Indiana Backroads: Just Like Old Times in Owen County
Largely undeveloped since the pioneer days, rugged Owen County is the very definition of “off the beaten path.”
The same dramatic cliffs, plunging ravines, and tranquil forests that make McCormick’s Creek State Park (State Road 46 just east of Spencer, 812-829-2235) one of Indiana’s most popular outdoor destinations helped inspire our state-park system a hundred years ago. In 1888, Indianapolis physician Frederick Denkewalter selected a pristine landscape 60 miles southwest of the city, in Owen County, as the setting for a relaxation “sanitarium.” When Dr. Denkewalter died, prominent conservationist Richard Lieber lobbied the state to purchase the property, and, in 1916, it became Indiana’s inaugural state park. Lieber, later the first director of what is now the Department of Natural Resources, eventually died there.
The original site of Dr. Denkewalter’s old sanitarium still anchors the park, where the handsome brick Canyon Inn (812-829-4881) now stands on the wooded footprint and serves much the same purpose for world-weary city folk. Guests awake to a loaded weekend breakfast buffet and dine on the Bird Porch while watching feeders busy with goldfinches and squabbling squirrels. Out back, a spiffy recreation complex features tennis, racquetball, and basketball courts, shuffleboard, a pool, and jumbo chess and checkerboards. Around the park, easy to strenuous hiking trails (one wheel-chair accessible) incorporate scenic ridges and creek bottoms, a splashing waterfall, and points of historic interest like Peden Farm, the stony ruins of an 1830s homestead, and the mossy remains of the Statehouse Quarry that birthed Indiana’s capitol. A Saddle Barn (812-829-8848) supplies steeds and guides for equestrian outings. In the evening, Canyon Inn guests unwind over board games by the fireplace in a lodge-like common room.
Outside of McCormick’s Creek, much of Owen County retains the undeveloped character that attracted Dr. Denkewalter. A few miles from the park, at the end of a gravel road off of State Road 43, the Green’s Bluff nature preserve (west on Sherfield Road off of State Road 43, 317-951-8818) offers a glimpse of what the land must’ve looked like to settlers, with ancient hemlock groves clinging to soaring rock promontories along an unspoiled stretch of Raccoon Creek. The olden days are remarkably well preserved in the hamlet of Cataract, named after rushing Cataract Falls (N. Cataract Rd. and Owen Park Rd., 765-795-4576), the most voluminous in Indiana. Built in the mid-1800s, the Cataract General Store (2799 S. Cataract Rd., 765-795-4782), with its creaky wooden floors and ancient stove, lays claim to the title of oldest continuously operating general store in the state. Part grocery, part souvenir stand, and part junk shop, it sells everything from old-fashioned soda to kitschy porcelain figurines to non-labeled jars of pickles canned by a friend of the proprietor. Across the road, the preserved 1880s one-room Cataract Schoolhouse doubles as a museum and ice-cream shop (beware of Popeye, the spotted mini dachshund who guards the premises).
Gosport, another Owen County time capsule, consists of a quaint cluster of old Main Street buildings, where Millie McGee’s Gosport Diner (23 E. Main St., 812-879-5623) makes beef Manhattan, fluffy from-scratch biscuits, and gooey walnut pie. Rough-and-tumble Gosport Tavern (130 E. Main St., 812-879-4063) is a dive bar for true aficionados, with an elaborately milled antique hardwood bar and, on the walls, nicotine-stained pastoral murals hand-painted by a hobo in the 1930s. Outside of Spencer, the county seat, Hilltop Restaurant (2434 U.S. 231, 812-829-3891) serves crispy fried chicken, yeast rolls, and homemade persimmon pudding. Although the downtown fell on hard times, a dazzling renovation of the Tivoli Theatre (24 N. Washington St., 812-714-8137), a sumptuous Spanish Mission–style movie house from 1928, has sparked a renaissance of local openings, from the cozy Tivoli Theatre Wine Shop (28 N. Washington St., 812-828-0883) to the surprisingly urbane Main Street Coffee (1 N. Main St., 812-821-6169), and coming courthouse-square attractions include a Thai bistro and an upscale boutique.
Indy to Gosport, south on State Road 67; Gosport to Cataract, west on State Road 67, north on U.S. 231, west on N. Cataract Rd.; Gosport to McCormick’s Creek, west and south on State Road 67 to Spencer, east on State Road 46.