Key At-A-Glance Information
Length: 6.1 miles
Configuration: Loop with out-and-back
Scenery: Creek bed, cliffs, forest, observation town, tunnel, and falls
Trail Surface: Exposed bedrock, loose river stones, soil, boardwalk, and gravel
Hiking Time: At least 6 hours
Driving Distance: 1.5 hours southwest of Cincinnati
Season: Year-round, but Trail 2 may flood in spring and might be hazardous during the icy winter months.
Maps: USGS Clifty Falls and Madison West; Clifty Falls State Park map
Wheelchair Accessible: No
Facilities: Restrooms and drinking water at Clifty Inn, Nature Center, and most shelters.
For More Information: Clifty Falls State Park, (812) 273-8885
Special Comments: Do not go in closed-off areas such as near Big Clifty Falls.
Clifty Falls State Park and Clifty Canyon Nature Preserve offer incredible hiking trails, exquisite views, and interesting places to explore. At Clifty Inn, you’ll find plenty of relaxing spots to sit and watch the river roll by as you grab a bite to eat in the restaurant.
Park in the Nature Center’s parking area. Inside the center are multiple displays about the history, flora and fauna, and geology of this beautiful park. Naturalists are available to answer questions and can provide you with up-to-date trail information.
Before you hike this trail, make sure you have plenty of water, snacks, a map, a small flashlight, this book, and your cell phone.
Please seek a naturalist’s advice on the current condition of the trails before heading out; Trail 2 may be flooded or a landslide might have wiped out a portion of a trail. A landslide destroyed a portion of Trail 1 in 2008, and the trail was closed while it was being repaired.
The best times to view the waterfalls are from December to June. Clifty Inn typically offers winter packages and is a great place to stay during any season.
If you’re hiking during the warmer months, bring along sandals and a small towel. At several spots on Trail 2 it is easier to walk through the water rather than around it. But be wary of the depth because there are several deep pools.
From the Nature Center, walk south along the boardwalk to Trail 1. Then follow Trail 1 downhill over the exposed bedrock to the observation tower. Take the two flights of stairs up to the top of the tower and enjoy the view of the Ohio River and Clifty Falls State Park.
Return to the base of the observation tower and follow the trail downhill. The hillside is stabilized with a retaining wall. Sugar maples and red oaks dominate the canopy, and you can see fossils in the rocks beneath your feet.
The boardwalks at 0.55 miles help prevent further damage to the soil structure. The trail passes through an area filled with wild ginger and spicebush
Follow Trail 2 as it continues up Big Clifty Creek. There are no markings for this trail—it simply follows Big Clifty Creek north to Clifty Falls.
Trail 2 is a challenging trail—a lot more difficult than it appears on paper— that might be flowing, dry, flooded, or have intermittent pools depending on the time of year. Multiple-sized stones are strewn about Big Clifty Creek, and making The trails of Clifty Falls provide excellent vistas. your way along the creek bed will test your patience, balance, agility, and stamina. Even experienced hikers should budget about an hour per mile, including extra time to backtrack and try different routes around large rocks, islands, and deep pools.
The shale and limestone in Clifty Falls contain marine fossils some 425 million years old. The stones beneath your feet are fossilized corals from the sea that once covered the Greater Cincinnati area. Several of the corals are larger than a basketball, and the honeycomb structures are readily visible.
At 1.12 miles, a deep pool of water allows you to rest and enjoy the view while cooling off. The stones along the creek begin to get larger as you get closer to Big Clifty Falls. In fact, at 1.71 miles large chunks of dolomite are scattered along Big Clifty Creek. Continue on Trail 2 and be sure to pass through the keyhole opening in the slump block near 2.4 miles.
Trail 2 terminates before you reach Clifty Falls. Please, for your safety, do not go farther back along the streambed. Big Clifty Falls is 60 feet tall and the rock ledge is not stable. Large chunks of rock break off and crash to the bottom.
Besides the human company, you won’t be alone on this hike, as you may startle a white-tailed deer or wild turkey. Listen closely to the calls of a multitude of songbirds and insects.
The old stair structure that used to connect trails 2 and 7 still partially stands, but it has been decommissioned due to structural problems with tacking a staircase to the side of an unstable cliff (it tends to fall down). Do not attempt to get from Trail 2 to Trail 7 using the skeletal remains of the structure. Attempting it is foolhardy and may cost you your life.
Take a break on one of the many large chunks of dolomite and enjoy the peace and quiet of the end of Trail 2. Return down Trail 2 by following the creek bed back to the intersection with Trail 5 at 3.2 miles. Trail 5 is to your left. This narrow path weaves uphill through the woods. Be careful not to accidentally follow one of the multiple user-made spur trails that radiate from the main trail.
At 3.4 miles is a trail junction where Trail 5 Ts. Turn left, staying on Trail 5 to follow it to Tunnel Falls. At 3.5 miles, look for the tunnel opening that passes all the way through the hillside. Known as John Brough’s Folly, it was meant to eventually become a railroad tunnel passageway, eliminating the problem of the drastic elevation change and allowing the railroad to pass through Clifty Canyon. However, economic troubles caused construction to stop.
The 600-foot tunnel is passable with the aid of a flashlight and a deep breath. If you are taller than 5 feet, you’ll most likely need to crouch a little so as to not hit your head.
Continue following Trail 5 as it skirts the edge of a steep hillside. At the northern end of Trail 5 at 3.6 miles, you’ll reach a great place to view the 83-foot tall Tunnel Falls, the tallest at Clifty. Retrace your steps and pass straight through the intersection with the trail that leads to Oak Grove Shelter unless you need to take a restroom break or refill your water bottle. (Drinking water is available seasonally). Continue south on Trail 5, heading toward the Lily Memorial area and Trail 4.
At 3.9 miles you’ll reach the other opening to the tunnel. During the summertime, stand at the opening and enjoy the cooler breeze from the tunnel. At 4 miles pass the stairs that lead to the Lily Memorial and continue on Trail 5. You’ll encounter several falls during this hike.
At the intersection of trails 4 and 5, which occurs at 4.5 miles, turn left, following Trail 4 over the rocky terrain. Scamper up the hillside through the woods dominated by shagbark hickory, red oak, and sugar maple trees. The stone path is replaced by a boardwalk at 4.7 miles. Here you can view the 78-foot-tall Hoffman Falls.
Retrace your steps and at the intersection at 4.9 miles continue straight ahead on Trail 4. Follow it until you reach Trail 2. Turn left and retrace your steps along Trail 2 to Trail 1. Take Trail 1 to the observation tower and then to the Nature Center parking area and your vehicle.
GPS Trailhead Coordinates
Pennywort Cliffs Nature Preserve and Hardy Lake State Recreation Area in Indiana and General Butler State Resort Park and John A. Kleber Wildlife Management Area in Kentucky offer great hiking trails. Historic Madison, Indiana, offers shopping, wine tasting, and incredible dining.