GUCI Nature Exploration Series: Part Two (Hiking In Indiana)

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I love hiking in Indiana! Indiana provides many different types of hiking opportunities. This short list contains examples of different types of terrain, skill levels, and experiences. Rather than creating a top 5 list, I chose to focus on different types of trips so that you can choose the adventure that fits the best for you. Let’s get started!

Fort Harrison State Park

If a nature hike close to the city is what you’re seeking then Fort Ben has what you’re looking for.  Most of the trails at Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park are easy, wooded, level hikes. Fall Creek cuts across the park and provides a cooling air and gentle soundscape to many areas in the park. There are plenty of activities here such as playgrounds, picnic shelters, and a cool nature center if you need a break from the trails. My two favorite hikes here are the Fall Creek Trail and the Lawrence Creek Trail.

The Fall Creek Trail follows along Fall Creek on the eastern side of the park and crosses into Warbler Woods Nature Preserve. There is a boardwalk to birdwatch over the creek, and I have seen many deer and beavers in this area. The trail meets up with the Camp Creek Loop Trail and the Harrison Trace Trail, the main trail that runs across the park, so expanding this hike is easy! The Lawrence Creek Loop Trail is a bit more challenging. This four mile route goes through the Lawrence Creek Nature Preserve, a protected hardwood forest that contains many types of animals – from chipmunks to bald eagles! This trail is the most rugged in the park with elevation changes, mud and thick vegetation. The trail is narrow and in some places not very well maintained. But if you don’t mind getting a little dirty, this can be a very rewarding hike!   

Brown County State Park

One of the best scenic drives in the state is located about ninety minutes south of Indianapolis in Brown County State Park. Tons of people travel to Brown County every year to see the leaves change colors. This park is packed with activities such as climbing the old fire tower, a nature center, mountain biking, camping and horse trails. Most trails here are family friendly but all are challenging due to elevation changes and the natural condition of the trails. My favorite hikes here are trails 8 and 10, but all trails in Brown County are worth your time.

Trail 8 or HHC trail, is a 3.5 mile loop that begins at Ogle Lake. The Hoosier Hiking Council, a volunteer group that maintains many trails in Indiana, built and maintain this trail. HHC trails are known for being rugged and challenging and this one is no exception. Trail 8 leads you up and down through forested ravines. Your calves and thighs will get a great workout!

Trail 10 or the Fire Tower trail, is a little easier loop. You still get to climb into ravines and back up the hills, but it is about half as long as Trail 8 at just over two miles. Save some energy though, because after your hike you can climb the steps of the fire tower and look out over the park!

Spring Mill State Park

Spring Mill State Park is one of the best family fun parks in the state. It offers a wide range of historical entertainment from a colonial village to the Gus Grissom Memorial Museum. But just because Spring Mill State Park has those attractions doesn’t mean there isn’t great hiking to be had. Trail 7 is an easy and quick loop trail that offers wide paths great views. But my favorite hikes here are Trail 5 and Trail 3.

Trail 5 or Spring Mill Lake Trail, is a quick one mile loop. It is narrower and less maintained than other trails at Spring Mill, but the range of wildlife you will see is incredible! The southern end of the loop passes through the marsh where turtles, frogs and water birds are common. Then it climbs the eastern bank of the lake, across the dam, and follows the water’s edge on the north side of the lake where cool breezes cool you off on even the hottest of days.

Trail 3 or the Cave Loop Trail is a two and a half mile loop trail that provides stunning views of ravines, sink holes, and cave entrances. Bring a pair of sandals or water shoes with you on this one. The trail signs At Springmill are fantastic – and when you see the signs for Donaldson Cave, follow them. This side trail off trail 3 leads to a cliff side covered in stairs. At the bottom, change shoes, and follow the short creek hike to Donaldson Cave. The temperature will drop considerably at the cave mouth, so take a moment to rest and adjust before going in. Then EXPLORE! Be careful because the water makes everything extremely slippery, but there is nothing like walking around a cave in southern Indiana.

Turkey Run/ Shades State Park

The Sugar Creek is a wonderful natural waterway that runs diagonally south from northern Indiana to the Wabash River. It offers great opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, and river floating. Sugar Creek has also spent the last few million years creating my favorite parks in Indiana, Shades and Turkey Run State Park. Both parks are filled with challenging trails and amazing natural wonders. I love everything about both of these parks and it is worth your time to explore both completely. Picking a favorite trail at these two was tough, but I think Trail 2 at Shades and Trail 3/5/9 at Turkey Run are the best.

Trail 2 at Shades Park is a very rugged trail that has big rewards. The trail begins innocently enough on a level walk through the woods. The loop begins about a quarter mile into the woods and choosing a direction changes the hike drastically. This trail runs along a creek bed ravine that drains into Sugar Creek. If you turn South (right) you begin the trail at the top of the ravine and walk down over the slippery rocks and reach Sugar Creek, but then have to climb a giant staircase back up to the top. Going the other direction makes the stairs much easier but the creek bed much more challenging. I usually take the southern route because I like the payoff of following the ravine to Sugar Creek, but it is up to you! Trail 3/5/9 at Turkey Run is a hybrid loop trail. This trail is made up of all of trails 3 and 9 and parts of trail 5 to create a three mile extremely strenuous and rugged hike. This is some of the toughest terrain in the entire state. The loop contains ravines, creek beds, bouldering, canyons, forest trails and BUGS. I highly recommend bug spray on this route because the ticks are always a problem. But the scenery on this hike makes it well worth it.

Indiana Dunes State Park

Did you know there are ocean style beaches in Indiana? It’s true! Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan is like having a piece of the coast dropped into the Midwest. While there are many hikes at Indiana Dunes that will put your body to the test, my favorite is the 8/10/2 hybrid loop trail.

The 8/10/2 hybrid loop trail contains the best of these three very different hikes and combines them into a great way to spend a day at the dunes. Begin trail 8 at the parking lot near the North Orchard Shelter. Follow Trail 8 over the dunes and through the trees to reach the three highest points in the park, Mt Jackson, Mt Holden and Mt Tom. Rest at the top of Mt Tom and take in the spectacular lake views and dump the sand out of your shoes! When you continue, head down the steps towards Trail 10 that follows the beach. I know I told you never to hike barefoot, but this place is an exception. It is illegal to swim in the water here, but walking on the beach with the waves brushing at your toes is highly encouraged. Trail 10 runs for two and a half miles on the beach past all three major dune blowouts. When you see the marker for trail 10 turning away from the water, rest and put your shoes back on. Follow the path back over the dune, and into Paradise Valley. A rookery, or bird nursery, is close by in the Dunes Nature Preserve so water birds of various species can be seen and heard in this area. Keep following the path over the boardwalk into the Pinery where nesting eagles are a common sight. About half a mile down the trail from the Pinery, there is a turnoff to Trail 2. Trail 2 leads into the marsh and there is a very long boardwalk that gets you up close to all the amazing wildlife. About a mile after the boardwalk ends you’ll see the turn to go back on Trail 8 and head back towards the car. The entire loop is about eight miles but with the elevation changes and beach walk, this hike can take half a day at least. Remember it is not a race to the finish, the journey is the adventure!

Bonus: The Knobstone Trail

All of the hikes mentioned up to this point are great day hikes that you, your friends and your family can enjoy. But if you’re looking for a multiday backpacking trail, Indiana has that too! The Knobstone Trail is a collection of smaller trails that connect to form Indiana’s longest footpath at over 60 miles long. This trail is maintained by the Hoosier Hikers Council and is an amazing challenge. If you have ever thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) or the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) this is a great place to test your gear, strength and resolve before jumping into those amazing challenges. Backpacking Knobstone is strenuous and will take a seasoned hiker 3-10 days to complete it. And I suggest going in the spring or fall. The bugs out there are an issue and water sources dry up in the summer. But if backpacking is your thing, Knobstone Trail is a challenging and rewarding experience! 

Matthew Hastings