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Clifty Falls State Park

Updated on March 8, 2015
Waterfall at Clifty Falls State Park
Waterfall at Clifty Falls State Park | Source

Clifty Falls is one of Indiana's most beautiful state parks. It has the highest waterfalls in the state, although there isn't a lot of water going over them. Figuring out when to visit the park is a little tricky. If you go when it is dry, there may not be any water going over the falls. If you go when it is too wet, you may not be able to hike some of the trails that follow the streambeds.


Madison was a large and influential city in Indiana's early history. It is located in southeastern Indiana on the Ohio River. Prior to railroads, the Ohio River was a major transportation artery. When the state of Indiana was scouting central locations for the new capital of Indianapolis in 1820, Madison was already a thriving river town. Madison continued to grow quickly until the Civil War. After the war, river transportation declined as railroads took over. In 1870, Madison's population was nearly 11,000. By 1910 it had declined to just under 7,000.

During Indiana's centennial year of 1916, its first two state parks were created. A group of Madison businessmen thought that a state park should be created in Jefferson county. That year state representatives examined three potential sites, eventually selecting the Clifty Falls site. The people of Madison raised $15,000 to purchase the land and Clifty Falls State Park became Indiana's third state park in 1920. In 1965 the park was expanded from 617 to 1,519 acres when adjacent land was purchased.

Brough's Folly

One unique feature that Clifty Falls has is an abandoned railroad tunnel. The first railroad in Indiana ran from Madison to North Vernon, a distance of about twenty miles. In addition to being the first in Indiana, the line has the distinction of being the steepest in the United States, with a grade of 5.9% as it climbs 400 feet leaving Madison. This was too steep for locomotives in 1841, and originally horses had to be used to pull cars up the slope.

In 1853, John Brough of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad commenced building a more gradual route out of Madison. This is when the tunnel in Clifty Falls State Park was built. The project was a fiasco. Over $300,000 was spent before it was abandoned. The problem was finally solved when the Reuben Wells locomotive, named for its builder, was built in 1868. It was able to make it up the grade and was used specifically for this hill, never venturing far away until it was retired in 1905. Today you can see it in the Indianapolis Children's Museum.

The Reuben Wells once pulled cars up the Madison incline
The Reuben Wells once pulled cars up the Madison incline | Source

Visiting the Park

There are several things you will probably want to see when you visit the park. At the top of the list is seeing the four waterfalls:

  • Big Clifty Falls (60 feet)
  • LIttle Clifty Falls (60 feet)
  • Tunnel Falls (83 feet)
  • Hoffman Falls (78 feet)

Clifty Falls and Little Clifty Falls are close together at the north end of the park. Tunnel Falls is about one third of the way to the south end of the park, while Hoffman Falls is about two thirds. All of these can be reached by short hikes. If you are looking for a challenging hike, consider Trail 2. It is three miles long and considered "very rugged". It follows the streambed of Clifty Creek, and is impassable if the water is high.

The abandoned railway tunnel is currently closed. This is an attempt to limit the spread of white-nose syndrome, which is decimating bat populations in the eastern United States. At the south end of the park is the nature center and the inn. The restaurant at the inn usually has a good buffet. There is also an observation tower a short distance from the nature center. If you are looking for a campsite, the park has a nice campground. Keep in mind that the park is popular, and the campground fills up quickly on summer weekends.

One of the hiking trails at Clifty Falls State Park
One of the hiking trails at Clifty Falls State Park | Source


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