In southeastern Indiana lies one of the state's most rugged and photogenic areas. Clifty Falls State Park occupies 1,416 acres west of the historic Ohio River town of Madison. The main attraction is the spectacular, three-mile-long, 300-foot-deep canyon of Clifty Creek, cut into the high bluffs towering above the Ohio River. Most of the canyon lies within the 178-acre Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve. Sixty-foot-high Big Clifty Falls marks the northern end of the canyon. Three other falls, ranging in height from 60 to 83 feet, are found in tributaries. There are 10 hiking trails totaling about 14 miles. The upland east of the canyon contains the main park road, a campground, a nature center and Clifty Inn, which overlooks Madison and the Ohio River. The area's rugged terrain is a product of the ice age. The sand- and gravel-laden glacial meltwater of the Ohio River carved hundreds of feet into the existing bedrock, in the process capturing the Clifty Creek and forming Clifty Falls, which may have initially been some 200 feet high. The canyon's 425-million-year-old shale and limestone rocks are among the oldest exposed bedrock in Indiana and contain abundant marine fossils.
Every spring, weather is unpredictable, with rain, possibly snow, and wide day-to-day temperature variations. Summers are hot and humid with frequent thunderstorms. The most pleasant weather occurs in the fall, with low rainfall and moderate temperatures. Winters are cold, but the occasional snowfall can transform the landscape.
The paved main road, which connects the north and south park gates, provides access to nature preserve trails. These trails are steep, rocky and treacherous when wet; wear hiking boots. Stay on the marked trails—because of the rugged terrain, off-trail hiking is both dangerous and illegal. Areas immediately above and below any waterfall are off-limits due to rockslides and rockfalls.
Set aside at least three days to explore this area because the rough trails and numerous photo ops likely will slow you down. The falls and the creek are raging torrents after spring or summer storms; in autumn, the rocks and boulders of the stream-bed are carpeted with leaves. Trail 2, which follows Clifty Creek's rock bed for about two miles, is extremely rugged, requires rock-to-rock hiking and is impassible during high water. The rocks, boulders, cascades, trees and canyon walls along this trail provide almost limitless photo possibilities. Plan to devote at least a half-day to exploring this trail.
The park's four major waterfalls are most impressive in spring or after summer thunderstorms. The best time to photograph emerging spring foliage is late April and early May. You can obtain a dramatic photo of Big Clifty Falls from the Trail 7 overlook at this time. Later in the year, the heavy forest cover tends to obscure views of various falls. The best autumn color occurs in late October, when the beech-maple and oak-hickory forests are ablaze with color, contrasting with the white trunks of the sycamores. Mid-summer through fall offers the easiest hiking along the creek bed. The park is crowded on warm-weather weekends.
Contact: Clifty Falls State Park, (812) 273-8885; Clifty Inn, (877) 925-4389; Indiana Department of Natural Resources, www.in.gov/dnr.
Rugged and comfortable footwear is a must when hiking through rough terrain to that picturesque location. The Vasque Breeze Day Hiker (Model 7462) includes a Gore-Tex® XCR® lining and provides breathability, while reinforced uppers protect your ankles from hazards. Weighing less than three pounds, the boots deliver solid support for virtually any terrain. Suggested Retail Price: $140. Contact: Vasque, (800) 224-HIKE, www.vasque.com.