Hike Ohio: Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

When you’ve got new hiking shoes, you’ve got to break them in properly. So yesterday we donned our hikers, hopped in the car, and drove to the Clifton Grove State Nature Preserve. It’s located less than a hour from Columbus in southwest Ohio, close to the village of Yellow Springs, and it offers some of the most beautiful scenery and interesting geology you’ll find anywhere in the Buckeye State.

It was a perfect day for hiking — cold enough to keep you from overheating but manageable with simple layering, and breathtakingly sunny with bright blue skies — and there were a lot of people out on the trails, which are well marked and easy to follow. We started by heading west on the north rim trail, which winds along the edge of the gorge and gives you peeks at the Little Miami River, which runs through the bottom of the gorge far below. The little streams rushing off the edge of the cliffside on their way to join the river, as shown in the picture just above, give you a hint of what you’ll see when you get down below.

The Clifton Gorge is so rocky it reminded me of Maine, but in the case of the Clifton Gorge the rocks are limestone and dolomite, rather than the familiar Maine granite. The path from the north rim trail down to the trail that hugs the river is made of natural rock and makes you appreciate having a sturdy pair of hiking shoes.

This time of year is a good time to visit the Clifton Gorge if you like the sound of rushing river water and enjoy looking at interesting rock formations. With the continuing snow melt and early spring rains, the Little Miami River was running high, and because the trees haven’t leafed out you can get good views of the river and the rock formations as you hike along. We didn’t see any spring flowers out yet, though, and the only real green on the landscape was the moss on some of the rock formations, as shown in the second photo above.

After we joined the riverside trail, we headed back to the east. The trail winds along the river’s edge, with the river to your right and the rock formations and cliffside to your left. In the bottom of the gorge the air is cool and sweet and worth as many deep breaths and hearty gulps as you can manage. Many of the rock formations are finely etched by erosion and almost look like modern art sculptures. And to the left the north rim of the gorge looms behind, as shown in the photo just above.

As you head eastward the Little Miami River has its calm spots, where the sound of the water moving past is very gentle and almost soothing. It is wonderfully quiet down there, and the other hikers along the trail for the most part respect the silence. This stretch of the river looks like it would be an ideal location for a peaceful canoe excursion — but that changes dramatically as you continue east along the trail.

As the river cuts through some of the channels between the rock formations in the river bed, the sound of the tumbling water rises to a roar, and you see some pretty aggressive whitewater. This may be a spot where the time of year really makes a difference in the views and the hiking experience. This particular area would undoubtedly look and sound a lot different during the hot and dry August doldrums, when the water levels on the river are sure to be much lower.

There were a lot of people out on the trails, including some student groups. Some were wearing masks, some donned masks as they passed other hikers, some made sure that they stepped to the sides of the trails to socially distance from people headed in the other direction, and some seemed completely oblivious to the fact that we’re coming out of a pandemic and people might be sensitive to not having other hikers shoulder past them on a narrow trail. Fortunately, those people made up only a tiny fraction of the people on the trail.

By taking the route we did — first heading west on the north rim trail, then heading east along the river — our hike ended with a cool waterfall. The trail circles the waterfall so you can see it from every perspective, as shown by the photo above and the first photo in this post. We also saw little stream that is the source of the waterfall plunge off the cliff, which is the second photo above. Shortly after we passed the waterfall we headed back up to the north rim, having enjoyed a delightful hike through one of the Buckeye State’s most scenic areas.

The Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve is well worth visiting. Having seen it in the early spring we might decide to pay a return visit in the fall, when the leaves are turning and we can get a different perspective on this beautiful spot.