Geologic marvels, panoramic views, swift-flowing streams and plunging waterfalls are all part of the charm.
But that’s not all there is to see at Clifty Falls State Park.
There are fossil beds, a railroad tunnel, assorted wildlife and acre upon acre of dense hardwood forest.
To take it all in, all you have to do is hike. A lot. Up and down canyons, across streams, through woods and along the rims of steep cliffs.
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If that’s your idea of hiking and you want to see a truly unique part of Indiana, Clifty Falls is the place for you.
Nestled on bluffs above the Ohio River in historic Madison, the 1,519-acre park is renowned, as its name implies, for an array of waterfalls. But it is also home to more than 14 miles of hiking trails, most of which are anything but a walk in the park.
Blazed through canyons, stream beds and woods, the rustic paths challenge footing, endurance and, in some cases, tolerance of heights. If that doesn’t scare you, hydration and sturdy boots are highly recommended.
“We probably have some of the most rugged trails in the state,” said Kristie Ridgway, interpretive naturalist at Clifty Falls. “A lot of that is due to the elevation change within the trails. A lot of our trails not only follow the rim of the canyon, but some connect the bottom of the canyon to the top of the road.
“There are large elevation changes, so you can expect staircases and beautiful rock formations.”
And, of course, waterfalls — four major falls and a handful of smaller ones scattered throughout the park.
Forged during the last Ice Age, the four named cataracts are Big Clifty Falls, Little Clifty Falls, Hoffman Falls and Tunnel Falls. By breadth and volume, Big Clifty is the largest but has the shortest plunge at 60 feet. Tunnel Falls has the tallest at 83 feet, followed by Hoffman Falls at 78 and Little Clifty at 60.
During rainy seasons, in particular, the falls are priority hiking destinations.
“That’s probably our biggest draw, far and away,” Ridgway said. “They are precipitation-dependent, so the best times to view them are in the spring and fall, when we’re getting the most rain.
“If you really want to see them moving and roaring, come not long after, very quickly after, a rainfall.”
Although the falls are the signature attractions, they are not the sole attractions.
Hiking in and of itself is a compelling draw.
Of the park’s 10 trails, four are classified as “rugged.” Two are “very rugged,” and two are “moderately rugged.” Only one is classified “easy.”
Interestingly, four of the five most rugged trails — including the two “very rugged” paths — have links to history. They are part of a long ago project to build a railroad through the canyon.
In 1848, Ohio politician/businessman John Brough bought the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad from the state of Indiana. The purchase was contingent on the construction of a new, more direct line from the Ohio Valley to Indianapolis.
Four years later later, work began on what came to be known as “Brough’s Folly” — a failed $300,000 attempt to carve a railroad, replete with tunnels, through the canyon of what is today Clifty Falls.
Relics of Brough’s Folly, such as large quarried rocks, stone steps and trestles, can be spotted along Trails 1, 3, 4 and 5. The most conspicuous and popular remnant is a 600-foot long tunnel on Trail 5. The dark, muddy cave-like feature can be hiked — with a flashlight — from May 1 through Oct. 1. It is closed annually from Nov. 1 to April 30 to facilitate bat hibernation.
Another of the park’s “non-waterfalls” hiking attractions are vast fossil beds cemented in streams and canyon walls. The fossils, mostly prehistoric sea creatures that thrived when southern Indiana was the floor of a shallow ocean, can be observed but not collected.
“We have a rich geologic history here in the park, so a lot of folks come here if they’re interested in fossils,” Ridgway said. “A lot of the viewing is done down in the creek. That’s a hot spot for them. They’re from the Ordovician and Silurian periods, so they are about 450 million years old.
“It’s a wonderful window into what the world used to look like.”
HITTING THE CLIFTY FALLS TRAILS
Trail 1 *(Rugged, .75 miles): Starts at Nature Center parking lot and leads to observation tower overlooking Ohio River; then follows canyon wall to Clifty Creek; long, steep grades in and out of canyon.
Trail 2 (Very rugged, 3 miles): Primarily the bed of Clifty Creek. One way in with no outlet; access in and out of canyon is via connecting trails 1, 4, 5 and 8. May be impassable during times of high water.
Trail 3 (*Rugged, 1 mile): Long grade descends to mid-canyon, then follows along canyon wall, followed by steep grades to Poplar Grove.
Trail 4 (*Very rugged, .75 miles): Starts at Hoffman Falls and follows to falls overlook; follows canyon to Lilly Memorial with a spur that connects to Clifty Creek; long, steep grade staircase at Lilly Memorial.
Trail 5 (*Rugged, .875 miles): Starts at Lilly Memorial with long, steep staircase to mid-canyon; follows canyon past railroad tunnel entrances to Tunnel Falls; spur connects to Clifty Creek.
Trail 6 (Moderately rugged, .5 miles): Rocky footing in places, starts at Hickory Grove and follows below canyon rim to Lookout Point.
Trail 7 (Moderately rugged, 1.25 miles): Starts at Clifty shelter and follows past Little Clifty Creek, along rocky path, to Lookout Point; passes through upper Little Clifty Creek gorge.
Trail 8 (Rugged, 4.5 miles): The longest trail in an Indiana state park, it starts at the north gatehouse; follows along Clifty Canyon, with steep grades that lead to Clifty Creek at north and south ends of trail.
Trail 9 (Moderate, 1 mile): Starts at campground and ends at nature center.
Trail 10 (Easy, .75 miles): Starts at swimming pool and affords views of old field ecology.
*Brough’s Folly 1852 railroad path
SOURCE: Clifty Falls State Park
What: Clifty Falls State Park
Where: 1501 Green Road, Madison
Hours of operation: Open year-round
Activities: Hiking, camping, swimming; railroad tunnel open from May 1 to Oct. 31.