If anyone asks for a good camping spot in Indiana, I recommend a trail in the southern tip of Hoosier National Forest. The Forest covers 203,000 acres of land, much of it untouched by man, and visiting can feel like taking a step back in time. With over 200 miles of hiking, horseback riding, and camping trails, it is difficult to choose a favorite (Morgan Ridge, German Ridge, and Birdseye trails all get honorable mentions), but for me, Two Lakes Loop Trail is the clear winner.
Admittedly, I’m biased because I fell in love on that trail. There’s a section where after five miles of hiking through wooded glades and sun-flecked forests, the trees thin out and you come upon a wave of prairie grass gently tossing in the wind. My boyfriend and I were hiking together, and he was a few yards ahead of me at that point. I came over a ridge, and it felt like the woods had fallen away and there he was: standing in the middle of the world—the only person for miles who mattered.
Of course, you’re not that far from civilization. The trailhead for Two Lakes Loop is just half an hour from Corydon (Indiana’s original capital and the cutest little town you ever did see), yet its 15.7 miles, encompassing both Indian and Celina lakes, manage to make the dull stretches of asphalt you took there feel far away. The secluded trail features rock formations jutting over the path, babbling rivers to ford during high-water season, and multiple campsites along the lakes, perfect for cooling off and relaxing after a day of hiking. Vacationing at resorts and hotels is nice, but there is something about filtering out the noise and clutter of everyday life that allows the world to take on a sense of clarity.
For the experienced backcountry camper looking for a challenge, consider winter hiking. An already desolate forest becomes more so after the rush of summer and fall visitors (human and animal) dwindles away. The splendid isolation and weighty silence of bare trees, frozen streams, and the occasional winter bird take the appeal and challenge of camping to the next level. Make sure you’ll have access to flowing water, or bring a pick to cut through ice. With significantly fewer hours of daylight, you won’t cover nearly as much ground as you might during a summer hike, so plan to make camp early and bring games, stories, and s’mores to entertain yourselves by the fire. If you’re nervous about striking out on your own for the first time, Vince Gagliardi of the Perry County Hiking Club offers guided winter day-hikes. It’s not the carefree kind you take during the summer, but stargazing at 6 p.m., bright forest skies, and the pure silence make the extra effort well worth it.
Being a newbie is often rough, and backpacking can be an intimidating first experience. Keep these tips in mind, and hopefully you’ll be head-over-heels for a new hobby by the end: Get your backpack fitted properly. Whether you buy a brand-new one in the store or find a great deal online, your local REI employees will be more than happy to help you adjust your pack so its pitch, shoulder straps, and hip pads feel like they were made for you. Since we’re on the subject, pack your bag correctly. Put heaviest items on the bottom, close to your back, and as near to the middle as possible. Also, try to keep the weight evenly distributed from side to side. A lot of the gear you pack will be extraneous things that are fun to have, but the absolute essentials are food, a first-aid kit, and filtered water. Get a water filter for refilling your bottle at streams and lakes, and don’t contaminate your water bottle by using it to scoop water from a stream. Your water filter is the only thing that should touch unfiltered water.
If you’re taking the Two Lakes Loop Trail, add the short 1-mile Celina Interpretive Trail to your itinerary. The loop bisects the Two Lakes and leads to the Rickenbaugh House, a large sandstone home built in 1874. Along-the-way highlights include geological features that tell the stories of Native Americans and early settlers. Explore the cemetery dating back to the late 1800s, and tour the home that also housed the post office. Closest City: Tell City Trail: Celina Interpretive Trail, 1 mile
Explore a sandstone box canyon filled with rock formations, waterfalls, ravines, and small caves on the Hemlock Cliffs Trail. Hike through a canopy of trees down into the cool canyon, where perceptive hikers will discover remnants of Native American civilizations from 10,000 years ago and rare foliage, including wintergreen, French’s shooting star, mountain laurel, and liverwort. Closest City: English Trail: Hemlock Cliffs Trail, 1.4 miles
In 1811, one of the first groups of African-American homesteaders settled in Orange County, and in 1832, Benjamin Roberts, Peter Lindley, and Elias Roberts were the first African Americans to purchase land in the area. Today, hikers can see the remnants of Lick Creek African American Settlement. The community thrived for over 50 years, although only a family cemetery and traces of homesites remain. Closest City: Tell City Trail: Lick Creek Trail, 7.7 miles
Land Marks: Six ways to read the forest.
The HNF isn’t bombastic scenery, like natural wonders out West. The beauty here is found by taking your time and noticing details. If you know what you’re looking at, the woods act as Indiana’s great storyteller.
- Honeycomb weathering on sandstone is one of the most dramatic rock formations in the forest. Some of the erosion was caused by waves when Indiana was under water. You’ll see this at Hemlock Cliffs, which once sat at the edge of an ancient sea.
- Find a rock shelter—forest literature lists gobs of them. Look for smooth, circular depressions in a rock outcrop, boulder, or naturally occurring slab, says HNF archaeological technician Ann Koscielniak. It might be a mortar or grindstone that Native Americans used to prepare food.
- Bison once migrated through these parts, following a route of mineral and salt licks and forging a type of early highway through what is now Southern Indiana. Some of the buffalo paths remain as trenches all the way down to the bedrock and as deep as 12 feet. A good place to see them is the section of the Buffalo Trace in the Springs Valley Recreation Area. But not all of it has been mapped, so you might come across traces in other parts of the forest. And you’ll know why there’s a bison on Indiana’s state seal.
- Apple trees aren’t native to North America. Neither are daffodils or lilac bushes. Settlers planted them, so if you come across an ornamental plant or fruiting tree, it could be a sign that you’re standing on a former homestead, now reclaimed as forest.
- Another common sign of a long-gone homestead is a primitive cemetery, and they’re littered throughout the forest. Headstones can be highly ornamental and hand-carved, Koscielniak says, but many are simple fieldstones, with no identifying markers.
- Don’t avert your eyes from dead trees. Look for ones that have two identical branches coming off the same point to identify an ash. This species is going extinct due to invasive pests, and it’s a reminder to appreciate the diversity of the HNF.
– Megan Fernandez
Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest
The largest tract of old-growth forest in the state is also a bit of a time machine, showing off scenery that hasn’t changed for centuries. Pioneer Mothers Memorial Forest, an 88-acre grove of black walnut, white oak, and yellow poplar located south of Paoli, has remained virtually undisturbed since before it was purchased by Joseph Cox in 1816, the year Indiana achieved statehood. The virgin Central Hardwood forest is also one of the few remaining examples of its kind, thanks to the Forest Service, the Meridian Club of Paoli, and the Indiana Pioneer Mothers Club, which in 1940 banded together to prevent sale of the property to a lumber company. Since the woods enjoy protection as a research natural area, hiking along the 1.5-mile out-and-back trail is one of the best—and only—ways to enjoy the home of the area’s earliest inhabitants.