Hoosier National Forest - Hemlock Cliffs

14 May 2009

Hoosier National Forest, Indiana
Hemlock Cliffs area

Trip Date:  March 14-18, 2009
by Mark W

The sandstone cliffs, springs and rocky streams of the Hemlock Cliffs area of the Hoosier National Forest in south central Indiana form a landscape reminiscent of the backcountry at Mammoth Cave National Park or certain sections of the Red River Gorge.  The relatively short Hemlock Cliffs Trail, approximately a mile in length, features two seasonal waterfalls as its main attractions.  During a mid-March trip to the area, these waterfalls were flowing and clear waist-deep pools were present in the trail-side creeks.  However, the mission of the four-night backpacking trip my girlfriend and I embarked on over our spring break was to explore as much of the area off the beaten path as possible.  A U.S.G.S. topographical map of the area aided us greatly in deciding where to focus our hiking and in making sure we stayed on Forest Service property.

We arrived at the trailhead shortly before noon on an overcast Saturday with temperatures in the mid-40s and intermittent light rain.  Wasting no time, we got on the trail and quickly descended to the bottom of the cliffs and arrived at the base of the first waterfall within minutes of leaving the parking area.  Although not very wide, this waterfall is relatively tall for the area (probably around 40-60 feet) and the area surrounding the plunge pool is rather rugged.

After exploring this area for a few minutes, we continued on the trail for only a few dozen yards before choosing to cross the creek that the trail parallels and scramble up one of the steep hillsides to a ridge top where our topographical map suggested there would be a suitable location to camp.  Once we made it to the top of the ridge, which was no small accomplishment with full packs, we hiked until we located the pond indicated on the map that would help us determine our bearings.  Watching the raindrops hit the surface of the pond was almost as relaxing and mesmerizing as the waterfall we had seen earlier.  We found an excellent spot to camp between the pond and the edge of the ridge facing the Hemlock Cliffs valley and stayed there the first two nights.   This allowed us an entire day to explore without having to worry about breaking and setting up camp.  There were excellent views of the area from the ridge top near our campsite, which was situated in a stand of pine trees.
  As an added bonus, the meals we ate over the first two days lightened our packs before we moved on to our second campsite,  on the "ground level" of the Hemlock Cliffs area and adjacent to a small stream that we had used as a trail for our explorations on the second day.  There were large boulders and sandstone cliffs visible from our camp and the light cast upon them by the setting sun was a great sight to see as we wound down on our third night in the woods.

The off-trail sights we encountered during our trip were just as scenic and rewarding, if not more so, as those on the official trail.  The mild temperatures and lack of significant undergrowth made hiking through the area much easier than it would have been during the summer and we covered a significant amount of ground during our day hikes.  The days were mostly sunny and warmed up to about 65 degrees, and the nights got down to the upper 30s.

Most of our time was spent on the same side of the powerline cut as the official trail. Although the powerline cut is unsightly and destroys any notion of "wilderness" in the area, it is a good landmark to use when hiking cross-country and convenient when traveling to and from certain locations if you want to avoid bushwhacking.   

We hiked beside the creek that was near our third night's campsite for probably around a half-mile or more upstream, and it seemed that we couldn't go more than 200 feet without finding something to marvel at.  Several springs created tiny tributaries that fed the creek, and two of these were particularly noteworthy.  One flowed steadily from a small opening at the bottom of a steep hill and allowed you to gaze into it for a few feet as well as position yourself in front of the cool breeze that came from inside.  Another spring emerged in the middle of a sloping hillside and the water that flowed out of it cascaded down several very small waterfalls before reaching the main creek.  The most remarkable aspect of this spring was that the ground directly behind it had eroded and there was an opening large enough for me to stick my head in and, with the aid of a flashlight, peer inside to see the underground stream that flowed out of the opening on the ground inches from where I stood.

Near this spring was the first of two waterfalls similar in both height and volume to those on the official trail that we found.  The neat thing about this waterfall, and the other one we came across, was that they allowed you to see more of the water's course above the precipice than the other waterfalls.  The water flowed over moss-covered ledges, dropping only a few feet at a time, before tumbling what I would estimate to be 30 feet to the floor of a small rock shelter.  The volume of both of these was comparable to perhaps two or three simultaneous showers, but what it lacked in force it more than made up for in serenity and isolation.  Both waterfalls were located at the heads of small hollows that had drainages leading to the main creek.  However, the waterfalls were not visible from the main creek and required a hike of about 100 yards to reach them.  Unlike the rock shelters on the official trail, there was no visible litter or graffiti on the rock shelters behind these waterfalls, giving them a much more pristine feeling.  This was a welcome sight to someone who has become accustomed to the thoughtless scarring of similar places in the Red River Gorge.

In addition to the waterfalls and springs, the geological features of the Hemlock Cliffs area are well worth taking the time to find and admire.  We found several "hole-in-rocks" that allowed us to see spots of daylight through a mass of otherwise solid rock, as well as seeing dozens of honeycomb formations on the sandstone cliffs.  In one particularly difficult to access location, we found a wall of rock at the head of a small canyon that leaked water from its base and made a sound almost identical to a percolator as the water made its way from the top to the bottom.  Perhaps over thousands of years this will erode and the path of the water will be seen as well as heard.

On Tuesday, after stopping by one of the previously mentioned secluded waterfalls for a quick, cold, refreshing rinse and a filling lunch, we packed everything up and headed back to the main trail.  We used the power line cut as a shortcut to reach the spur trail that leads to the main trail, which only took us perhaps 15 minutes to reach.  Once on the main trail we headed to the second waterfall, which is in the middle of the loop and has a large rock shelter behind it.  Although there hadn't been any rain since late on Saturday, the waterfall was flowing quite strongly and provided excellent background noise while we sat around the campfire and when we settled down to go to sleep. 

Our campsite on that final night was on a tiny peninsula that is level with the top of the waterfall and overlooks the trail.  I had camped at this spot on my first solo backpacking trip the previous January, and although I appreciated it at the time, after doing more backpacking I can safely say that it is one of my favorite campsites.  The spot is small, probably not much bigger than a large SUV, but very cozy and the view is wonderful.  You can look across to the waterfall and rock shelter, to the trail and stream below, to the other ridge tops or straight up at the sky.  The site is just large enough for a tent, campfire and a place to set your gear out.  Water is easily obtainable from the stream that feeds the waterfall (if it's running, I've been here in the summer before and there was not a drop of water to be found), which is only about a 50 yard walk away.  The section of stream immediately before it flows over the edge is also a very pleasant area with lots of hemlocks, pines and other trees forming a canopy and several sections of smooth, exposed rock upon which to sit and soak up the scenery.  A short waterfall drops into a bathtub sized pool here and makes a perfect place to soak your feet after a day of hiking.  What more do you need? 

This last campsite was also only about a half of a mile away from the parking area,  allowing us to sleep in on the last day and to take our time packing up before heading back to the trailhead.  This brief section of trail leading to the parking area is, in my opinion, an excellent sample of much of the scenery that this part of Indiana has to offer.  The trail follows a small stream through the small box canyon formed by the cliffs before crossing the stream and ascending to the parking area.

The great thing about this area is that it's easily adaptable to whatever length you plan on staying.  You could finish the main trail in a less than hour if you rushed through it on a day hike, or you could extend your stay to a weekend or longer on a backpacking trip.  I doubt that it is possible to see everything this area has to offer during a single day or even a weekend.  We stayed for four nights and there are still places I wish we had the time to explore more thoroughly.  As far as I could tell, this area is not heavily visited.  Other than a gentleman at the trailhead on the way out we encountered no other people during our stay, and I can recall hearing cars entering or exiting the parking area on only one occasion.  The proximity of this area to other areas for hiking, specifically Twin Lakes Recreation Area which is only a 15 minute drive away or Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest which is a half-hour drive away, also make it appealing for extended trips. 

Maps used:  U.S.G.S. Taswell Quad and Hoosier National Forest Hemlock Cliffs Trail


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