Clifty Falls State Park, IN 9/08/19

Trails: Trail 7, Trail 5, unnamed connector trails to several waterfalls

Length: 1.5 miles


After a good long sleep, we packed camp and made the hour’s drive over to Madison, Indiana to see Clifty Falls State Park, one of the spots we talked of exploring the last time Robin and I were up visiting. Instead of hitting the trails, though, we hit the town first, exploring some of the downtown shops including the cool Village Lights Bookstore. After lunch at Downtowner and watching the barges push down the Ohio River, we hopped over to Clifty Falls State Park, located next to a giant coal fired power plant. Clifty Falls is known mostly for it’s waterfalls, which range 60 to over 80ft tall. Equally impressive are the long, deep canyons that encompass them. Brough’s Folly is the other attraction at the park, being a failed attempt by John Brough to carve out a railroad tunnel to connect lines and mitigate a steep incline approach to the city. It was abandoned instead, and closed for many years, but now seasonally open for hikers to explore.

Pulling into the visitor’s center and lodge at Clifty Falls brings the oddest backdrop for a park lodge I’ve ever seen. You’re staring straight at the three towers of the coal plant overlooking the Ohio River. A sign outside the Inn told the history of the state park, built in 1924, where the local paper hailed it’s “vistas are superb and the panoramas not excelled in the Rockies”. The original inn was damaged beyond repair during the Super Tornado Outbreak of 1974. After pilfering the gift shop and studying the trail map, we decided in essence of time and energy to not do a long loop, but hit up multiple trailheads and just see the individual falls instead. Some of the trails were damaged, and doing what we wanted to do would have meant hiking 7-8 miles. I didn’t have that kind of time before the drive home. We drove to the north end of the park, deciding to start with the namesake Big Clifty Falls that’s just off of Trail 7. Starting from the playground and large parking area, it’s a paved concrete path that borders the top of the canyon, leading shorting down to an overlook largely obscured by trees, but with an interesting stone wall. The top stones in the wall, all turned sideways, are loaded with shells and marine fossils. Big Clifty Falls is 60′ high, and it was amazing to look at the depths of the canyons here. It’s nothing like what I expected to find. Last year we explored a much smaller falls just over the river into Kentucky, and that one, at 25′ or so, was amazing to me. Big Clifty Falls itself was nothing but a trickle, a disappointment considering the nice flow at a falls we saw the day before at Charleston State Park.

Much of the start park’s stream drainages here are set aside as additionally as the Clifty Falls Nature Preserve. The geologic history behind the falls dates to when glaciers cut the channel that became the Ohio River. The falls have been slowly eroding (a sign says at the rate of 1′ every 50 years) upstream. A lot of other state parks in Indiana seem to practice the same kind of thing, offering additional protections almost the equivalent of wilderness areas within their boundaries. The only way to access the base of the falls is a long hike up from Trail 2, which is what I want to do next time. Viewing from above is nice, but it’s down in the canyons where the secrets and fun things are.

A center garden area in a bit of a roundabout walkway beside the overlook had other signs and a monument dedicated to the 100 year anniversary (2016) of the state park system in Indiana. It also talks of Richard Lieber, the founder of Indiana State Parks, and the purchase of McComick’s Creek in 1916. In addition to that centennial celebration in 2016, a memorial for the Indigenous tribes of the state was placed here as well. At the far end of the overlook there’s a large sign warning hikers not to cross a wooden fence that’s joined. There’s no way there’s a trail here, just a sheer bluff. You can almost see the upper cascades before the free falling section of the falls, but again the foliage cuts it off. The trail then turns to a dirt and gravel path, hemmed in by fencing, leading to a set of four flights of stairs down to where the trail splits. We ventured to the right, passing large rock formations and little bluffs about 12′ high. Reaching a point with a good overlook down the canyon, the trail splits again, and we kept right, descending stone steps beneath part of the towering rock wall. This led to a wooden slat trail bed with the same style wall built as above that rounded a little bit of a bend before reaching a concrete block wall that again said “no hikers beyond this point”. You’d literally have to climb over the wall dangling over the steep hillside here to get around it. It did offer a better view of the falls, which still needs the leaves off and more rain. You can see part of the plunge pool here and all of the cascades, and the free fall section pretty good. Behind the falls was some sort of plants with white blooms way too far for the camera to pick up clearly.

We backtracked, making our way to a large bounder called Cake Rock because it literally looks like a slice of cake. How it is still managed to remained stable at the angle it’s tilted on the edge of the bluff is a marvel. Opposite Cake Rock were a number of wildflowers, including goldenrod, alum root and a number of ferns enjoying the weathered crevices of other boulders. The trail continues on the bluff edge along Clifty Creek south to where Little Clifty Creek joins it, with Little Clifty Falls not a quarter mile upstream. The names at least refer to the creeks they’re on, not the size, as Little Clifty also drops 60′ to the canyon floor. Before reaching the falls, though, which are impossible to see from this trail, I spotted a second taller intermittent falls along the canyon rim. Erosion and trail damage has taken it’s toll on the trail junction here, and Trail 7 no longer descends to the bridge over Little Clifty Creek & Falls. There’s a longer route that does take you to this spot, which we didn’t pursue. Either way, the stream feeding Little Clifty Falls was completely dry this day. Trail 7 then makes a sharp left turn headed back uphill to the other side of the stairs we descended on and made our way out. Back on the road, we headed south, stopping at Lookout Point, which is nothing more than a small pavilion on the side of the road, but with a great view of Big Clifty Falls to my surprise. It still took a lot of zoom to get close enough to capture the water flow here.

Next stop on the trip was at Tunnel Falls, the largest falls listed in the park at 83′, but the payoff for hiking down as many flights of stairs as we did to get to the overlook wasn’t worth the view. Again, low flow and poor visibility because of foliage and the angle of the canyon almost makes it not worth it. More interesting to me were foundation remains alongside the Dean Branch itself above the falls. There’s no trail to access from the bottom, unless you venture off of Trail 2, which is frowned upon as this area falls within the established nature preserve. Like Little Clifty Falls, this canyon also sports a taller intermittent falls that was less of a trickle than Tunnel Falls. Had we known how close the Tunnel was to where were at the falls here, we probably would have walked it and taken the loop back, which is less than a quarter of a mile. Instead we took the stairs out and drove just down the road to the next trailhead. Joel’s back was giving him issues at this point, so I explored this section solo, taking probably three times as many stairs down, passing a turnoff that I should have taken. The trail map leaves something to be desired. There’s not much to say about the stairs portion of the trail. The only wildflower I passed was Jerusalem artichoke along a small section of rocky trail trail before I descended toward the tunnel opening. As soon as the trail started going downhill, it veered to the left, and I could already feel the cool air from it. While not technically a cave, at least by original design, there were some interesting parts of it that were cave-like, and it’s now closed seasonally for a hibernating bat population. A sign nearby told of the challenges of cutting this tunnel with the discovery of a hard limestone bed above softer shale, and how chose challenges ended up causing the project to be abandoned in 1854.

It was somewhere around here I realized I had left my flashlight back in the car, and I lacked the time to go back and retrieve it, so my whole walk through the tunnel was guided by the light from my cell phone. I don’t recommend this though as the floor of the tunnel is wet, slippery, and full of odd placed rocks. The tunnel height narrows in spots, and briefly sees total darkness. So much weathering has occurred at the front that if I’d wandered across it without knowing the history, I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t a natural phenomenon. Once inside, though, the channelized nature becomes apparent, and unfortunately, the human nature of degrading caves with spray paint comes into view too. Thankfully this isn’t too widespread, and I’ll throw a shout out to “James” and “Paul” who signed their names here. A spring feeds from somewhere in the cave, ending at just a trickle at the entrance. As I walked further in, deeper pools are around, ankle deep, and ice cold. The ceiling itself is almost completely flat, except for the blast marks from construction. The thick mud here clings to your shoes, and makes it hard to get traction at all. About halfway through there’s a small crevice in the ceiling, and I searched it for creatures, but found nothing more than crickets and a few spiders. It was also through here that due to the angle of the tunnel you’re in total darkness for a brief period, before the pinhole of the other end of the tunnel comes into view. The tunnel itself is maybe an tenth of a mile long or so, so it’s not a long walk. The water continued to get deeper, and I could hear splashing, finding a small falls close to the right side of the tunnel beside a 6-8 wide opening in the ceiling that spans the entire length. The falls itself was little more than a spring flowing from a passage at one end, and beneath it is a buildup of speleothem. What little is here, and the amount of time this tunnel/cave has been dormant really puts into perspectives the massive caverns and show caves around, and just how long it takes for those formations to form. And how easily they are destroyed.

With what little light I had from the cellphone light, I tried to spot bats or what not deeper in the cave, but the only things I spotted were more cave crickets, and mist covered egg sacs of large spiders. This end of the tunnel suddenly becomes much more shallower, and I bumped my head a few times before emerging back into the heat and humidity. Outside, it was easy to see the dividing line here between limestone and shale, especially the undercut weathering effects on the shale layer. Somewhere upstream was a second tunnel, but there’s no trails to it, and the ends have been sealed for over a century because of safety issues. Uphill, I stopped at a different informational sign talking of white nose syndrome, and how Brough’s Folly here has played a helping hand in keeping it at bay. Typical cave situations allow for relatively warmer climates, but because the air in this tunnel circulates, it stays cooler, and the fungus grows more slowly. From here, it was a steep hard left turn heading back uphill, passing lobelia in bloom on loose soil before reaching the odd turnoff point I’d missed when I started. Save your knees a bit and take this turnoff, hike through the tunnel and then just backtrack.

On the road again, we stopped at the Lilly Memorial Overlook, which is marred a bit by the three towers of the coal plant on the river. A plaque here is dedicated to James Watkinson Lilly, of whom there’s little information on the internet about. From what I could gather from the information on the plaque and when the state park was created, he must have been instrumental in helping get the land here preserved. The last falls on the list to see is Hoffman Falls, the second tallest falls at 78′. The easiest way to access the overlook is via a connector trail down to Trail 4. Joel sat this one out too, but this ended up a quicker walk than planned, thanks to a degree by graded gravel terraced style steps down to a platform built on a rock outcropping overlooking the falls. With all the foliage, it was again hard to see much other than the deep bowl shape of the box canyon. I could make out just a little water running to the edge of the top of falls, but that was it. And that was the end of our exploration of the state park. By now it was late afternoon, and I still had a five hour drive home. The falls may have been lackluster, but it was a great spot to end our weekend adventure around the area. I look forward to revisiting the park after the flow levels rise again.

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