Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve – Yellow Springs, Ohio

Clifton Gorge was formed 15,000 to 28,000 years ago during the last ice age, when the glaciers that had advanced south from Canada to this area began to melt and recede. The runoff slowly eroded some of the softer rock and carved the gorge. The cooler temperatures of the ice age also allowed for plants that we associate with more northern latitudes to thrive there at that time. Some of those, like White-cedar, Hemlock, Red Caneberry, and Canadian Yew, can still be found there.

In the past Clifton Gorge had been a frequent family hiking spot but we had not been there for five years or so. We were trying to enjoy some fall color but the weather was not cooperating. Normally we would have just found another day to venture out but our daughter Ellen had taken a day off work to join us and she was looking forward to revisiting the preserve.

An early morning check on the weather app suggested a window of opportunity in the late morning and we timed our arrival with that hope. But the break in the precipitation was a no show.

We left the parking area with a steady light rain but after three quarters of a mile the rain picked up and we aborted the hike, heading back to the van. We went into Yellow Springs, a college town, and found lunch and an excellent Yellow Springs Brewery Brown Ale.

An afternoon attempt at the hike was more successful. Everything was wet, and the leaf and rock covered trail was treacherous at times, slowing our pace, but at least the rain had stopped.

Our first glimpse into the gorge reassured us that the drive and the delay were worth the experience.

We chose to start the hike on the North Rim Trail that runs along the bluff that overlooks the gorge.

There are precipitous cliffs with some of the trail fenced off, but in other areas you are walking along the edge.

Large trees, like this hickory, would reach above the bluff allowing one to experience a relative canopy walk.

At times the trail was smooth and clean, and at other times it was corrugated with roots and exposed rock, making study of the tree canopy a real risk.

One of my favorite findings on this stretch of trail were the pastel red leaves of this small tree/shrub in the understory. They were pretty from a distance as well as close up. I keyed it out with my tree guide and arrived at Euonymus atropurpureus, or Wahoo. What a fun name. So it is one of our native Euonymuses, not one of the invasive ones. I believe that this was the first time that I had keyed it out.

Due to our slower pace we opted to abbreviate our route and take the rocky John L. Rich trail down between the bluffs and into the gorge.

Along the way we were able to get up close to the face of the bluff, and see our only dry soil of the day.

This trail lies on the boundary between Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve and John Bryan State Park. After descending from the North Rim Trail, it meets up with the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Trail at the edge of the Little Miami River. The Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Trail follows part of an old stage coach route that went from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. It must have been one bumpy ride.

At this point there is a bridge that crosses these headwaters of the Little Miami River and allows hikers to access the South Gorge Trail that runs along the south bank of the river in the John Bryan State Park. We mounted the bridge to get the upstream shot in the title photo as well as this downstream one.

It was also here that the photographer would capture her first picture, with a telephoto lens, of the Great Blue Heron that would become her spirit animal of the day.

It was a peaceful setting which Ellen captured on video.

We headed west on the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Trail for awhile, but in the interest of time, retraced our footsteps to venture east, back toward the John L. Rich Trail, which borders the beautiful river.

The treed slopes leading away from the river and up to the bluffs were serene.

Along the trail were both bluffs and “slump” rocks – basically stones that over the millennia had broken away from the bluffs and slid down into the river valley.

The stones had a porous or honeycomb look to them, where the softer stone had been washed away by water.

One of the unique habitats that slump rocks occasionally help develop is the “Slump Cave”, where the slippage of stone results in the formation of a cavern. These provide valuable habitat for wildlife, especially bats. In the interest of wildlife management, this is the only slump cave that the public has access to.

The trailside stones acted as stages, featuring some of our favorite plants:

Bulblet Fern and Jack in the Pulpit seed heads –

Great Scented Liverwort – we have a lot to learn about this plant. We have seen it a few times in this type of habitat – on a streamside stone in deep shade. It occurs throughout the northern hemisphere. In the second photo you can see where it gets its other name – Snakeskin Liverwort.

Ellen was focused, mentioning that she was looking for some Walking Fern. These are unique ferns that can be seen in these glacial valleys and usually found on the trailside rocks. Success! The leaves are lance shaped and do not have a typical fern frond appearance.

For ferns they are unique in that they can reproduce via spores as well as vegetatively. When the tips of the pointed leaves come in contact with soil they can develop roots to become a new plant. Spores caught in the wind allow them to spread more distantly, while the rooting tip allows them to spread locally.

I turned over many fronds before I eventually found one with mature spores on the underside. It is spore formation, rather than seeds, that places it in the fern family.

Another fun plant to see along the trail was Woodland Stonecrop. It is a sedum, and like the sedums in our gardens, it is a succulent with thickened leaves.

The slump rocks also hosted Maidenhair Spleenwort, which is identified by its ebony colored rachis (stem).

Not on a slump rock, but nearby, were these native Wild Hydrangeas. They can be identified by the flower remnants. Again, very similar in structure to the garden hydrangeas.

Lastly, we saw numerous Hepatica leaves. Hepatica is one of the most sought after sightings of the spring ephemeral wildflowers and its presence reaffirms that this gorge would be an outstanding place to see wildflowers from late March to mid-May. The leaves of Hepatica are “evergreen” but will take on a reddish brown to purple color in the winter.

I mentioned that the Great Blue Heron was the photographer’s spirit animal of the day. It followed us as we worked our way upstream, fawning for the camera.

But there were areas where she was closer to us, and the telephoto allowed for better appreciation of her detailed coloration.

But the best was yet to come as the photographer captured the heron catching an 8 inch fish, and then swallowing it. First she positions it in her beak,

starts to swallow it head first,

and it then it causes a fullness in the neck as it heads toward the stomach.

Soon we got to my favorite part of this trail – The Blue Hole. It is a stretch where the river widens and the flow slows down. The photographer and I literally gasped when these images popped up on our screen when we were reviewing the photos. They look like a Paul Sawyier print and are too good to leave any on the cutting room floor. These were taken from the same position with slight changes in the settings and positioning of the camera lens.

The Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River” was famously captured in the mid-1800’s by African American artist Robert Duncanson. The original painting is housed at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

And here is the photographer’s version. Osage Orange trees on the bank prevented her from capturing the broader margins of the hole as seen in Duncanson’s painting.

Near the Blue Hole is this industrial relic – the foundation of an old paper mill. You can see the well stacked stones slightly to the right of center in this image. The river was damned upstream for a water source and straw from nearby farms was transformed into cardboard and butcher’s paper in the late 1800’s. Seeing another part of the foundation further upstream told us that this was a large building for its day.

As we continued to head upstream the river was noticeably narrower and had more falls. But the beauty remains.

I particularly liked this setting that was viewed from an overlook, and captured on video by Ellen, framed by two massive Cottonwood trees.

Soon we found our exit from the gorge on a set of stairs that climbed the bluffs.

The headwaters of the Little Miami River is the gem of this hike so we need to feature more images of her.

Odds and Ends: Ellen and the photographer were entranced by a small colony of Yellow Jackets that they found on the forest floor (Ellen is like a beagle, she never misses anything at ground level). They enjoyed watching them enter the nest thru the opening in the leaf litter at the center of the photo. But they were alarmed to learn of the risk they took as Yellow Jackets are infamous for the ferocity with which they defend there nest.

Due to the weather this hike was abbreviated. Normally we would have taken the North Rim Trail west through John Bryan State Park, and head down to the river on the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Stagecoach Trail to return eastward. After climbing out of the valley we would have headed east along the upper reaches of the Gorge Rim Trail which features outstanding views of the narrowest parts of the gorge where tumbling waters pass through a walled channel caused by opposing bluffs. Here much of the trail is on boardwalks that go from bluff top to bluff top. The bottom line is that there is no disappointing part to this trail system,

In summary, the hikes are really not about the weather. Sure, a gorgeous sun filled day would have been welcomed, but really, I just love to spend time in nature with the artists and scientists that are my family. They will find joy in nature in any kind of weather. For that I am grateful. Having seen the abundant Heptica, I have penciled in this trial for a spring time jaunt. But I would also like to come back on a dry day, when we can knock out the entire loop trail without fear for the health of our hips. And yes, regardless of the weather, I will certainly find time for another Yellow Springs Brewery Brown Ale. posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Video credits to Ellen Burns.


Location – 2381 OH-343, Yellow Springs, OH 45387. It is 66 miles from downtown Cincinnati.

Parking – Asphalt lot for 40 cars.

Facilities – Portolet at the Nature Center.

Trail Conditions – bare dirt with exposed roots and rocks. The trails are well signed. If you do the entire loop the descent into the gorge on the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati Trail is a mild grade with a good surface but you still have to climb out of the gorge at the other end.

Benches – yes, in the gorge.

Picnic Tables – one near the parking area and two near the nature center.

Print Map Link – none, take photo at the trailhead.

Kids – The grade could be a challenge for kids under 6.

Dogs – Prohibited.

Suggested Paired Hikes – There are other trails at John Bryan State Park and nearby Glen Helen Nature Preserve.



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