Clifty Falls was not the target for the day. Our original plans called for a hike northeast of Cincinnati, but the 6 AM weather forecast told of severe storms for the area and necessitated that I find a Plan B. The same weather map showed no precipitation west of Cincinnati so we looked that direction. I quickly found Pennywort Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property just outside of Madison, Indiana.
Atypical for a Nature Conservancy property, we struggled locating the preserve and resorted to asking a local resident who was walking along the road. With their help we finally located the preserve, which had minimal signage and was on the opposite side of the road suggested by Google Maps. The final complication was that there was no place that we could safely pull our van off the narrow lane and still feel confident that we could get the van back out – and there was no cell signal should we get stuck. We went on to Plan C. But first lunch, and a tasty craft beer, in Madison.
Plan C was straight forward. Clifty Falls State Park is just a few miles outside of Madison and is a hiking Mecca for the region. In fact, it was the location of our first “retirement” hike on a pleasant day with temps in the mid 50s in April of 2021 – in our pre-Footpaths days. But by the early afternoon on this date, it was heading to the mid 90s.
The notable trails at Clifty Falls are comparatively challenging, for the most part rated moderately rugged to very rugged. This is due to terrain change and the exposed roots and rocks on the trails. At times they can be a real stress test for ankles.
I chose Trail #7 because it takes hikers past both Little Clifty Falls and Clifty Falls, two of the real attractions of the park. But along the way there is a lot more to see. Starting at the Lookout Point Trailhead, this was our first image as we looked into the gorge – Clifty Falls across the valley on one leg of the “Y” shaped gorge.
To be honest, the quality of the view surprised me, as we had only been here previously when there were no leaves on the trees. I had always heard that the views were less impressive in the summer, but we found them very worthwhile.
From here the trail proceeded along the bluff on top of the gorge – sometimes with a safety fence, sometimes not.
The trail threaded its way through a mature but not old growth wood, with some impressive specimens of American Beech, Shagbark Hickory, Tulip-poplar, and Chinkapin Oak. But I was most impressed with some Chestnut Oak specimens, a somewhat rarer sighting.
On this weekday the wood was extremely quiet with only the sounds of birds and falling water. Once on the path we did not see any other hikers. The trail crossed over several small creeks, each with water heading down into the gorge to meet up with Clifty Creek, the waterway that carved the gorge.
Ellen captured this video of a small waterfall. The stone of the creek valleys magnified the sound of the water.
The bluffs gave us some outstanding vantage points to take in the beauty of the setting.
The trail allowed you to experience the totality of the gorge, taking you down into the creek bed.
The deeply shaded ravines offered a rainforest vibe with humidity, ferns, and succulents.
As we wound around a hillside we caught our first view of Little Clifty Falls, which we would cross on a well constructed bridge. Little Clifty Falls drops 60 feet to the gorge below.
But what struck my eye was the Blue Lobelia flowering while perilously perched on the face of the cliff.
Soon we rounded a corner and had this view, Cake Rock.
It harbored one of my favorite wildflowers, Columbine, which blooms orange in June. It successfully germinates in the crooks and crevices of these hardscapes and is always a striking contrast to the stone.
At this point the trail approaches Clifty Falls, but the terrain requires some structural assistance to get to the viewing points.
The stairs bring you up to the face of a small bluff that allows for some botany study – we especially liked these Smooth Cliffbrake ferns.
Around the corner we get our first, but not best, view of Clifty Falls.
From this overlook you have to double back and take the stairway seen to the right in the earlier photo. This leads to a trail that takes one to a better overlook.
But the experience can best be appreciated with video.
From here the path skirts by a small playground to the other trailhead for Trail #7. It is a loop trail with two access points.
At this point we are heading back toward the van. We are in a deeper wood and somewhat away from the bluffs, but not short changed in terms of interest. We see two eye popping berry heads from outstanding spring wildflowers: False Solomon Seal and Jack in the Pulpit.
Odds and Ends:
We were intrigued by the coloration of this insect. It is called a Red Velvet Ant, but is actually a wasp. Little did we know that it is also known as “The Cow Killer” due to the painfulness of its sting. Since it is wingless we know that it is a female – the ones that sting. They do not build their own nest but rather lay their eggs on the larvae of other ground nesting wasp species and their larvae eat the host. Not very neighborly.
Another interesting insect were several of these large millipedes that measured over 4 inches in length. They are called American Giant Millipedes. They are harmless and feed on decaying plant matter on the forest floor.
It is fascinating to watch their feet rhythmically move in this video.
These Beech Blight Aphids were found on a young American Beech tree. They really do not harm the tree, just taking a small amount of nutrition from the branches. They are covered with white cotton like hairs. When alarmed they will swing their hind ends back and forth in unison, and have the nick name of the “Boogie-woogie Aphid”. Unfortunately we did not know that at the time or we would threatened them, captured a video, and put it to music. Opportunity missed.
The photographer did a great job capturing this Great Black Wasp dragging a captured cricket back to its hole in the ground.
In August it is sometimes hard to assess how good a preserve will be for spring woodland wildflowers. One guarantee however is the presence of Hepatica, one of the rarer flowers, that will bloom a variety of periwinkle shades in the spring. We will have to add Clifty Falls to our list of places to visit in April and early May.
I was excited to see this plant flowering – American Hog-peanut. It was a New Plant of the Day when we found it at Lloyd Woods this July. It is unique because it has two different types of flowers and reproduction. This is the pea like flower that blooms at the top of the plant and will go on to form seeds. It also gets a more rudimentary type of flower on runners that lie on the ground. These self pollinate to form a “peanut” that finds its way into cracks in the forest floor where it will germinate to become a new plant. Unfortunately I could not find any of those at this time.
And lastly a photo of the very common Touch-me-not, our native Impatiens. Perhaps we take her beauty for granted.
New Plant of the Day – American Bladdernut. We found a thicket of these along the trail above the bluff. It can be a shrub or small tree. It has clustered blueberry like flowers in the spring that mature into these papery seed capsules that adorned the plant like Christmas ornaments. It is a native plant that likes moist woods and streamside locations.
In summary, Clifty Falls State Park is a worthwhile destination as it has a lot to offer. The mature trees provided a cathedral like canopy and some welcomed shade on this 94 degree day. There were nice vistas as the trail worked its way atop the bluffs. Park literature states that peak flow over the waterfalls occurs from November to June, but they were significant during our visit despite dry weather in the Ohio Valley.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns and Ellen Burns. Videos by Ellen and Patrick Burns.
Location – 2221 Clifty Drive, Madison, Indiana. It is approximately 80 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – gravel pull off at trailhead.
Facilities – at playground area.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt with exposed rock and roots. Trail #7 was listed as moderately rugged and measures 1.25 miles which was enough on this hot date.
Print Map Link – https://www.in.gov/dnr/state-parks/files/clifty_falls_trail.pdf
Benches – several were built into the stairs and boardwalks.
Picnic Tables – throughout the park.
Kids – kids 6 and over should do well. Caution given with regards to the bluffs and irregular trail surface at times.
Dogs – allowed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – there are 9 other trails at Clifty Falls ranging in length from 0.5 to 3 miles.