Long before the inception of the Hooters shorts, years before the creation of the first Rocky's sub, predating the archaic Jeff boat, life thrived beneath the Indiana shore. Evidence of the miraculous, prehistoric life forms can still be seen just across the bridge at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.
Nestled just beyond the chain restaurant oasis of Jeffersonville at exit 0, is an incredible gem of Kentuckiana. Falls of the Ohio State Park was once covered by a shallow tropical sea about 387 million years ago. Yeah, that's a long time. During the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers, rushing melt-water carved out the area that was once an ancient coral sea floor. A plethora of fossilized sea creatures (more than 600 species to be exact) such as corals, sponges, brachiopods (extinct shellfish), mollusks, and echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, etc.) can be witnessed, touched, dusted with an old toothbrush, or tread upon by the tiniest of archeologists. The state park consists of approximately 165 acres of land that houses picnic areas, an interpretive center, and a vast area of Devonian fossil beds preserved in limestone .
When my family arrived at the park, it was already hotter than a pepper sprout outside, so we heeded the warning on the interpretation center door: Limestone beds can be 20 degrees hotter than the outside temperature due to the sun's reflection. Interpretation center (and air condition) it was. Inside, we learned about the river's history from prehistoric geology to the steamboat. Cases of arrowheads dating back hundreds of thousands of years were particularly interesting as were paddlefish replicas and models of the ancient reefs. The history buff would also find the center worthwhile--the area was influential to such greats as Lewis and Clark, Twain and Whitman. My children, 3 and 6, enjoyed the Ohio River fish tank and the giant wooly mammoth statue, but mostly they were eager to explore the fossils down below on the scorching riverbank.
Once outside on the beds, sunglasses and sunscreen were a must as the sun beams off the sparkling white limestone like a giant tanning bed. Immediately, we spotted distinct coral remnants and many brachiopods. Although we were merely hypothesizing about the animals' identities, I did see a guide lead a three-man group pointing out accurate highlights of the fossil beds. Whether your family opts for a guide or decides to conduct their own fossil hunting expedition, what lies down below the Falls is truly remarkable. And here I thought the Sunny-Side was only good for Hoosier jokes.
So what exactly are "The Falls" then if the park is all about prehistoric fossils? Once upon a time, The Falls of the Ohio were a series of small rapids caused by water flowing over ledges of limestone. According to the Falls of the Ohio pamphlet (see I did learn something) the first rapids began in front of what is now downtown Louisville and continued 2.5 miles down river with a drop off of 26 feet. The Falls provided a soothing retreat for those living along the river, but presented an obstacle for river navigation for settlers and merchants. A dam was built in the 1920s to restrict the rapids and ease navigation from Pittsburg (the River's beginning) to New Orleans. Now, several areas in the dam provide a rushing water outlet while the river beyond the dam remains safe for travel.
Last weekend, I saw several fisherman, waders and yes, swimmers near the dam, but after smelling the river water, observing the cloudy, oily, stagnant edges of the Ohio and witnessing the plentiful debris washed ashore, I think you'd have to be crazy to actually get in the water. Like museum etiquette, I told my brood to look, but don't touch.
If you go, I'd recommend early morning for the heat or perhaps wait until fall. Be sure to prepare for the sun and bring a bucket, water, and toothbrush to play paleontologist. There are several areas to climb rocks and witness a decent view under large, shady trees, so be sure to bring suitable shoes for climbing. While the interpretive center isn't necessary to have a good time, it is quiet, informative and clean, and a great place to cool off. The center costs $5 for adults and $2 for kids, but viewing the fossil beds, picnicking, or partaking in the several nearby playgrounds is free.
If you'd like to add Environmentalist to your Paleontologist title, bring a bag and help keep the park clean. I saw several New Castle bottles (good taste for despicable litter-bugs) on the rocks as well as the usual river trash washed ashore.
All-in-all The Falls of the Ohio State Park is an easy, inexpensive, educational adventure that should make it on the summer to-do list. Although I've officially marked if off, I believe we might return real soon.