Posted in Native American, Park review, Southwestern Ohio

Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

Years ago I went canoeing on the Little Miami River; the river serenely wound its way between the wooded river banks. But at Clifton Gorge, the Little Miami River is something altogether different; it plunges over falls and rapids between narrow cliffs of dolomite and shale. The river and surrounding cliffs are the main attractions of Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve, a 268 acre preserve located adjacent to John Bryan State Park. The Little Miami River flows through both, with the nature preserve upstream where the river roils. You can enter the trail from John Bryon State Park on one end or from a parking lot in the town of Clifton on the other end. Or like us, you can choose an in-between point by using the parking lot off of SR 343 just before you enter the town of Clifton (see “Location” at the end of this article).

Following the Gorge Trail at Clifton Gorge.

A sign at the parking lot informs visitors that pets aren’t allowed on the trail. Another sign on the kiosk warns visitors that this is a high crime area, presumably from thieves breaking into cars while their owners are hiking. As a precaution you shouldn’t leave any valuables in plain sight in your vehicle. There are also signs warning people to stay on the trail, and prohibiting rock climbing.

Warning to stay on the trail.

From the parking lot a short trail leads to the gorge. A small nature center is located there (and a Port-A-John). There are also some benches and picnic tables tucked into a shady grove.

From the nature center, you can choose to follow the Gorge Trail, the Rim Trail or the Narrows Trail. The one mile Gorge Trail descends to the banks of the Little Miami River and follows the gorge valley downstream to John Bryan State Park. The one mile Rim Trail follows a parallel route along the rim of the gorge. And the half mile Narrows Trail goes upstream along the rim where you can view the wildest portion of the river as it passes through the most narrow portion of the gorge. We started out by following the Narrows Trail upstream.

Going toward the rim.
One of the bridges on the Narrows Trail. There are also some boardwalks and observations decks along the rim.

The river at this point plunges through a narrow channel bounded by steep cliffs on each side. Observation platforms on the rim provide a vantage point for viewing the gorge ; however, we couldn’t always get a good view of the gorge due to the foliage. It would definitely be worth visiting again after the leaves have fallen. Besides providing a viewing point, the observation decks also had interpretive signs mounted on the banisters. Our favorite was the one explaining that we were at “Darnell’s Leap.”

Cornelius Darnell was a member of a scouting party headed up by Daniel Boone. The entire scouting party was captured by Shawnee Indians. Cornelius Darnell managed to escape from captivity, but the Shawnee were soon aware of his escape and followed him in hot pursuit. As he ran away he soon found himself approaching the gorge. Rather than let the Shawnee overtake him, he decided to try to leap across the gorge at its narrowest point. Although he couldn’t jump from rim to rim, he did manage to latch on to some woody shrubs growing on the cliff on the opposite side of the gorge, and from there he was able to climb up the cliff and make his get-away. The Shawnee didn’t hazard the jump.

What a great story! The sign even displayed this illustration depicting the jump.

Here are some photos of the gorge at this point. Because there’s nothing nearby to provide a sense of scale, it’s hard to tell how big the gorge is. But trust me… I couldn’t jump across it.

From high above at the rim, looking down at the falls.
So Darnell jumped the gorge somewhere around here.

We followed the Narrows Trail back to the nature center, and then descended one of several stairways leading to the Gorge Trail.

Looking back at the stairs.

We followed the trail downstream along the river. Cliffs rose on either side of river. In several places large slump blocks had broken off the cliff (long ago) and sat in the valley or in the river itself. Wherever this happened the river channel narrowed making the water roil. One of the larger slump blocks that we passed actually has a name. It’s called “Steamboat Rock” because of its size and shape. As we walked along we also passed a slump cave. A sign at the cave’s mouth invited those interested to explore this one cave, but to leave any other slump caves alone so as to not disturb the wildlife that might be living there.

Steamboat Rock
The roiling Little Miami River
Water picking up speed as it goes around slump blocks.
A slump rock in the process of slumping. In 10,000 years or so, the rock to the left will be in the river.
Slump block cave; this cave entrance is big enough to walk into.
There’s a drizzling little stream pouring off the top of this cliff.

After a mile, the river has become calmer and the valley wider. We reached a sign announcing that we were entering John Bryan State Park. A large wooden pedestrian bridge crosses the river at this point. From here, you turn left and cross the river (not sure where this leads), or continue straight on a trail in John Bryan State Park that parallels the river. We choose to turn right and follow a trail that climbs up to the Rim Trail. We followed the Rim Trail, occasionally catching glimpses of the river below all the way back to our starting point at the nature center. Then a short walk back to the parking lot and our car.

Trail bridge across Little Miami
Flowers growing on the rim

Deb thinks the above flowers were Appendaged Waterleaf. They were both on the rim and in the gorge valley. Here’s a closer look.

Appendaged Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum)

The boulders inside the rim were often decked out in stonecrop.


And here’s an interesting little bug on a wild geranium blossom.

Bug on wild geranium
Additional information


Address: 2331 State Route 343 Yellow Springs, OH 45387

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Note: Clifton Mill – a historic grist mill with a nice restaurant is a short walk from the hiking trail. The hiking trail ends at a parking lot on Jackson St. in Clifton. As you enter the parking lot from the trail, a kiosk will be on your left and homes will be across the street. To your right, Jackson St. turns around a bend and becomes Water St. Walk down Water St. a short ways – Clifton Mill is the large red building on the right across from the blacksmith shop.

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© Deborah Platt, Robert Platt and 2012 to 2021

13 thoughts on “Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

  1. I currently live in the beautiful north woods of the Huron National Forest in Michigan, but remember as a young sailor visiting Clifton Gorge in 1969 with some friends from Dayton (where I was born). In those days, there were far fewer restrictions on access points. We were with a couple local guys, who were jumping off a 70 ft cliff (!) into a deep part of the river. So, of course, I had to do it too! (twice) It was the most exhilarating thing (and probably dangerous) thing I had ever done! That is my memory of the beautiful gorge and the reason I am on this web page now. Thanks for all the photos of the place I visited so long ago!

  2. I grew up in Dayton and spent a lot of time at Clifton and John Bryan growing up. Living in the Columbus area now, I am surprised most people are unfamiliar with these beautiful preserves! And Glen Helen Nature Preserve is nearby as well!

    1. You’re right… so many of our nature preserves are just stunning. We had planned on hiking at Glen Helen Nature Preserve after Clifton Gorge, but to our surprise, there wasn’t a single parking place left at Glen Helen. Too bad for us, but great that it has become that popular. A number of nature preserves that used to be “permit only” have been opened up to the general public, and we hope to write up a few of these in the near future. We were recently at Shallenberger, Christmas Rock, and Rhododendron Cove… all were great.

    1. Sartenada, I am glad that you enjoyed our post. I was also really impressed by the story of Cornelius Darnell escaping from the Shawnee Indians. I am trying to learn more about the history of this region’s Native Americans.

  3. I’ve changed my mind…everything you do would be best put into a book. A magazine would not be good enough. You need to put together a book about the hidden wonders of Ohio! 🙂

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