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The Roads Less Traveled

Get lost. It’s the best way to find mysterious Browning Mountain and the other natural treasures along Brown County’s secluded trails, creeks, and byways.

Make no mistake: The hiking trails in Brown County State Park are among the finest in the country. Still, a walk around much-visited Ogle Lake on an October weekend—squeezing past dogs and kids and grownups in fluorescent fleece—is not exactly a wilderness experience.

But drive around to the south side of the park, where roads disappear into creekbeds and treetops snag tufts of morning mist, and you’ll come to one of Brown County’s best-kept secrets: the Browning Mountain Trail in the Hoosier National Forest. Here you can hike through deep woods to a circle of sandstone slabs at the summit known as “Indiana’s Stonehenge.” And the chances are good that you won’t see another person from the time you leave your car until you reluctantly return to the world waiting below.

Actually, simply finding the Browning Mountain Trail can be as challenging as the ascent. But that’s also part of the fun. Just take Highway 135 south from State Road 46 and wind along the eastern edge of Brown County State Park to Stone Head, the gateway to southern Brown County (or, as the locals wryly call it, “SoBro”).

Stone Head got its name from, well, a stone head that points the way to Columbus to the east and, to the west, Fairfax (now at the bottom of Lake Monroe). Carved in 1851, he looks a bit like an unfortunate cross between a mime and Shemp of the Three Stooges.

Take a right here and wander along the prettiest valley in Brown County, with wooded hills on your right and farm fields to your left. When you come to the stop sign by the Story Inn, continue straight on Elkinsville Road. A few miles up the road, the pavement gives way to gravel. When you come to a neatly manicured lawn with an engraved stone on your right, stop and take a look. This is a monument to the people of Elkinsville, who had to leave their homes in the early 1960s when Salt Creek was dammed to create Lake Monroe. The town was “Bathed in the shadow of Browning Mountain, a wonder in itself,” reads the inscription.

Straight ahead, you will see Browning Mountain. Or, as it is also known, Browning Hill. You’ll find both names on maps. At 928 feet, hill is probably more apt, but mountain adds a touch of mystery. And mystery is one of the reasons people are drawn to this natural landmark.

When the road comes to a T, go left on Combs Road and pass by the house with the split-rail fence. Find a place to pull off the road, but be careful not to park on private property. (You can also leave your car back at the Elkinsville Memorial.) The trailhead is a path, about a foot wide, that starts just past the fence. A few feet in, you’ll see a metal trail marker prohibiting horses and mountain bikes.

So begins your hike up Browning Mountain. Many mornings, the sun bathes the woods in the same light that has attracted artists since the 1800s. The path soon widens and follows an old fencerow, where tree trunks more than a foot and a half in diameter have grown around rusted barbed wire. The sunken remains of an old road runs parallel to the trail, so it is easy to follow even though it’s not marked.

The ascent is steady, but not punishing. In the treetops, the birds are an orchestra warming up for the day’s concert with trills, chirps, and warbles. You will know you are the first hiker of the day if you have to clear cobwebs strung across the trail. About 15 minutes up, you enter an older-growth forest with tall, sturdy oaks and hickories and less shrubby undergrowth. The ridge narrows and the land falls away on both sides. Now and then, through the trees, you can see hazy blue hills off in the distance.

Mossy boulders offer resting spots, but the total climb time is only about a half-hour. When the path comes to a T at the summit, take a right. It’s a good idea to mark the trail back down with a dead branch so you don’t miss it when you’re headed the other way.

After about six minutes of walking along the summit trail, you will begin to see giant slabs of sandstone scattered about. Legends of how the stones got here range from the plausible to the fantastic: a foundation for an early settler’s cabin; a Native American ceremonial site; an ancient temple; the handiwork of extraterrestrials. Naturalist Jim Eagleman says the most likely answer is that the slabs were quarried by an early settler and left behind when builders found a more-accessible source for the stone.

However the stones got here, they invite you to pause and reflect. People have scattered loved ones’ ashes here. It is a place to think about the past and the future, to listen to the wind and the birds and watch the light play off of the changing leaves. It’s a place you don’t want to leave.

The hike back to the world below takes just 25 minutes, but, like the lost town of Elkinsville, you, too, will still be bathed in the shadow of Browning Mountain.

 

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue.