Hidden in the heart of the forest, rocky outcrops and a verdant canyon have stunned for generations.
The term “middle of nowhere” might have been coined for spots like Hemlock Cliffs, a trail leading through an oasis of sandstone bluffs designated a “special place” by Hoosier National Forest officials for its striking and rare features.
The path forms a simple loop around the cliffs, delving into the canyon on one side and exiting the other, so either trailhead works. My neighbor in Jasper suggested I go right, where a waterfall, flush from a recent rain, awaited. Not far past the trailhead, the first of many cliffs loomed, and I made my way down stone-cut stairs to the base of the canyon. There, I left the trail for a little while and headed to the nearby creekbed. The temperature dropped suddenly as I stepped into the shade of the sandstone, its unique honeycomb pattern caused by the weathering of iron ores. I snuck under one of the stratified crags and listened to the chirping of the birds bounce off the walls around me.
Halfway into the loop, I reached the highlight. A detour sign warning “Danger: Cliff Area” directed me to a massive overhang and—up a perilous, nearly invisible trail of crumbling stone—a vast rock shelter. Inside, the air was cool and damp, but light enough that I could see graffiti from hundreds of hikers crowding the wall. I ran my fingers over a few names, wondering if Evan and Lindsey were still Together 4ever.
Teetering several stories above the basin on the lip of the shelter, I lingered to take in the breathtaking view of the lush vegetation below: Wintergreen, wild geranium, and the pine-like hemlock for which the trail receives its name—all call this canyon home. Archeologists believe we modern visitors weren’t the first to seek shelter here, in this slightly mystical place; Native Americans inhabited the area as early as 10,000 years ago, and the box-shaped canyon likely acted as a natural defense system. This one rock shelter alone could have housed half a village—or perhaps one very important chief.
— Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Indianapolis Monthly as part of the Indiana Trails cover package.