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Indiana Trails: Clifty Falls State Park as Nature's Stairmaster

First, the bad news. The four cascades that give Clifty Falls State Park its singular appeal slow to delicate “bridal veils” in autumn. The upside: Even without the plunging flumes that arrive with spring’s snowmelt, the steep canyon knifing through the park’s 178-acre nature preserve offers plenty of drama.
The nicely groomed trails dip in and out of the wooded gorge and lead to ledges, rock walls, and scenic overlooks. To flirt with the park’s rigors,
I cobbled together a trek of varying difficulty from intersecting trails, one that would pass the two tallest falls.
Pick up a flat section of Trail 3 across from the Poplar Grove parking lot and bear right. The going is easy until a bend, when the woods surrounding Hoffman Falls open for your first glimpse of the canyon’s immense scale, a sight striking enough to compensate for the trickling waters. I crossed a hulking log bridge to Trail 4, where the terrain changes to short, natural-rock staircases, slippery little grades, and slim paths right on the edge of the dropoff. The choppy, meandering trail gradually descends into the canyon until you can hear creek-hikers at the bottom.
Pass by a daunting wooden stairway to Lilly Memorial and pick up Trail 5, a smooth, high passage with occasional wooden boardwalks and steps. It ends at the prettiest, longest waterfall, Tunnel Falls, which sits in the middle of a broad clearing. You can see to the other side from a big observation deck next to the 83-foot shale-and-limestone wall.
There are three ways back: a calf-busting staircase to the shaded road at the rim; the way you came, a gradual climb; or the wooden stairs at the halfway point. Someone smartly built benches into the observation deck just for pondering the decision.
 
1014-hikelogo  We Endorse: Trails 3, 4 & 5
  3 miles round-trip / Rugged
 
» Danger!  Copperhead snakes occasionally sun themselves on the trails. Stop by the nature center to see one in a glass case and read precautions.
 
» Stay  The park’s lodge-like Clifty Inn (from $110/night, cliftyinn.dnr.state.in.us) perches above the Ohio River with a firepit and patio backdropped by panoramic views. Buy a s’mores kit in the gift shop.
 
» Getting There  Take I-65 S to Scottsburg and follow S.R. 56 east toward Madison to the park’s south gate. When you see massive smokestacks from an Ohio River–front plant, you’re close. in.gov/dnr/parklake/2985.htm
 
trail.icons  Steady cell phone service
 
trail.icons  Fido welcome—and can manage the trail
 
trail.icons  Park entry fee ($5, typically)
 
trail.icons  Campsites nearby
 
 

Fernandez began writing for Indianapolis Monthly in 1995 while studying journalism at Indiana University. One of her freelance assignments required her to join a women's full-tackle football team for a season. She joined the staff in 2005 to edit IM's ancillary publications, including Indianapolis Monthly Home. In 2011, she became a senior editor responsible for the Circle City section as well as coverage of shopping, homes, and design-related topics. Now an executive editor, she lives downtown.
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