Indiana Trails: Shades State Park, Silent Partner

The most distinctive features of Shades State Park include the famous Devil’s Punch Bowl (Trail 1), a dim, moss-covered chasm at the bottom of a set of breakneck wooden stairs.

In some of my fondest memories of attending Wabash College, I’m scooting out to Shades State Park in my beat-up truck, windows down, to wander the narrow ravines in stress-relieving solitude, contemplating the philosophy, religion, or poetry I’d studied earlier that day. The park lies just upstream from the more-crowded Turkey Run State Park, on the banks of the same Sugar Creek—a broad, clear waterway whose course and tributaries follow routes left by glacial melts that scoured deep, lush gorges and ravines into the park’s sandstone bedrock, topography that comes pretty dang close to its country cousin.
At the heart of the park, a cluster of short but variety-packed trails form loops around a central parking lot and picnic area in a sort of cloverleaf. Collectively, they showcase many of Shades’s most distinctive features, the most famous being Devil’s Punch Bowl (Trail 1), a dim, moss-covered chasm at the bottom of a set of breakneck wooden stairs. Convex waterfalls, such as the Silver Cascade Falls, shimmer over smooth rock faces. Between these highlights, the trail follows a craggy creekbed where verdant ferns grow at the base of steep, coppery cliffs—a still, dark, primeval setting that, I like to imagine, remains little changed from the days when the melting Wisconsin Glacier gave it shape. Trails 4 and 5 follow forested hillsides down to plunging gorges that cut narrow rock passages to Sugar Creek: At three points, the drops are so sudden that sturdy wooden ladders—about the same height as what you’d use to clear a one-story gutter—are provided to navigate the vertical climb into cave-like recesses.
But Shades is not all dank gullies: At the top of Trail 1, Inspiration and Prospect points offer high, blazing views of the Sugar Creek valley, and near the end of trails 4 and 5, you can wade out into the broad expanse you spied from above to cool your feet, and then pick up a few of the perfectly flat stones on the bank. Even if the pressures have changed from school to work these days, skipping those flat stones across the creek’s placid surface is still as good for decompressing as it ever was.
1014-hikelogoWe Endorse: Trails 1, 4 & 5
2.1 miles / Moderate
» Alternate Route  A few years ago, Shades incorporated an adjoining 480-acre tract known as Pine Hills, Indiana’s oldest state nature preserve. To reach it, hike Shades’s Trail 10, a 1.5-mile jaunt that crosses S.R. 234 and descends into one of the neatest enclaves in the state. Look for stands of rare trees like Canada yew and hemlock, and striking formations like Devil’s Backbone, a narrow ridge of sheer rock that rises 100 feet off the ground—the DNR calls it “one of the most remarkable examples of incised meanders in the eastern United States.”
» Local Legend  Historians debate how the area, known as The Shades of Death before it became a park in 1947, got its name. But rumors abound, mostly fueled by the preternaturally cool crevasses that contrast so markedly from the surrounding forests and rolling fields.
» Getting There  Take I-74 W to Jamestown, pick up S.R. 234 W, and look for signs to the park after about 20 miles.
trail.icons  Steady cell-phone service
trail.icons  Campsites nearby
trail.icons  Park entry fee ($5, typically)