For a gorgeous 200,000-acre wilderness, the Hoosier National Forest sure keeps a low profile. Few travel books have praised its beauty, and two hikers passing each other counts as rush hour. Which is exactly why we love its sandstone cliffs, towering oaks, and clandestine waterfalls. Here, a field guide to one of the state’s most underappreciated gems.

Hickory Ridge Fire TowerPhotography by Tony Valainis

If you’re looking for Mother Nature’s flamboyant side, the Hoosier National Forest isn’t the place for you. Try the windswept beaches of the Indiana Dunes, newly crowned as a national park—probably the most conspicuous scenery in this state. Indiana doesn’t really traffic in the highfalutin, and that applies to its natural jewels, as well as its character and ours: We downplay things; we don’t preen.

The HNF doesn’t preen, either, which is why it’s overlooked as a place of beauty and, yes, even drama. This is Mother Nature playing hard to get. Though it’s spread as a patchwork of 203,000 acres over nine counties in Southern Indiana with miles and miles of multiuse trails for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, the territory just kind of sneaks up on you in Hemingway-esque fashion: gradually and then suddenly.

Appreciating the HNF starts with understanding that its mere existence is special. The densely wooded stretches we see today weren’t always there. Like most of the eastern United States, Indiana’s forests were slashed away during European settlement by the beginning of the 19th century to make way for agriculture. The federal government began replanting the forest in the 1930s, and continues to try to restore the HNF to its original state. The Civilian Conservation Corps, founded during the Great Depression, regenerated most of it on abandoned farmland.

The CCC’S purpose was rooted in preservation as much as recreation, bringing balance back to a land that has served man since the area’s first inhabitants lived and played here. In addition to providing numerous opportunities for enjoyment, steps taken almost 100 years ago have provided jobs, timber, and clean air and water; restored ecosystems; and helped defend against climate change, says Kim Novick, an environmental scientist at Indiana University, who calls the 1930s reforestation effort “the first Green New Deal.”

While the future involves a continued effort to return to the past, there are precious places in the forest that look much like they did hundreds of years ago. Pioneer Mothers, Indiana’s largest tract of old-growth forest, is home to a cathedral-like canopy of soaring walnut and hickory trees in near-virginal state, while Hemlock Cliffs features high seasonal waterfalls and a box canyon where Native Americans lived at least 10,000 years ago.

But if you want to experience the beauty of the forest’s most awesome features, you have to have another Hoosier quality: a work ethic. Simply finding the thing takes a little effort. After all, there’s not even a main entrance. Happy hunting.

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Fernandez began writing for Indianapolis Monthly in 1995 while studying journalism at Indiana University. One of her freelance assignments required her to join a women's full-tackle football team for a season. She joined the staff in 2005 to edit IM's ancillary publications, including Indianapolis Monthly Home. In 2011, she became a senior editor responsible for the Circle City section as well as coverage of shopping, homes, and design-related topics. Now the director of editorial operations, she lives in Garfield Park.