“This river isn’t lost. It knows darn well what it’s doing.”
—Bob Armstrong, Lost River Conservation Association Chairman
The Rise of the Lost River sounds like an unproduced Indiana Jones script. Once you stumble upon this national natural landmark, its appearance doesn’t seem as dramatic as its name. Located about 20 miles south of Bedford, Indiana, this 200-foot curve slices into the limestone underbelly of an Orangeville cliff face. Frankly, it looks like an old-fashioned swimming hole.
But the Orangeville Rise is anything but ordinary. It is, in fact, a surface rupture of one of the country’s largest underground water systems, and the second largest artesian spring in the state of Indiana (the largest being Harrison Spring in Harrison County).
The vast and vaguely-mapped karstlands of southern Indiana are one of the most unusual geologic features in the Midwest. These extensive systems of sinkholes, caves and swallow-holes stretch for hundreds of square miles, largely invisible to the naked eye…until you plant a foot in one.
23 of the Lost River’s 87 miles churns below the surface at varying depths (60′ to 160′ feet roughly). Geologists suspect hundreds of miles of the Lost River and its tributaries remain unmapped and undiscovered.
The Rise is also the most well-known surface feature of Indiana’s mysterious Lost River. Indiana geologists know the Lost River is at least 87 miles long (with a watershed of about 355 square miles). Probably longer. The most challenging part of mapping a meandering subterranean river is that it’s a meandering subterranean river. The Lost River weaves in and out of hundreds, maybe thousands of sinkholes along its entire length, most smaller than a human finger. Millions of years of groundwater erosion have transformed the Lost River into one of the Midwest’s most mysterious natural landmarks: explorers can often hear the rush of water from the surface, although no water is in sight.
Now this fun fact might blow your mind: the Rise of the Lost River isn’t actually the RISE of the Lost River.
The US Army Corps of Engineers discovered the Rise at Orangeville is fed by almost 50 square miles of the Mitchell Plain, a field of karstland pockmarked with thousands of tiny holes, like the world’s largest sponge. This water has to go somewhere. In 1989, surveyors estimated the Rise produces 1.5 million (!!) gallons of freshwater every day. This water comes to the surface, then snakes its way to the Lost River indirectly, making the Orangeville Rise a technical tributary of the Lost River.
The True Rise of the Lost River
That honor falls to the aptly named True Rise of the Lost River, or simply the ‘True Rise’. This 160-foot deep spring rises to the surface a mile downstream from the Orangeville Rise.
The ‘True Rise’ isn’t nearly as famous as the Orangeville Rise. It’s located on private land (although that may have changed in the last decade), is relatively inaccessible…and it’s just not as picturesque. While the Orangeville Rise seems carved into the limestone by the graceful hand of Nature, the True Rise looks like a vacation spot for leeches.
The Lost River doesn’t need to be found…
Like the extensive cave systems winding hundreds of miles through the bedrock of southern Indiana and Kentucky, the wonder of the Rise of the Lost River is mostly hidden from view. Seasoned and budding geologists examine its dynamic features every year, yet it remains as elusive today as it did a century ago.
Personally, I believe it fits the Midwestern character. Unlike the craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains or the humid wetlands of the Everglades, our Midwestern landmarks don’t need to parade themselves around like tourist traps. We know what we’ve got.
Would You Like to Know More?
No resource comes more recommended than this explorer’s guide “Lost River Field Trip” by Richard L. Powell. Amateur geologists will enjoy its wealth of accessible information. Professional geologists will enjoy its thoroughness.
Learn more about Indiana’s startling array of karstlands on the page “Karst Features of Indiana” from IU’s Indiana Geological and Water Survey.
Read ‘The Swallow-holes of Lost River, Orange County, Indiana‘ by Indiana University’s Dr. Clyde Mallott, a famed geologist considered one of the foremost authorities on Indiana caves, underground streams, and general geology of the state
Enjoy this video and/or tremble in fear (if you’re claustrophobic) as an amateur explorer descends into a sinkhole of the Lost River. Don’t EVER do this, folks.