages once sat. Taking a spur trail out to another pole, there were a few concrete foundations around, but not much else to see, save the photos at the kiosk showing people lined up like pretty maids resting in front of them. Many of these seemed to be used as summer homes or retreats, rented seasonally. Across from this spur trail on the main path was another that led to the swimming pool, now mostly filled with gravel. At 110ft x 42ft, this was a rather large pool, and also the first filtered water pool in the Midwest, with water pumped from either Ohio River or Fourteen Mile Creek. A large wooden wall has been constructed here, with lots of ads and old articles promoting the pool and Rose Island itself.

There were interesting little humorous anecdotes, such as the quote from one of the lifeguards who’s biggest complaint was keeping people from climbing nearby trees and using them as diving boards. At this elevation, the pool would have barely been overtaken by the 1937 floodwaters, and it’s almost too bad everything wasn’t constructed above this line. Nearby, the Rose Island Restaurant would equally have survived the floodwaters reasonably well, and was huge, seating as many as 500 guests at a time. Between the restaurant and the attached dining hall and outdoor dining room, a dinner crowd could reach as high as 1,600 or more. For such a small area, that’s a lot of people. The notes also mention that many food items were supplied by the Rose Island company. This suggests a farm of some sort, but there’s really not much else on the map here to support it. We followed the trail on to the dance hall. It’s worth noting, as the sign mentions, that the only real evidence of the the building’s existence is the large rectangular slightly sunken area. Not mentioned on any of the signs is the remains of the Rose Island Fountain, easily the best preserved anything other than the swimming pool here. Inside the 10ft wide concrete basin is a circular stacked stone structure, 6ft high at the tallest point in the back. Old photos I’ve found show that it once was completely conical, almost like a volcano with the word “fountain” on top, but time and vandalism have weathered it pretty harshly. For now, a protective fence surrounds the spot. The rest of the walk down the “walk of roses” was uneventful, and arriving back at the start, we decided to venture up the other leg of the trail we’d miss to see what was there. We quickly spotted a social trail with several pit like features, which appeared instead to probably be some kind of water filtration system. The two pits sat in line headed downhill into a dry feeder drainage of Fourteen Mile Creek. Ahead, the trail put us out on the backside of the pool, where we turned around. With time slim now, we decided to skip Trail 4, skip the last leg of Trail 3 and hike right back out the way we came and have a chance to explore Trail 6 and see the supposed waterfall that exists there. Finding Trail 6 would prove to be a little bit of a hassle, though.

It’s extremely easy to drive past this trailhead, located just back of the pit toilets opposite where one turns off to get to the observation desk on the River. One could park here, but one could also park in the large boat launch/parking area further down and take a little side trail we found on the way out, but you pretty much have to know what you’re looking for. After wasting time searching (the map needs a little help, or trail signage), we parked by the observation decks and walked up the road to the start of the trail. It winds a bit at the start, mostly toward the left through thick woods. The grassy sides occasionally had golden rock, spurge and woodland sunflowers in bloom, but nothing extraordinarily different yet. As the trail started to climb in elevation a bit, a huge rock jutted out to our right, and I spend a second or two eyeballing a way to reach it. Once I got done scratching my head we found the trail continues uphill hard, leading right up to the back of the boulder. Southern bellflower, foam flower, and lots of ferns were around, but perhaps the most shocking thing that we were suddenly about 30ft up from the ground looking down at the road. The trail here is sandwiched between these two roads, and for a bit, it stays visible but traffic noise was little issue. The rocks through here reminded me of those at Monte Sano, layered, with evidence of marine fossils. Soon the trail turned to the right and began a steep ascent over uneven ground.

We weren’t expecting or prepared for this kind of elevation change. Reaching the ridgeline, we were well above the valley floor ahead. There was an odd concrete foundation jutting out from the ridge here as if there were an old building or something atop this mountain. There’s no evidence and no way to get a road up here, unless it came in from the other direction, and no other evidence of a building here. Continuing the uphill grind, there were piles of rock all along the north side of the trail in the woods. Much larger than that you find of old graves in the woods. There was still no evidence of old roads here. There were, however, occasional peeks of the river far off, and during winter, I’ll bet the views from here are outstanding. Ahead was another rocky outcropping, this one barely enough room for one person to stand on the rock and a look out over the valley. Ahead was a wide area to our left that seemed bushhogged, or cleared for some reason. There were some leafy elephant’s foot plants around in bloom, but not much else. Still getting occasional glimpses of the river, we spotted a well worn social trail out to another rocky area. This spot featured a pretty neat balanced rock out on a point, and an easy way to get down into the valley, or up out of it. The rock itself was most flying saucer in shape, perhaps 6-8ft high and twice that in length sitting on a very narrow pedestal. Past this point the trail remained uphill, if uneventful, until we reached the power lines. Reaching the powerline cuts, there seemed to be some recent storm damage that’s been cleared. The trail itself now begins to follow an old access road along the ridge, but not before passing a separate cut down the hillside. The open canopy for once made for a great view of the river downstream. It’s worth noting that I’m not sure if they’re working on these poles at the moment, but there’s at least one powerline down for the entire length of this section of trail. We stepped over it in a few spots, and I’m hoping it’s not a live wire that’s gone unnoticed.

The trail dips down through a little drainage and back sharply uphilll and out of the woods again, following the cut still. Outside of wild ageratum, there was little in bloom along the cuts, just thick grass where I picked up a few more ticks. After a quarter mile or so the power lines veer off to the north and the trail continues down into the woods. We were started to get low on light, maybe just an hour left before the sun actually set, and barely halfway through this trail. From the map and aerial imagery I knew that if we were going to see waterfalls, this upcoming drainage should be it, but there had been so little water flowing elsewhere I didn’t expect much. The trail leading down is loose and rocky at first, but Joel could already hear water rushing down below. The trail stayed high, paralleling the creek but keeping it out of view until we got close to the bridge. At this point the undergrowth beneath the thick canopy was near non-existent and I ventured off trail looking for a way down. I could see a small falls already in a slot canyon, but reaching the edge of it the 10-15ft upper falls from beneath the bridge came into view. Beneath those two were three more falls and slides before we lost view of where the creek turned. Given the shape of the rock walls and bedrock, I suspect there’s at least one more drop downstream.

Finding an animal trail down to the bottom, I walked along the edge of the bluff past the middle and third falls, hopping a fallen log to get within view of the upper falls with the bridge. There must be caves or extensive springs well upstream of here. Given what little drainage area this serves, there was quite a bit of flow on this creek. I walked down to the middle falls, only a few feet tall, and difficult to photograph as the sun was hidden more down in this little canyon. Like the upper falls, the angle of the falls was such that the water cascades down at a steep slope rather than freely falling, and adds so much character to it as a result. I carefully rock hopped downstream, getting below the third falls which was more of a small cascade. The much longer fourth sliding cascade would have been nice to view from below, but the wet rock and lack of a quick easy way down with the fading light forced me to just enjoy it from here. Further down where the creek bends back to the right is a boulder, and I think my suspicions of a small falls there is correct as well. If I ever return here, I’d like to spend as much time as possible just seeing this little canyon itself.

Catching back up with Joel, who had decided it was a little too dicey to get down into and back out of that canyon, we chatted about what I’d seen and discussed even hiking upstream to find where all this water was coming from. Just above the bridge were a few deep worn pools, and the powerline cut that had veered off earlier returned to view, crossing the creek probably no more than 100ft upstream from where we stood. Past the bridge the trail again quickly turned to parallel the creek, heading downhill over increasing rocky ground. Some sections of bluff wall began to emerge on our left, and at times the trail felt more like a reclaimed road bed than anything else. As the trail rounded to the left just a hair, I noticed a large stone structure to the side. We’d later find an informational sign that told of the challenges of transporting people and goods across the river, and that this was a site called Charleston Landing that served Harmony Landing on the other side of the river. To me it resembles ruins of an old kiln of some kind. Behind us the bluff walls rose some 50-60ft well up the hill, and there’s another stream upriver that joins that possibly holds waterfalls. For this trip, we made the hard right turn away from an overgrown road bed paralleling the river east, heading west before spotting and exploring a side trail out to a man-made point with it’s own stacked stone structure. From where we were, the water was about 15ft downhill in elevation to the river. I would have liked to had a view out across to see if we could spot the landing point on the far side, but too much of it was overgrown here.

Continuing on the trail, we crossed a bridge over the creek with all of the falls where a small cascade empties into a deep hole just before the bridge. This area would be stellar for fall colors. Upstream we could see lots of little cascades, as the creek is mostly a shallow rock filled angled passage before leveling out in the flood plain area by the bridge. Downstream the cut banks are high on the left side as the creek makes one last bend before reaching the Ohio River. Past the bridge the trail goes uphill a bit and to the left, though the land is a bit further inland from the river now. The single track path turns back into a wide gravel road, passing a barbed wire fenced off area with old relics towers from the ammunition plant era. The end of this road marks the end of the trail officially, ending at a gated entrance. From the cut grass, it’s obvious the road is still used from time to time. Between the fenced area and the end is a wooded section, where we found a small social trail leading to the boat ramp area that sits adjacent. The trees are so thick here that unless you were looking at aerial imagery, there’s no real indication of what’s just beyond. Tired, we took the short road walk back to the car, stopping to watch the very end of the sunset over the river, before hitting up one of my favorite spots to eat, Skyline (love that chili!), and returning to camp for the evening.

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