July 2007 Issue
Swim, bike, hike and explore scenic southern Indiana.
Everything about waterfalls seems capricious. Will there be enough snow and rain to nourish them come spring? The day I hike in, will I find a torrent or a trickle?
Their locations seem just as random. Some thunder just a staircase away from a convenient parking lot, others reward a huffing, puffing hike.
But rarely do you work as hard for your scenery as in Clifty Falls State Park, a tumble of rock, creek and yes, waterfalls. Many call it the most rugged park in Indiana's state system.
But don't shy away. With sturdy boots and a compass or GPS, you can savor marvels that will shake up any boring routine. Just watch the roots and ruts as you climb to the 60-foot Big Clifty Falls or the 83-foot Tunnel Falls.
Clifty is one of the iconic parks in southern Indiana, a hilly landscape honeycombed by caves and caverns. The bottom half of the Hoosier state is a great escape for summer fun with bikes, fishing poles, boats and plain old hiking boots. Moving from the Ohio border westward, here's a sampler of some of the best summertime breaks.
On the Water
At Versailles State Park, a volunteer group helped park managers design new mountain bike trails through this hardwood forest. The old-time pleasures still flourish here, too, with canoes, rowboats and paddleboats on its 230-acre lake, just outside the town of Versailles.
Beyond its famous waterfalls, Clifty Falls has all the hallmarks of summer fun: a big pool, tennis courts, camping, picnicking, biking and hiking trails and staff at the nature center to tell you what's what. At the end of a nonstop day, just collapse at the Clifty Inn with its indoor pool and spa. A new wing at the inn captures gorgeous views of downtown Madison.
From Madison on the Ohio, just follow the river's flow to Charlestown State Park. The summer's new boat ramp stretches five launch lanes - 75 feet wide, a nautical freeway running into the Ohio. When you're not on the water, it's easy to climb up for great views at two river overlooks.
Charlestown reveals its past in Devonian fossil outcrops and surprising sinkholes, but it pales beside the show put on at Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville. Exhibits spotlight pieces from the 386-million-year-old fossil bed, and interpreters help you understand the multilayered history lesson. The park, across the river from Louisville, also lures anglers, hikers and birders.
Just north, you can step into another century at Clark State Forest in Henryville. Designated in 1903, Clark is the oldest Hoosier state forest, with more than 150 experimental plantings. Hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers revel in its winding paths.
Call of the Wild
A short drive north, the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge is just that - a refuge from the noise and frenzy of daily life. These flat wetlands have been restored and rededicated to the deer, Canada geese and great egrets that now make the sanctuary home.
“Muscatatuck,” to Native Americans, meant “land of winding waters.” After farmers stopped trying to coax crops from these bogs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought the land and created Indiana's first national wildlife refuge in 1966. It covers 7,802 acres, including 78 near Bloomington.
Eight hiking trails meander through the flat expanse, with good chances to spot bald eagles, river otters, brought north in 1995 for their first Hoosier re-entry, and trumpeter swans, re-introduced in 1998. The .4-mile Chestnut Ridge Trail is handicap-accessible, following the ridge top along the wetlands.
The American Bird Conservancy named Muscatatuck a “Continentally Important” bird area in 1998, based on the number of species in its Christmas bird count and the number of Canada geese from the James Bay, Ontario, population. Spotters track more than 280 species here, such as the blue-wing teal and tundra swan.
Fishers and hunters are welcome in specified areas, and horseback riders and cyclists can wander freely as long as they steer clear of the hiking trails.
Muscatatuck straddles Jennings and Jackson Counties - many cyclists already know Jackson County. It's famous for its annual Volksride Ride to Recycle each June and the Round Barn Ride coming up July 7.
The Round Barn Ride, taking off from the county seat of Brownstown, will glide past the county's oldest barns. The Burcham Round Barn near Vallonia, built in 1909-10 for the Hess family, is 68 feet across, with hand-fit wooden roof shingles and a cupola that's famous for its Christmas tree each year. The Stuckwish Round Barn outside Medora cost a whopping $1,500 in 1910-11, its beech lumber supplied by the nearby Schneider sawmill. Both barns brim with old machinery.
The Round Barn Ride has an optional leg through Skyline Drive, a panoramic trace through Jackson-Washington State Forest. This is serious pedaling, cresting these hills, but the vistas over the fields and hamlets make it worth the churn.
Jackson County calls to mountain bikers, too, with the .6-mile Hunter Creek Trail, 8.6-mile Nebo Ridge Trail and 46.7-mile Hickory Ridge Trail in Hoosier National Forest. The 12.2 miles of trails in Jackson-Washington Forest and Starve Hollow State Recreational Area in Vallonia are also worthy challenges.
Starve Hollow has its gentler pleasures, with a family-friendly beach along the lake and some of the best fishing in the area. Families boat and camp here, too.
Due south, Corydon, Indiana's first capital, is now cave central. In 1790, Squire Boone and his brother Daniel discovered the caverns now bearing Squire's name in Mauckport. A Revolutionary War hero and pioneer who helped forge the Wilderness Road, Squire settled in the valley with his family. Unusual waterfalls teem through the caves - even more unusual is Squire's grave inside the cavern, just as he requested.
A bit west, the Wyandotte Caves lie beneath the vast hardwood timbers of Harrison-Crawford State Forest. Wyandotte's Historic Cave shelters the endangered Indiana bat. Rare helectite formations form according to their own whimsy, not far from one of the world's highest underground mountains.
Indiana's newest state park, O'Bannon Woods, is also tucked within the Harrison-Crawford forest, right on the Ohio River. Its renovated swimming complex, with a pool and water play area, just opened in June. Hikers and horseback riders enjoy the views on miles of trails, then camp in either the standard or horse campgrounds.
This is serious cave country, and Marengo Cave pops up en route to Patoka Lake. Famous since its discovery in 1883, Marengo is the place to pan for gemstones or consider trying out the fine art of spelunking.
Patoka Lake in Birdseye is one of southern Indiana's favorite summer memories, with houseboats to rent and water skis to rev. Hikers have five trails and cyclists can pedal 17 paved miles. Toss a Frisbee in the golf course or sink your toes into the beach. Boaters head to one of nine launching ramps, and anglers zero in on striped bass.
Wandering south, you enter the Land of Lincoln - Hoosier style. Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City nudges both the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and Living Historical Farm, and the Colonel Jones Home, the house of a merchant who employed Lincoln. To slip back in time and try to imagine rustic Indiana in his day, strike out on the 10 miles of hiking trails, linger by the lakes or even rent a log cabin for the night.
History is part of the fun, too, at Harmonie State Park on the banks of the Wabash, next to the Utopian community of New Harmony.
Lutheran Separatists from Germany founded the community in 1814, building 150 structures within a year of their arrival. Many are preserved on the campus, renowned, too, for modern architecture and sculpture. After hiking, fishing, swimming and picnicking at the state park, there may be no more perfect ending to an Indiana idyll than a brace of meditative labyrinths.
The Harmonist Labyrinth outside New Harmony is a hedge maze, with one correct path to the center stone building, the grotto - but with plenty of side paths for contemplation. The Cathedral Labyrinth, inspired by France's Chartres Cathedral, is on sacred ground, enwalled within the Harmonist Cemetery and Native American Burial Mounds. Visitors are invited to wash their feet in the Orpheus Fountain, then walk the cool rose granite pathway barefoot - the better to make a deep connection between the outer and inner worlds.