Trip Report: Fast and muddy water – McCormick’s Creek, Cataract Falls

McCormick's Creek's racing water over a limestone bed offered abundant opportunities to create motion via long exposure and neutral density filters. - Nikon D600; Nikkor 24-70, f/2.8 - f/22; 2 secs; ISO 50

Gary and I heard McCormick’s Creek long before we reached the Statehouse Quarry, which sits creekside a quarter mile or so upstream from the White River West Fork. And I can’t say I was thrilled when I found the creek a muddy, coffee-with-cream color. The water rushed, unlike I’d ever seen it, with a deafening roar. But the idea of roiling muck as the day’s visual image didn’t exactly delight.

For the most part, my instinctive reaction missed the mark by more than a quarter mile. Using Long Exposure Photography techniques, I literally turned the mud to photo gold, as evidenced by the Photo Albums posted here. The swirling water over the creek beds’ glistening rocks slaked my thirst for abstract photographic expression, even if the sudsy accumulations at the fall bases were anything but refreshing.

After a soggy summer and Thursday evening’s downpour, we set out Friday morning chasing the water from McCormick’s Creek State Park just east of Spencer to the Cataract Falls State Recreation Area a few miles north and west of the Owen County town.

Upper Cataract Falls

A roiling Upper Cataract Falls offered opportunities for motion effects with long exposures and high f-stops via low ISOs and neutral density filters. – Nikon D600, Nikkor 24-70, f/2.8, ND2 – f/22; 0.5 secs., ISO 50

McCormick’s Creek was Indiana’s first state park and turned 100 years old on July 4. Its 1,924 acres are classic karst — limestone bedrock with unique rock formations — and feature a dramatic canyon with roaring waterfalls, caves, stone arches and other natural phenomena.

Since neither of us had explored the Statehouse Quarry Loop, we started there, following the “rugged” Trail 3 from the Civilian Conservation Corps memorial to the quarry and creek. From the trailhead to the creek, rugged means a steep hill. Due to the volume of water racing to the river, we couldn’t cross the creek to follow the trail any further.

The quarry commenced operation in 1878 and is so named because it produced limestone used to build the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. The day was overcast and the air was dewy thick. It took a lot of editing to get a couple images that could be used for documentary purposes — say a slide show. I even broke out the Speedlight to enhance a slippery rock pile.

Trail 3 crosses McCormick’s Creek twice on its way to another trailhead at the falls a little less than a mile up the stone canyon. We drove to the trailhead for some rushing-water images from creekside and up above. Employing low ISOs and slow shutter speeds, enhanced with a ND2 filter, the muddy water turned to digital caramel swirl, with some pleasing results.

Cataract Falls, located north and a little west of McCormick’s on the Mill Creek, aren’t anywhere close to the state’s tallest. But they are the most dramatic, dropping nearly 40 feet in their Upper and Lower sections over a wide, limestone bed. The Upper Falls drop 20 feet, the Lower Falls 18. And they carry more water — and offer more photo angles — than any other in Indiana.

Zooming in on the Lower Cataract Falls revealed the water's sheer power. - Nikon D600; Nikkor 70-300, f/4.0-5.6 - f/14, 1/200 sec., ISO 250

Zooming in on the Lower Cataract Falls and using faster shutter speeds and a stopped-down aperture revealed the water’s sheer power. – Nikon D600; Nikkor 70-300, f/4.0-5.6 – f/14, 1/200 sec., ISO 250

Like McCormick’s, Mill Creek on Friday raged after a soggy summer and a Thursday evening downpour. Below the Lower Falls, the creek widens into the serene, 1,400-acre Cagles Mill Lake, a.k.a. Cataract Lake, built in 1952 as the state’s first flood-control reservoir.

Both Cataract falls are drive-and-shoot locations, with multiple overlooks and no hiking required.

Despite the warning signs, a short, at times rugged trail that leads to the Upper Falls is widely used by tourists and photographers alike. It was too overgrown to follow on Friday. A wide trail that leads north from the Upper Falls offered a framed view of the falls and a magnificent, but dying ancient oak.

The Cataract waterfalls were created between 70,00 and 220,000 years ago during the Illinoisan Glacial, when ice sheets carved Mill Creek’s channel through two  limestone ledges that had been buried under ancient lake sediments.

Cataract Falls were likewise exploding with rushing water offering a wide variety of angles and opps for slowed motion. Again, slow shutters, ND filters, etc., produced some memorable shots.

Steven Higgs is a partner in Indiana Nature Photography and author of A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana: 119 Places to Explore, published in April 2016 by IU Press. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More.

See Gary’s post: Cloudy Days and Waterfalls

For more information

McCormick’s Creek State Park
Cataract Falls State Recreation Area