Last Friday morning, I drove an hour north to the beautiful little town of Yellow Springs, Ohio to hike the Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve. My friend, Krista, was at the same time driving an hour south from her mother-in-law’s home near Columbus. Krista, who lives in Michigan but was in Columbus for Thanksgiving, is a blogging friend I met through Laure Ferlita’s online watercolor classes. Back in September when I saw the Sandhill Cranes in Ann Arbor, I met Krista for lunch, but this time we were determined to get out and paint, and we did. We had so much fun at Clifton Gorge, and despite the cold, 30-degree temperatures, we were able to paint without our fingers freezing. The place is gorgeous, and I’ll be back during spring migration. At many points along the trail, it's almost as if you are in the canopy of huge Sycamore trees, no doubt ideal hiding places for those canopy-loving neotropical migrants! Plus….wouldn’t you know it, the water rushing over the rocky bed of Clifton Gorge is my favorite birding river--the Little Miami!
At only 20 miles from its headwaters, the rock walls of Clifton Gorge sometimes narrow to no more than 20 feet apart, and in other spots, the Little Miami River looks more like a creek than a river.
Look at this narrow pass. The waters below churn and roar with amazing power as they are forced through an incredibly narrow rocky channel, but don't try to jump it! Since 1965, at least 10 people have died by falling into the gorge.
...we have to back up a little bit! Before heading to the gorge, Krista and I started our day in the sleepy little town of Clifton, Ohio, home to the only surviving grist mill in the area and one of the largest water-powered grist mills still in existence, Clifton Mill.
Built in 1802, Clifton Mill supplied the soldiers with grain during the War of 1812, and from 1908 to 1938 it powered Clifton, Cedarville, and Yellow Springs with electricity for $1.00 a month for private residences and $2.00 a month for businesses (hmmm...doesn't that sound lovely!)
…covered in Christmas lights for the holiday season, the old mill wheel at Clifton Mill is a reminder of how important the rushing waters of the Little Miami were to Ohio settlers in the 1800s. Now, the nighttime light display of over 3.5 million twinkly lights is supposed to be spectacular. We might have to head up there one evening this December...
Beautiful old homes line the streets of the town.
We didn't stay too long in Clifton as we wanted to get to the gorge. Returning to the parking lot off State Route 343, we hopped on the Rim Trail at Bear's Den. (We later found out you can also access the trail at Clifton Mills, so the next time I might start there.) It was still early in the day, so the parking lot was empty (or maybe it was because most of the population was recovering from the turkey and mashed potatoes consumed the night before on Thanksgiving)! Either way, as soon as we stepped on the trail, we could feel the stillness of winter all around us, but the quiet and cold only added to the wonder of the gorge, exposing the beauty of the dolomite and limestone cliffs. With no leaves to get in the way, the black walls of rock dominated the scenery.
Clifton Gorge was formed over 10,000 years ago as an ancient meltwater river from the Wisconsinan continental glacier eroded the soft limestones and shales in its path. Silurian dolomite, resistant to erosion, formed the walls of the gorge as undercutting continued to carve out the softer stone under it. Reported as "an outstanding example of interglacial and post-glacial canyon cutting," Clifton Gorge is an open book of geological history. Slump blocks are formed when flowing water carves out softer rock under erosion-resistant rock, such as the harder Dolomite in Clifton Gorge. As the horizontal undercutting continues, the layers of rock above eventually collapse under their own weight, tumbling into the canyon or slumping against the walls forming slump-block caves.
...slump blocks glowing with spongey, electric-green moss. The hunks of Dolomite cover the canyon floor. Some can be as large as a house, some much smaller, all very cool...
Wherever you look there is beauty. The grays and brows of winter only help highlight the remaining color found in fallen leaves. A small spring feeds this tiny brook that eventually falls over 100 ft to the river below.
The glacial meltwaters also formed the incredibly diverse plant life of the gorge. Boreal relics of northern species were deposited in the gorge as the mile-high glacier retreated, and thousands of generations later, the plants still survive due to the cooler temperatures in the shady gorge. Eastern Hemlock and White Cedar (Arbor vitae) live throughout the preserve, as well as other northern species such as Red Baneberry and Canada Yew. Other rare plants are sheltered within its protected walls, and in spring you can find the rare Snow Trillium.
Large cliff-hugging White Cedars (Arbor vitae) cling to the rock walls of the cliffs. With such impossible-looking displays, the roots of the Arbor vitae must be very strong. I read ancient White Cedars growing along the Niagara Escarpment are very slow growing and outlive the sedimentary rock beneath them. When the rock erodes away, they end up clinging to the edges of cliffs. Click here for more info. I don't know if that's how our cedars reached their precarious positions, but it's interesting!
...more slump blocks. Always covered with the bright green moss, they are especially beautiful now as they show the only saturated color in the winter landscape. In spots, the water of the river had an aqua tinge as you see here. I read somewhere it's because of algae. We both noticed the beautiful shade of blue appearing in certain spots.
...Krista laughing at the bottom of the gorge. Can you tell it was cold. It was about 37 degrees then, so it wasn't too bad. I think she was laughing because I forgot (of all things) my paintbrush and had to run back to the car to get it. Typical.
...a shot of me, courtesy of Krista, looking very northern in my super fluffy good-to-52-degrees-below-zero down parka. Needless to say, after climbing back up the gorge with camera and painting supplies, I was sweating!
Here and there small springs leak from the cliff walls and the beautiful sound of the dripping water is soothing. I can only imagine what it looks like when the temperature drops below freezing and the gorge is encased in ice.
This has been my longest post ever. I hope you're still awake. It seems I am destined to bird the Little Miami… I have my “patch" of the Little Miami at the Kings Powder Factory (thanks for the British term, Warren and Frank…), Fort Ancient just 15-20 minutes up the road, Caesar Creek 30-35 minutes….and now Clifton Gorge at just an hour north. I haven't tried birding the Little Miami south of me........I wonder what's down there....
Information I did not know was gleaned from these sites, click for details:
Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve Flyer (found at the interpretive hut at Bear's Den, this is the online version of the same flyer, complete with map and directions).