Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, Ohio
It was a beautiful October day when Pick and I (Weisey) packed the car with hiking gear and headed for Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve/ John Bryan State Park—two of the most scenic parks in Ohio. Located along the Little Miami Scenic River, Clifton Gorge is famous for its rushing waters that flow through a remarkable narrow gorge—a scene sure to be even more fantastic with the autumn foliage.
As we drove along, we admired the intense displays of autumn color that covered the Ohio countryside—the trees were especially beautiful in the fall of 2001, and we were lucky to be out enjoying the landscape. Our drive from central Ohio took us two hours, placing us at our destination at about 1:00 PM. We parked our car at the lot right off of route 343, and then headed down the trail towards the information kiosk—the kiosk, near a gathering place called the Bear’s Den, displays a map of the trails available for hiking. After reviewing our choices, we decided to start our hike on the North Rim Trail—following the rim of the gorge downstream.
As we hiked along the trail we were treated to excellent views of the Little Miami River far below us in the valley—named a National Scenic River in 1973, the river flows gracefully and rapidly over the many boulders strewn about its bed, and meanders slowly around soft shoulders the further it flows from the narrow gorge. Just a little farther down the trail and you will hike along the banks of the Little Miami, but for now, the trail skirts the edge of the gorge.
As expected, autumn was the perfect setting to hike these trails—bright colorful red, yellow, and orange leaves decorated the trees above, and blanketed the trail with foliage confetti. Everything that surrounds you is a treat for the senses—your vision is bombarded with saturated colors that would make any artist envious, and your olfactory center fights to discern the many scents surrounding you—from the smell of freshly fallen leaves to the fragrance of the cedar trees. It can be difficult to take it all in, but after all, that is what the great outdoors is all about.
As we hiked further down the trail, we encountered signs along the path marked 3B, 3A, etc.—these markers designate areas where rock climbers can rappel over the side of the cliff—climbers are often out testing their skills, so on the return trip you might catch a glimpse of these athletes in action.
After passing a couple of overlooks you come to a sign for the Orton Picnic area, we bypassed this area and kept hiking on the Rim Trail. Then, a little further down the trail, you pass the Wingo Picnic area. The trail then ends at a picnic/camping area, where picking up the trail again can get a little confusing—we headed towards the road and the camping area, and then walked up a hill where a sign read "campers only". At the top of the hill we reentered the woods via a trail, that we assumed was Camp Trail, and thankfully, we were right—Camp Trail then follows the road for a little while before descending towards the river.
The lush flora that blankets the valley floor is a huge contrast from the woody décor of the rim—green, leafy plants crowd the narrow trail, which can be quite muddy at times—so be prepared for crowded conditions. Wildlife sightings are common along this section of the hike as well, and you are likely to spot anything from insects to birds—in the autumn butterflies and ladybugs flitter about in the afternoon sun.
Herons are also a common sight near the water, and as we were hiking along the Little Miami we came to a bend in the river where a Great Blue Heron was wading in the shallow water. We stopped to admire his beauty, and were treated to an awesome sight—a sight that you only expect to see on a National Geographic program—as we watched, the heron scooped a huge fish right out of the water and swallowed it whole, it was an incredible thing to witness. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lens long enough to capture the event on film, but it will always be in my memory.
The area where we watched the heron is also the site of a National Scenic River Plaque, and at this point in the excursion, you are on the north side of the river, but you will soon come to a bridge that takes you to the south banks. The view from the bridge is spectacular, and Pick and I took turns posing on the bridge for photos. Once across the river, take a left and follow the South Gorge Trail, which continues towards the narrows of Clifton Gorge. Along this section of trail, you will cross many streams via footbridges—most of the streams cascade down the cliff over huge boulders making for great vistas. In addition, the river makes for a perfect mirror, reflecting the luminous colors of the leaves, many of which float lazily atop ponds and puddles that line the trail. Further into the trail, you pass in and around huge rocks called slump blocks, where the trail is often muddy—at this point a boardwalk replaces the dirt trail for a short spell. When you return to the dirt trail you won’t be far from the next footbridge, which returns you to the north side of the river. After crossing the bridge you will see a sign for the preserve, and a trail that continues to the right, on down the river. At this junction take the John L. Rich Trail where the scenery really starts to come alive.
Along this portion of the John L. Rich Trail the slump blocks are enormous and the trail climbs in, around, and over the rocks. Furthermore, the Little Miami River begins to get even more scenic, sporting deep pools framed by boulders and arborvitae—the river also begins to flow faster, due to the narrowing of the gorge—splendid rapids cascade down the gorge adding to the beauty of the hike. One especially scenic pool, named The Blue Hole, was the setting of a famous painting by Robert S. Duncanson.
Further down the trail, you will encounter a few overlooks that have great views of the scenic river—be sure to stop at each one. The next highlight on the trail is Amphitheater Falls—this waterfall, although not large, is quite lovely. It cascades over the cliff into a shallow pool lined with stones—all of this beauty can be viewed from a multi-tiered wooden staircase, complete with platforms built for taking in the scene. The John L. Rich Trail then returns to the rim of the gorge via a wooden staircase with about 23 steps—after climbing the staircase you will be back at the Bear’s Den where you started your hike, but instead of returning to your car, take a right at the top of the steps and head down The Narrows Trail.
The Narrows Trail is one mile out and back, and affords some of the best views in the park—if you just have a short time at the park, then this is the trail not to miss! The trail heads towards the narrows, briefly following the side of route 343, and then reentering the woods—overlooks are scattered all along this trail and each one is worth a stop. One of the overlooks tells the story of Darnell’s Leap—Darnell was a member of Daniel Boone’s outfit who was captured by Indians. Soon after his capture, he escaped, but his escape was soon discovered and he was hunted down—his captors caught up with him near this narrow part of the gorge, and the legend says that he miraculously leapt across the chasm to avoid being recaptured.
The overlooks that follow are even more breathtaking—each one highlights a different aspect of The Falls of the Little Miami, which rush through the narrow walls of the gorge along this section of the park. It’s hard to believe that this is in Ohio—it looks more like a scene out of the Pacific Northwest—absolutely magnificent!
After taking in all of the views, continue hiking to the end of the trail where you will see a plaque designating the area as a National Natural Landmark—from there, just retrace your steps back to your car, treating yourself to seconds of the views along the way.
In summary, it must be said that this hike was extraordinary—the scenery, the views, and the trails are all spectacular. If you follow the route we describe here, it turns out to be about a 6-mile trek—remember though, you can do any number and combination of the ten trails available at this park and reserve, so the mileage is up to you. So pack up the car and head for Clifton Gorge, a definitive jewel in the Ohio park system.