Hoosier National Special Places – Hemlock Cliffs, Wesley Chapel Gulf

The U.S. Forest identifies nearly two dozen Special Places on the Hoosier National Forest, so designated because of their unique natural and historic characters.

Hemlock Cliffs

Hemlock Cliffs is arguably the most inspiring of the Hoosier National Forest’s self-declared Special Places. Encompassing a narrow, 150-foot-deep sandstone box canyon, this Crawford County natural sanctum supports towering hardwood trees and rare plants that thrive in its cool micro climes, including the namesake evergreen.

Natural karst features at this Crawford County site a few miles southwest of English include seasonal waterfalls, small caves and subterranean drainage conduits into the soluble, limestone bedrock that underlies the cliffs and canyon floor.

Sandstone formations at Hemlock Cliffs include rock shelters most assuredly used by prehistoric natives, perhaps as many as 10,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows Indian Cave was occupied by squash-eating, hunting-and-gathering Middle Archaic peoples some 7,000 or so years ago. It's one of but a handful in fhe Midwest where foodstuffs from the period have been found.

In addition to the iconic 150-foot Hemlock Falls, the 70-foot Messmore Falls feeds canyon floor splash pools in spectacular fashion, its discharge joining Hemlock’s and flowing north and east to Otter Creek, Little Blue River and, ultimately, the Ohio River.

Hemlock's spectacular cliffs, overhangs, outcrops and shelters were carved from the sandstone some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago by post-glacial meltwaters. The valley’s Tar Spring Formation sandstone formed some 325 million years ago, when the area occupied the edge of a shallow equatorial sea. The pock-marked honeycombs were caused by splashing waves that, over time, dissolved and washed away the iron ores, leaving uneven surfaces in their wakes.

Sharing the ecosystem with the lofty, short-needled, small-coned hemlocks are the State Rare wintergreen and State Watch-listed mountain laurel, along with wild geranium, French’s shooting star, and liverwort.

Wesley Chapel Gulf

A National Natural Landmark, Wesley Chapel Gulf offers a rare glimpse into the subterranean world of the Lost River Watershed in western Orange County. The 187-acre Special Place protects an exposed, peanut-shaped gulf created by the collapse of the limestone ceiling above an underground stream.

The mysterious 87-mile Lost River rises in Washington County and flows through Southern Indiana ag country before sinking underground by a farm field five miles to the east of Wesley Chapel Gulf. Its path from there runs some 23 miles underground, before re-emerging two miles to the gulf’s west and resuming an overland course to the White River East Fork.

Karst features at this site southwest of Orleans include caves, rock shelters, sinkholes, and swallow holes.

Wesley Chapel Gulf lies along a straight line between the river’s sink and rise. It’s 1,075 feet long and, on average, 350 feet wide. The rim encompasses more than eight acres and sharply descends to a six-acre floor. The walls measure from 25 to 95 feet high.

The Lost River rises from 125 feet underground to emerge at Wesley Chapel’s Boiling Spring rise pool, which, during low-water, is 25-30 feet deep, shimmering-green and tranquil. The water flows a short distance before disappearing beneath the surface through limestone walls and swallow holes. Flood channels, with as many as 100 swallow holes, ring the gulf edges and fill with overflow during heavy rains, helping disperse the water back underground.

Wesley Chapel Gulf was created by the collapse of, most likely, multiple sinkholes, through which an estimated 720,000 cubic yards of limestone rock and debris crumbled, dissolved and washed away. Wesley Chapel is wider than any known passage in the Lost River Watershed, whose immensity has been described as an Underground Grand Canyon.

The gulf, a.k.a. Shirley Gulf and Elrod Gulf for previous owners, is named for the 1858 Wesley Chapel Church and associated cemetery, which sits a quarter mile to the north.

Hoosier National Forest Photographs: Top two, Hemlock Cliffs; Bottom two, Wesley Chapel Gulf.


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