Located in the plains of Central Indiana, Turkey Run State Park is commonly boasted as the Midwest's best kept secret by outdoor enthusiasts. Its rugged hiking trails bisect stark gorges carved out by glacial meltwater in one of the few areas of the state to contain old growth stands of virgin forest. Nestled within the park is the 1,609 acres of Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve. It comes as a surprise to many that this little known parks trail system is regularly voted as having the Best Hiking Trails in the state year after year. Exploring the streams, waterfalls, and gulches of this scenic landscape is unlike any other experience within the Hoosier State.
Trail 5 Map | Turkey Run State Park
Trail 5 | 4 Mile Loop
Trail 3, 5, & 9 Loop | 5 Miles
There is no such thing as a bad or unexciting hiking trail in this state park, but if you were to ask visitors which trail they love most, it would be a combination of Trails 3, 5 & 9. As a matter of fact, this 5 mile “double figure- eight” loop through deeply cut ravines filled with waterfalls, boulder scrambles and ladder climbs is considered one of the most thrilling in the Midwest. Since all three of these trails loop right besides one another, its quite easy to transfer from one to the other at any given point. Containing some of the most scenic sights and adventure filled hiking in Turkey Run, I made it my mission to tackle these trails on my first ever visit to this beloved state park.
Hiking Trail 5 is part two in our three part series of hikes, attempting the 5 mile Trails 3, 5, & 9 loop. To learn more about this parks history and start the journey off where we did, head on over to The Ladders, Canyons, & Waterfalls of Trail 3 article. Traversing the many incredible obstacles along Trail 3 left my body a little beat up and fatigued. Despite a short distance of only 1.7 miles, I was ready to get out of the dark, wet ravines and onto dry land. Exiting Bear Hollow after descending down the ladders, one reaches a “T” in the trail with Trail 3 continuing to the left as it loops back to the suspension bridge. Turning RIGHT at this junction is the start of Trail 5.
Crossing over the small footbridge, spanning the Bear Hollow tributary emptying into Sugar Creek, I continued my journey along the “figure eight loop” of Trails 3, 5, & 9. The scene could not be anymore different from that of Trail 3. Blankets of wildflowers carpet the woodland floor in pastel shades of green, white, and pink. An endless sea of eastern spring beauties and bloodroot stretches out as far as I can see. Just below their blooms, the newly emerging foliage of trout lily, wood anemones, and trillium prepare for their turn in the spotlight.
The lower canopy of the woodlands along the bottoms is filled with some of the showiest spring bloomers around. Red Buds, with their pea shaped magenta flowers, crowd the riverbanks in every direction. Just a little further inland is the delicately shaped Dogwood, some of which are too shaded to bloom, but beautiful to look at nonetheless. Other noteable trees commonly found here are Juneberry and Pawpaws, Americas native fruit tree. Turkey Runs vast acreage of virgin timber is home to many towering giants including the largest Wild Cherry tree in the state standing over 90 feet tall.
Letting my gaze work its way to the upper ridges, I notice an impenetrable wall of green created by towering stands of evergreens. Chief among them are Hemlocks and Canada Yews. These two rare trees in the state, survived the warming of the continent by hiding out in the cooler environments created by the gulches here. The yews really come into their own during fall, when their bright red berries light up the forest like christmas lights. Hemlocks delicate, lacy foliage vibrates with the slightest breeze, adding movement to even the stillest of landscapes. Another place in southern Indiana known for having a rare grove of hemlocks is one of my all time favorite spots to explore, Hemlock Cliffs in the Hoosier National
As I take my time scanning the horizon, my gaze wanders past several cliffs with wet weather waterfalls streaming down from several ledges on the ridge. Just past this spot is one of the largest and most unique cliff overhangs I’ve seen in the park as of yet. The shape of this interesting rock shelter resembles the wedge a logger might chop out of a tree, in order to the make it tip over. Suspended up in the middle of the sandstone cliff, this expansive rock shelter hides one large room with several smaller caverns to the side of it. Coming across a well worn spur trail leading to this area, I made a right turn and began the steep hike up to the cliffs.
Once reaching the bottom of the cliffs, I found it much easier to curve around to the left, traversing the gentler slope up. Some of the younger and more energetic hikers I saw ahead of me, chose to hit the cliff head on, getting down on all fours to scramble up the steep incline. Right away one encounters the wide opening of the largest room in the rock shelter, on the far left corner. Its enormity doesn’t become apparent until you’re standing right in the heart of it. The flat stones in the center of the room resemble altars large enough to hold half a dozen people at the very least. The striking layering of the mansfield sandstone, with its vibrant shades of orange, red, and yellow, is identical to that of nearby Portland Arch. One could only imagine being an early explorer, paddling down Sugar Creek to the Wabash River, and coming across the village that might have existed here surrounding this massive structure.
Following the outer rim of the ledge, I walk the length of the rock shelter, dipping in and out of the two smaller caverns. From up here, perched high in the heart of the cliff, one gets a commanding view of the forest and the riverbank beyond. Early prehistoric peoples would have naturally been drawn to this site due to its strategic positioning. Having had a long and rich history of Native American inhabitance since before white settlers entered this region, most tribes fled the territory that would become Indiana during a conflict known as the Beaver Wars. These costly wars were fought by rival tribes over territory and the rights to hunt beaver for their pelts on behalf of the two major powers of the time, England and France.
Of the tribes to remain in the state after such bloody conflicts, including the later Indian Removal Act of 1830, were the Potawatomi and Miami. Though they resisted as long as possible. most of the Potawatomi were forcibly removed along what is called the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1830. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi were able to escape north to the Great Lakes region of the state where they were eventually given official recognition and special permission to remain on their lands. For the Miami, their struggle continues till this day as they seek to be officially recognized as the Miami Nation of Indiana. While the Miami walked many of the trails that the parks visitors still use, the last Native American to live in the park boundaries, named Johnny Green, is said to have died while fishing from Goose Rock on Sugar Creek.
Leaving the rock shelter, I jumped back on the trail and proceeded to maneuver through some deeply flooded areas along our path. Luckily, someone had the foresight to roll large logs into the deepest part of this boggy mess, so that we may cross the knee deep mud. Within a hundred yards of this, I came upon a fork in the trail. Straight ahead is the start of Trail 9. Beginning Trail 9 from this southern point would put you in a position of having to scale the steep boulder filled gulches of Boulder Canyon and Falls Canyon on nearly all fours. At this point in my journey, I’m more interested in working smarter not harder, so I opt to TURN RIGHT, continuing along Trail 5. Taking this route will essentially create the “double figure eight” loop.
Heading up the 40 steps to reach the elevated ridge, we reach another flat expanse of peaceful woodland. One thing you might notice while hiking through Turkey Run is the absence of many large mammals, mainly those friendly deer we are used to seeing roaming outdoors. During the late 1800’s, white tailed deer were all but wiped out in the state of Indiana due to unregulated hunting. When the deer disappeared, so did the large predators which relied on them for a food source, mountain lions and wolves. Between 1930-1940 the Indiana Department of Natural Resources began a program to reintroduce white tailed deer in the state. With no hunting on predatory pressure, the deer population exploded. As a result, forests across Indiana became over browsed, with deer eating many of the plants, wildflowers, and tree saplings needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
By allowing limited hunting on public lands and culling programs in state parks, we now get to enjoy a more diverse and colorful representation of this native landscape. Although you may not see an overabundance of deer roaming about, this is actually a sign of a more balanced ecosystem. All of this is blatantly apparent in the scenic woodlands we’ve hiked through on Trail 5. By this point on the trail, we’ve veered left on the first Trail 5-9 junction and within a hundred yards we will do the same to begin our journey on Trail 9. Taking this leisurely stroll through the woods is exactly what my body needed in order to prepare for the most rugged section in our loop, Boulder Canyon. Stay tuned for the final article on our adventures in Turkey Run State Park. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!