Indiana and hiking aren’t really two words that often end up in the same sentence, especially when you’re talking about Indianapolis. I won’t lie, this is a pretty flat and farm-covered state. BUT there are a few quality spots when it comes to exploring landscapes and hiking. So for this post, I’m going to lay out five of my favorite go-to hiking spots. Most are within about an hour or two from Indianapolis, so very reasonable for a day hike or some overnight backpacking. Now, I haven’t explored all of the good places I’ve been told to visit in the few years I’ve been here, but I still thought it would be worth sharing those I have found be to real gems thus far.
Pardon the lower-quality images, I typically don’t take my nice camera on hiking trips, so these are iPhone or film camera photos!
Click on the park name for the DNR’s website for each location, featuring available activities, trail descriptions, and PDF maps.
1. Turkey Run State Park
There will always be a special place in my heart for Turkey Run; it was my first real exposure to quality Indiana hiking, and it’s my first recommendation to friends and family when someone wants a little more moderate hiking or more impressive terrain than the flatter, inner-state areas. With rock canyons and great elevation differences throughout the park, there is always something new around the bend. In heat of the summer, the rock walls give off a cool damp air that is unreal; in the cold winter the rocks shelter you from brutal winds. Although I have seen a full array of children, elderly, and otherwise not-so-fit individuals (most carrying an open can of Miller Lite) hiking through Turkey Run, I would recommend this for for moderate hikers. There are areas that are extremely steep and you are essentially climbing rocks with your hands. However, there are a few more easy accessible areas for those that want to experience the canyons but aren’t prepared for the more difficult terrain. (This also rings true for Clifty Falls State Park, which I’ll talk about later). Another perk to Turkey Run is that depending on the season and day, you can essentially be in this park alone! I have been here during peak season on Memorial Day when the family groups are out and about checking out the state park (which is typically when you must be a little more patient and navigate around groups filling the trails) and have also gone during Mid-November when I only came across 2-3 other people the entire day of hiking. Located along Sugar Creek, there are canoe and kayak options available nearby and there are a variety of trails that go along the river. There are also some nice campgrounds within a few miles of the park (there is no overnight camping allowed in the park itself), but you can usually find a “rustic” style campsite nearby no problem!
2. Shades State Park
Only a few miles up the road from Turkey Run, Shades Park has a similar landscape and gives the added bonus of being a little less tourist-y. For me, it honestly depends on my mood as to whether I want the hustle and bustle of holiday weekend traffic, or if I’m looking for a solo trip and want to be the only one out on the trails. Like Turkey Run, this park features rocky canyons and a few ladder systems. Those with young children or difficultly with steep climbing will notice there are some trials marked as “easy” and “moderate”. One nice addition to Shades State Park that Turkey Run does not offer is camping within the park, including 7 “backpacking” style sites in which you park and backpack to your designated campground. Shades offers trails from .5-2.5 miles, depending on what type of hiking you are looking for (the backpack campground trail is 2.5 miles each way). I prefer this park in the late fall/winter season, due to the advantage of seeing further across the ravines and hilly elevations without the leaves of trees blocking the view. I would also say this to be true of Turkey Run, but honestly, all of these parks I mention are amazing in both the summer and winter seasons. Also located along Sugar Creek, there are great break spots throughout the park near the water and canoe/kayak opportunities are available. Between Turkey Run and Shades, there are some amazing landscapes that are not worth missing!
3. Bloomington Quarries
Although some of the best overlooks and beautiful teal green waters in the state can be found here, I must first and foremost give the warning that hiking around these quarries is considered trespassing and you could potentially run into issues with the law for being on private property. Now, I have hiked here a few times and never had problems with the local law inforcement, but I am also typically just there solely to hike, unlike the nearby college students who come to day-drink and swim in the quarries, so I certainly don’t feel like I am causing a disturbance to nearby residents who might call about noise complaints. So with that said, if you are up for just a little law-breaking for some of the best hiking near Bloomington, I would take the risk! Also, being a favorite local hot spot for IU students, your best bet is going during the summer when all of the students are gone on summer break; not to mention that downtown Bloomington becomes a ghost town, leaving all of the great restaurnts and shops easier to enjoy! I am not positive how long the trails are, but I would say that you can get a good hour or two hike in between exploring the few quarries and climbing areas.
4. Clifty Falls State Park
One of my favorite things about Clifty Falls State Park is the drive to get there. From Indianapolis, it is mostly a boring highway drive, but once off the highway and on the long, winding backroads, it is absolutely stunning. Between the quaint horse farms and small houses every few miles and the hilly roads, it reminds me a little of the country roads back home in Western Michigan. I would head down to this state park just for the drive! Now, I have only been to this park in the winter season, but liike Shades Park and Turkey Run, there is a certain advantage to seeing better hilltop views without any leaves blocking the sights (especially some of the more hidden waterfalls at this park!). Within the park, they boast 4 specific waterfalls, with smaller ones hidden throughout the park based upon the seaon and weather. Depending on recent rainfall and temperatures, the falls can range from powerful falls to lighter, misting veils of water. I would definitely recommend making more than one trip here to experience the variety of stunning tree bloomings and fall colors, if not just for the variety of displays from the waterfalls themselves. Another amazing attraction within the park is a 600-foot long tunnel featuring native bat species. The tunnels are typically closed to protect the bats from the growing white nose syndrom spreading across the country, but there are a few guided tours still open to visitors, which they post on their website with dates/times. I imagine this park can get quite busy during the summer and warm holiday weekends, but the park seems large enough that the more rugged trails are probably less traveled even then. There is camping available within the park, but I believe it is a more structured campground featuring a mixture of electric and non-electric sites (but I have seen backpackers out and about during the off-seasons when the park is open and free admission, so it would be worth looking into the laws regarding overnight hiking). Overall, the waterfalls really take the cake at this park. They are far more impressive than one would possibly imagine for the mostly-flat Indiana landscape, and certainly humbling once you’re standing at the bottom of them.
5. Morgan-Monroe State Forest
I have only hiked this area once, and admittedly was a little hungover for the five mile hike we did, but it is without a doubt a place I plan to return to this spring/summer for overnight backpacking. Located in Martinsville, this forest area has the hilly attributes of southern Indiana, as well as great protected forest area. From the trailhead we chose (Low Gap, rugged), there is a 10 mile loop which would be perfect broken up between two days and stopping to camp somewhere around the 5 mile marker. From the section of trail that I experienced, there was really great variations in elevation, areas of creeks winding through, and a few areas that have obviously been established as campsites by previous hikers (fire pits dug out, ground somewhat cleared, and water nearby most of them). Being a state forest (not a park), there is no admission fee to enter the area and camping is essentially a free-for-all within the forest. On our hike we came across a few couples that were obviously locals, mostly walking dogs or getting out for a casual hike, but we also saw a group of men who were clearly preparing for a few day backpacking trip.
6. Within Indianapolis: Eagle Creek Park & Fort Harrison State Park
I know I said this would be my top 5 favorites, but I feel I needed to also mention my two Indianapolis go-to hiking spots. I try to get at least a dozen miles in a week, and I can’t always count on being able to drive to the more stunning hiking locations I previously mentioned. So, for the before/after work exercise or quick weekend hike, I go to either Eagle Creek or Fort Harrison. Eagle Creek offers a variety of hiking trails, some within the woods and others around the various water reservoirs in the park. Fort Harrison also boasts a few nice trails (and one of my favorites, forest trails with horseback riding for super reasonable prices). For anyone who is visiting the metropolitan Indy area and still want to escape the downtown hustle and bustle for a nice hike, these two parks are excellent options and both within 20-30 minutes from downtown!
If you have any any parks within Indiana you’d love to see added to this list, let me know! I am always excited to hear recommendations. In the meantime, make some homemade granola bars (I’ll be adding my own recipe here soon!), pack your bags, and get out in the forest!
-Moss & Mango