About the Park

Big Clifty Falls running over the Saluda Formation.

Clifty Falls State Park is located on the west side of Madison, Indiana. The park may be entered from the north or south. 

The park’s name comes from the waterfalls found on Big Cifty Creek and its tributaries. Clifty Falls State Park has natural and cultural history, a landscape, and trails that make their way through it all. The hiking over its 10 trails is good year-round, but many trails are rugged.  

The canyon is certainly most revealing during winter and early spring before leaves bring your attention to the ecology and geology closer at hand. During those seasons you can see across and down the canyon.

Water and Geology

Red = park boundary, blue = creeks, black is boundary of Big Clifty Creek watershed (north is up). All the rainwater that falls onto that area heads to to the park - with all it carries. Note that area of the watershed on the east side is by far the largest (explained in the "Water and Geology" section.

Glacial meltwater helped formed streams such as Big Clifty Creek. Its path probably began with a waterfall near and above the Ohio River and, over time, moved upstream as the waterfall’s erosive power carved out the Big Clifty Creek canyon, creating the area that is now Clifty Falls State Park. 

Big Clifty Creek, with its Big Clifty Falls at the park’s north end, is the main stream that cuts the canyon north-to-south and drains into the Ohio River. The river bed is home to many fossils.

The important east-side tributaries are Little Clifty Creek (Little Clifty Falls), Dean’s Branch (Tunnel Falls), and an unnamed creek (Hoffman Falls). Smaller tribs have cut smaller falls that can sometimes be seen from the trails. 

The major waterfalls all run over a harder rock layer called the Saluda Formation. The water in the image of Big Clifty Falls above is running over that formation.

The west side of the park is very different. The overall geology and landform here tilts to the west, so rainfall easily cuts the landscape on the “downhill” from east side into the canyon; but on the west, there are fewer east-flowing streams and those are short and close to the rim. Most noteworthy is the small unnamed creek that produces Wallace Falls.

If you do a rim-to-rim hike, the structural differences between the west side of the canyon and the east side become more clear through your feet.

Little Crooked Creek runs along the road up from the south entrance, on the west side of the road. At the bridge over the creek are two falls – informally called Redbud Falls on the left and Dogwood Falls on the right. Little Crooked Creek drains into Crooked Creek (emerging from the city of Madison), then onto the Ohio River, separate from Big Clifty Creek.

See more about the falls.


The ecosystem that developed in what is now the park, is composed of various pieces. Three types of upland forests are found (dry upland, dry-mesic upland, mesic upland) reflecting differences in moisture and slope. A chestnut-oak forest occurs in the dry upland, a white, red, and black oak forest in the dry-mesic upland, and mostly oak to maple-beech-red-oak-basswood in the mesic upland. There are some areas of “barren conditions” along the canyon rim. There, grasses predominate.


Overall, there are records of 54 tree species, 23 shrubs, and 13 ferns. On the animal side, there are records of 33 species of mammals, 15 reptiles, and 16 amphibians. There as many or more than 150 bird species! Records of invertebrates are sparse, but there have been about 42 species of land snails and slugs recorded from the park. On the fungal side, about 30 species have been recorded.

Of course, spring and fall wildflowers, like the False Rue Anemone above, are a favorite for visitors.

Culture and Other Artifacts

CCC-era pump house along the upper end of Big Clifty Creek, seen from Trail 8.

Artifacts from the Archaic and Woodland periods have been identified at the park.


The Todd House, built in the 1830s by John Todd, was located near the southern entrance to Clifty Falls. It was part of the Underground Railroad. The house was torn down in 1909.

A grist mill was located above the main falls on Big Clifty Creek near the mill pond. It is reported that parts of the mill race were present when the park was dedicated.  


Brough’s Folly was the work of John Brough  (pronounced “bruff”), who purchased the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad from the State of Indiana in the 1850s. The deal with the State required Brough to create a route from the river to the hilltop avoiding the steepness of the Incline Railroad. The project began, but was unsuccessful. Several structures from that attempt are still visible in the park today: the tunnel, railroad grades, various stone retaining walls and trestle abutments.


Many Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) men were stationed at Clifty Falls between 1933 and 1938. CCC construction remaining at Clifty Falls includes shelter houses such as Clifty Shelter, a pump house (shown here from Trail 8), gatehouses at both entrances, and the stone arch bridges over Dean's Branch and Little Clifty Creek. The Park’s Nature Center was the saddle barn.

The bridges in the park have changed over the years. Trestle bridges, now replaced, were used in at least two locations. Vestiges remain.

Various memorials and plaques can be found in the park. While not usually the highlight of visits to the park, they are part of the history of the park and serve as reminders of the past and can help us look to the future. 


The hiking over its 10 trails is good year-round, but many trails are rugged. Regardless, careful hiking is always needed, especially along the canyon rim. A special treat is to take the time for a rim-to-rim hike – all around the canyon. Or - start at the Nature Center on Trail 1, hike down to the creek bed, then follow it all the way up to the Big Clifty Falls – but remember, you have to get back! Be sure to have your map and read all the cautions carefully! Read more about the trails and hiking here.

 Indiana DNR has many useful publications on the nature and history of Clifty Falls - and other DNR properties.

Tunnel Falls

entrance to Trail 9 from campground

woodland stream

above Hoffman Falls

down in the canyon on trail 2

Among the resources used for this section were: "Clifty Falls State Park Interpretive Master Plan 2019" (Indiana DNR 2019), "The Geological Story of Clifty Falls State Park" (Indiana Geological and Water Survey), and "History and Geology of Madison, Indiana, and Clifty Falls State Park" (Kentucky Geological Survey, Series XIII, Guidebook 1, 2017).