Indiana Trails: Backyard Backcountry in Morgan-Monroe State Forest

It’s a good thing I didn’t read up much on the Rock Shelter Trail, the 3.1-mile first leg of the Low Gap in Morgan-Monroe State Forest. Before embarking, I imagined—dumbly—finding a hovel of stacked stones abandoned in a holler by settlers, or maybe remnants of the cellar-like springhouses that old-timers built into hillsides all around Southern Indiana. Not until a mile or so in did I realize how far off the mark I’d been—and experienced the kind of a-ha discovery that hikers live for.
The trail follows a fire road through a dry, breezy ridge-top forest before zigzagging down a precipitous hillside in a series of switchbacks to a shady, fertile ravine below. From there, it splashes across a babbling creekbed and meanders deeper into the narrowing vale. Progressively higher cliffs rise up on either side as the path picks its way around tumbled-down boulders, and the watchful observer will begin to notice, between crags, dainty waterfalls and, curiously, rock projections that jut out from the hillside to form cozy, cave-like enclosures underneath. After spotting two or three such formations, I slowly realized that perhaps these were the “Rock Shelters” this portion of the trail was named for. Then I turned a blind corner, the ravine widened, and there before me was the mother of all rock shelters: a deep recess, naturally carved from solid rock, that slithered along under an overhang for a distance of 100 feet or more. The serpent-like furrow feels like the kind of awesome, baffling feature that shouldn’t be there but, incredibly, is. An obscure sanctuary that, once found, you don’t want to leave.
After a climb back up the hillside, the trail forks, with one route back to the trailhead and another that turns east into the wild backcountry of the state forest, miles and miles of ridges and ravines just like these, and the very good likelihood that you’ll encounter not another soul, but more inspiring places that are good for your own.
1014-hikelogoWe Endorse: Low Gap Trail
10 miles / Rugged
» Stay  You don’t have to camp for a deep-woods overnight in Morgan-Monroe: Draper Cabin ($32.10/night, two-night minimum), a restored, 130-year-old log structure, offers a stone fireplace and an outhouse (but no electricity or running water), while handsome Cherry Lake Lodge ($150/night, two-night minimum) has amenities like a full kitchen and a deck with a gas grill.


Photo by Evan West

» Grave Concerns  Historic burial places dot the state forest, most notably Stepp Cemetery, located just west of the intersection of Forest and Beanblossom roads (look for the unmarked gravel pull-off and low stone wall). Local teens have long thrilled to Stepp spook tales—beware the haunted stump!—but be respectful: Wreaths, flags, and plush toys testify to the fact that loved ones still visit these memorials, too.
» Alternate Route  Setting out from the main forest office, the one-mile Tree Identification Trail consists of a pleasant, kid-friendly self-guided tour of Hoosier trees, with easy-to-spot markers calling out more than 30 species, from black gum to basswood. A companion map is available 24/7 outside of the office.
» Getting There  Take S.R. 37 S, turn left past Martinsville at the brown “state forest” sign, take Old S.R. 37 to the big wooden Morgan-Monroe sign, turn left, and follow Forest Rd. to the Low Gap trailhead. in.gov/dnr/forestry/4816.htm
trail.icons  Steady cell phone service
trail.icons  Campsites nearby
trail.icons  Beware—hunting allowed! Wear orange
trail.icons  Fido welcome—and he can manage the trail

Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.