Upper Cataract Falls

Indianapolis / Cloverdale, Indiana, USA

About Upper Cataract Falls


Hiking Distance: 1/2-mile round trip (to base)
Suggested Time: 40 minutes; scramble (to base)

Date first visited: 2015-10-05
Date last visited: 2015-10-05

Waterfall Latitude: 39.43466
Waterfall Longitude: -86.81322

Upper Cataract Falls was one of two waterfalls on Mill Creek in the Cataract Falls State Recreation Area west of Indianapolis (apparently, it used to be part of the Lieber State Recreation Area).

This seemed to be the only significant year-round waterfall in the state of Indiana, and it was also said to be the largest waterfall by volume in the state.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_054_10052015 - Upper Cataract Falls
Upper Cataract Falls

There was another waterfall further downstream though it wasn’t as easily accessible by foot from the Upper Falls.

It seemed like the Upper Falls was the bigger of the two waterfalls at a reported total drop of 20ft though if you include the rapids and man-modified tiers further upstream, then we’ve seen claims of 45ft in total.

In a state that seemed to be dominated by flat cornfields, the fact that Upper Cataract Falls existed at all seemed like a miracle in itself.

Formation of the Upper Cataract Falls

A sign here chronicled the geologic process behind the formation of the Cataract Falls.

It started with a layer of calcium-rich minerals (from sea life) settling on the ocean floor as this area was once covered by ocean.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_033_10052015 - Looking down across the brink of the Upper Cataract Falls from near the picnic area and parking lot
Looking down across the brink of the Upper Cataract Falls from near the picnic area and parking lot

The calcium sediments would become limestone from the pressure of more layers accumulating atop the calcium sediments.

Then, during the most recent Ice Age, vast glaciers (most likely the same ones responsible for the Great Lakes) blocked the flow of the drainage of what would eventually become Mill Creek.

This resulted in sediments accumulating above the harder limestone layer.

Then, as the glaciers retreated, the Mill Creek drainage resumed its flow ultimately cutting into the softer sediments.

This process revealed the harder underlying limestone layers, which the water would flow over to become the Upper and Lower Cataract Falls.

Experiencing the Upper Cataract Falls

Upper_Cataract_Falls_068_10052015 - The covered bridge over Mill Creek upstream of Upper Cataract Falls was one of the most unusual covered bridges I had seen as it featured picnic tables inside the bridge itself!
The covered bridge over Mill Creek upstream of Upper Cataract Falls was one of the most unusual covered bridges I had seen as it featured picnic tables inside the bridge itself!

The large parking lot was practically next to the side rails adjacent to the Upper Cataract Falls (see directions below).

We were able to enjoy profile views of the wide waterfall from there as well as its smaller upper tiers as there were a pair of overlooks.

Upstream from the brink of the falls was an attractive covered bridge with picnic tables inside it.

On the north side of the parking lot was a picnic area as well as a playground, which our daughter very much enjoyed.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_041_10052015 - This semi-obvious trail-of-use led further downstream from the Upper Cataract Falls before reaching a spot where I could descend into the gorge and scramble back upstream to get to the base of the waterfall
This semi-obvious trail-of-use led further downstream from the Upper Cataract Falls before reaching a spot where I could descend into the gorge and scramble back upstream to get to the base of the waterfall

Meanwhile, I pursued other ways to check out this waterfall by following an informal trail of use that went into the bush alongside Mill Creek further downstream.

After a fairly obvious trail that descended steeply to the banks of Mill Creek, I then scrambled my way upstream to return to the Upper Cataract Falls.

Once I got in front of it, that was when I got more satisfying direct views as shown at the top of this page.

Given the steepness of the gorge walls, it wasn’t wise to try to take a shortcut to get back up to the parking lot directly.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_044_10052015 - Context of the stream scramble leading up to the Upper Cataract Falls as Mill Creek was in low flow, but I can imagine how much more difficult (if not very dangerous) this scramble would be during high flow
Context of the stream scramble leading up to the Upper Cataract Falls as Mill Creek was in low flow, but I can imagine how much more difficult (if not very dangerous) this scramble would be during high flow

Instead, I just played it safe and went back the way I came.

Finally, even though we technically didn’t need to do the scramble to see the waterfall from its base (resulting in a difficulty of 1 without it), I thought that the experience would be more fulfilling to get that frontal view of the falls.

So my overall excursion took about 40 minutes, which included the scramble to the base of the falls and back (more fitting of a difficulty of 2).

Authorities

Upper Cataract Falls resides in Lieber and Cataract Falls State Recreation Area near Cloverdale in Owen County, Indiana. It is administered by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_004_10052015 - This was the Covered Bridge that was very close to the parking lot as well as upstream from the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_009_10052015 - More broader look upstream at the attractive covered bridge upstream from the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_072_10052015 - Looking downstream from the covered bridge towards the brink of the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_061_10052015 - This was the short walkway leading to the main viewing area of the tallest of the drops comprising the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_022_10052015 - Our first look at the main drop of the Upper Cataract Falls. You can see here that it seemed like parts of the waterfall were facing away from us so that piqued my interest in trying to find a way down into the gorge for a more satisfying frontal look at it
Upper_Cataract_Falls_013_10052015 - This was one of the upper tiers of Upper Cataract Falls. Note the man-made structures bridging the brink of the falls as well as towards the lower right side of this photo. Apparently, this used to be part of an old mill that once stood next to the falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_016_10052015 - Perhaps this photo better shows the remnants of the man-made interventions at the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_018_10052015 - This shelter had a few more picnic tables as the large parking lot area by the Upper Cataract Falls was ideal for picnicking
Upper_Cataract_Falls_060_10052015 - The Upper Cataract Falls parking lot and picnic area also had this nice playground area, which kept Tahia busy under Julie's watchful eye while I was scrambling into the gorge for a better view of the falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_017_10052015 - This was the walkway connecting the two overlooks at the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_058_10052015 - The bush trail eventually led me to this sloping descent (it was a little muddy when I was there) down to the bottom of the gorge of Mill Creek downstream of the Upper Cataract Falls
Upper_Cataract_Falls_050_10052015 - Approaching the wide Upper Cataract Falls as I scrambled upstream on the bed of Mill Creek
Upper_Cataract_Falls_055_10052015 - The steepness of the gorge walls around Upper Cataract Falls as shown here was the main reason why it would be foolish to try to take a shortcut to go directly into the gorge from the main lookouts
Upper_Cataract_Falls_056_10052015 - The little railing near the base of the descent was the hint that I needed to recover the trail back up to the main parking area for the Upper Cataract Falls

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To drive to Upper Cataract Falls from downtown Indianapolis, we drove the I-70 west for about 38 miles to the exit 41 for the US Hwy 231 at Cloverdale.

Turning left to go south on the US 231, we then drove for just under 7 miles to N Cataract Rd on our right (there was a sign indicating Cataract Falls SRA pointing in this direction).

Then, we drove on North Cataract Rd for a little over 3 miles to the well-signed turnoff leading to the Cataract Falls State Recreation Area just past the bridge over Mill Creek.

Upper_Cataract_Falls_005_10052015 - Looking back at the parking lot for the Upper Cataract Falls in the Lieber and Cataract Falls SRA
Looking back at the parking lot for the Upper Cataract Falls in the Lieber and Cataract Falls SRA

There was an entrance kiosk where there was a $9 non-resident fee during our visit.

Beyond the kiosk, there was a fork, where the sign pointed left for the Lower Cataract Falls and right for the Upper Cataract Falls.

The large parking lot was pretty much adjacent to this signposted fork.

Overall, this drive took us about an hour.

For geographical context, Indianapolis, Indiana, was 112 miles (2 hours drive) northwest of Cincinnati, Ohio, 176 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) west of Columbus, Ohio, 185 miles (under 3 hours drive) southeast of Chicago, Illinois, 113 miles (2 hours drive) north of Louisville, Kentucky, and 260 miles (under 4 hours drive) east of St Louis, Missouri.

Movie showing the upper falls and additional tiers from a couple of different lookouts while also showing the covered bridge way upstream


Short right to left sweep starting with a left-to-right sweep of the upper falls from its front then sweeping all the way downstream to show the context of the gorge and river

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Tagged with: indianapolis, cloverdale, indiana, waterfall, owen county, lieber, mill creek, state recreation area



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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