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Clifton Gorge Perserve Hike

By Tamara York · June 30th, 2010 · 60 Hikes

Key At-A-Glance Information

Length: 2.7 miles
Configuration: Lollipop
Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult
Scenery: Gorge, Little Miami River, unique flora
Exposure: Mostly shaded
Traffic: Heavy
Trail Surface: Boulders, loose stone, and soil
Hiking Time: 1-1.5 hours
Driving Distance: 1.5 hours from Cincinnati
Season: Year-round, but best in spring, summer, and fall
Access: Dawn-dusk
Maps: USGS Clifton, Clifton Gorge State Nature Perserve
Wheelchair Accessible: A portion of the Narrows Trail
Facilities: Latrine
For More Information: Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Natural Areas and Perserves, (614) 265-6453
Special Comments: Everything in the 269 acres of the Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve is protected. Spring is best for bird-watchers and wildflower enthusiasts.


This 269-acre nature preserve, located a little more than one hour northeast of Cincinnati, is well worth the trip. The nature preserve was created in 1970 to protect this unique geologic area, which was carved out by waters of the melting glaciers. It is also a memorial to geologist and professor John L. Rich, who was instrumental in protecting this area.

If you’re hiking the trail with small children, keep them close to you at all times. Never go off-trail on this hike: the trail borders cliff rims, and at the bottom is the powerful Little Miami River.

In Clifton Gorge, you can see plants not found in other parts of the state, including red baneberry and wall rue. In spring the area is a treat for wildflower enthusiasts; expect to see a variety of trilliums, including snow trillium, as well as hepaticas, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and bloodroot. In fact, bring a
good wildflower identification
book and a camera.

The parking area off Jackson and Water streets is near the trailhead. Before leaving your car, be sure valuables are locked in the trunk and the car is locked. Multiple signs remind visitors that although this area is beautiful and tranquil, crime still occurs.

To the left of the large Clifton Gorge kiosk is the trailhead for the Narrows Trail. The trail is dirt- and gravel-covered, and throughout the trail exposed dolomite provides plenty of stumbling points.

Within 122 feet and to the left is an overlook of the river valley gorge. The Little Miami State and National Scenic River funnels through the Silurian dolomite, creating rapids and displaying a perfect example of interglacial and postglacial canyon cutting.

Continue on the trail until the next overlook on the left at 0.26 miles. In the 1800s several mills were located in this area, including saw, grist, and woolen mills. The mills played an important role in U.S. history: Patterson Mill, for example, provided cloth for American soldiers during the War of 1812.

Floods demolished the mills, but a few remnants of the footing stones can still be seen.

Back on the main trail at 0.32 miles, cross a bridge and enjoy the overlook of water cascading down into a deep pool. Here, large chunks of Silurian dolomite have created islands along the corridor of the Little Miami River.

At the junction at 0.47 miles, take the trail to the left to visit the Cedar Garden overlook. From this vantage point you can see uncommon species of plants, including white cedars and Canada yews. Take the loop to connect back to the trail.

This hike is popular with scout groups, college kids, and families. In the open area at 0.62 miles are a maintenance building, latrine, and kiosk.

At this point, several trails intersect. Look for the North Rim Trail trailhead sign and proceed on North Rim Trail. Although this area might be tempting for rock climbers, such climbing is strictly prohibited.

North Rim Trail is a two-person-wide path with exposed dolomite that makes the path uneven and choppy to walk on. The trail passes over many footbridges. The first, at 0.89 miles, is made from recycled plastic. The next footbridge, at 0.94 miles, passes over yet another creek.

One mile into the hike the trail passes a junction with a connector to the lower Gorge Trail. Stay on the trail to the right and head uphill over the exposed stone. If there has been a fair amount of rainfall, the trail near the 1.1-mile point will likely have a stream flowing down the middle of it.

Overlooks at 1.15 and 1.17 miles both offer wonderful views of the gorge below. At the next junction at 1.18 miles, stay to the left on North Rim. Along this trail is a stream and moss-covered trees and rocks. The trail flattens out at 1.39 miles, and at 1.46 miles passes a switchback to the right that leads to the Orton picnic area.

When the trail splits, pass the right side of the trail that leads into John Bryan State Park and take Gorge Trail to the left that loops back into Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve. This part of the trail is slow and treacherous due to the exposed bedrock.

At 1.54 miles, the trail enters into a valley area adjacent to the Little Miami River. The trestle-style bridge that crosses the waterway leads into John Bryan Clifton Gorge overlook of Little Miami River State Park. Don’t cross the bridge. Take a left to continue on Gorge Trail.

This bottomland area is very cool and humid, which allows for a variety of mosses and succulents to grow in the nooks and crannies of the dolomite. American beech, cottonwood, and sycamore trees provide additional shade. In spring look for Jack-in-the-pulpit, spring beauties, snow trillium, bloodroot, and hepaticas.

At several points, Gorge Trail closely parallels the Little Miami River. Another trestle-style bridge at 1.81 miles overlooks a backwater way. At this point the trail meanders through the dolomite cut and it feels as if you stepped into another world.

The vegetation restoration area is at 1.93 miles. The trail leads uphill and past a small waterfall to the left. At 2 miles, cross another footbridge near another waterfall.

The trail soon begins to head back uphill from the bottomland. At 2.09 miles, you’ll find another overlook near where the paper mill once stood.

Adventurous hikers can explore a slump-block cave—the only one open to the public—at 2.13 miles. A slump-block cave is formed when water dissolves softer rock and instead of a block of rock falling away from the cliff, the block falls towards the cliff and creates a cave. The cave is several feet deep, wet, a little creepy, and fun with kids.

In 1851, the African-American artist Robert Duncanson painted a picture of the Blue Hole of the Little Miami River, which you’ll see at 2.34 miles. The painting is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Another footbridge, at 2.37 miles, is adjacent to a large waterfall. The cliff faces are covered with beautiful light-blue lichens.

At 2.61 miles, take the stairs that lead up to the Narrows Trail. At the top, take a right to return along Narrows Trail to your vehicle about a half-mile away..

GPS Trailhead Coordinates

UTM Zone (WGS84) 16S
Easting 0257808.2
Northing 4408848.4
Latitude: N 39 degrees 47' 42.51"
Longitude: W 83 degrees 49' 43.19"

Nearby Activities

You’ll find several antique shops in the Clifton area. Before setting out on your hike, explore the Clifton Mill area and enjoy a meal. Just north on OH 68 is Young’s Dairy—a favorite haunt for ice-cream lovers. Shopping in Yellow Springs’ many stores is an eclectic adventure.

Elevation Map

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