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 3 Map | Turkey Run State Park
Trail 3 | 1.7 Mile Loop
Trail 3, 5, & 9 | 5 Mile Loop
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. This article is the first in a three part series including The Wildflowers and Rock Shelters of Trail 5 & The Hidden Falls of Trail 9.
Turkey Run State Park was first conceived in the early 1900’s by a small group of visionary conservationists seeking to emulate the national park system, but on a smaller state level. Among them was Col. Richard Lieber, the man who would become the father of Indiana’s State Park system and oversee the creation of 10 such parks. The land this park currently sits on was slated to be purchased at auction by a timber company planning on stripping the land of its priceless virgin forest. Through the efforts of volunteers and private equity, the first parcels of Turkey Runs 2,382 acres were purchased during Indiana's centennial in 1916, making this the states second state park.
A small fee is required to enter the park and once inside, I drove over to the Nature Center parking area to gear up for the days adventure. From here, you can easily reach all 40 miles of hiking trails in the park. Trails 3,5, and 9 are located on the opposite side of Turkey Run, in the specially designated Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve. Getting there requires crossing the suspension bridge spanning Sugar Creek. During warmer months one of the most popular activities in the park is floating down the river in inner tubes, kayaks and canoes. On our drive in to the park, we passed up nearly a half dozen outfitters readying canoes for the upcoming season. I was getting a sense that this was a special place as I made my approach to the bridge.
The scenery here is stark, with the river dividing the tame and civilized world from the rugged, scenic beauty of Turkey Run’s wild side. Walking across the bridge I could clearly see several rock shelters and caves dotting the opposite shoreline with visitors ducking in and out of them. Landing in the Rocky Hollows-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve is like stepping into a time machine to a land that has little changed in over 100 years. Directly ahead is the start of Trail 3, marking the beginning of our 5 mile triple loop along trails 3,5, and 9.
Heading north on Trail 3, I crossed the small footbridge into a freshwater lagoon surrounded by towering cliffs. The iridescent greenish-blue water of this small tributary emptying into Sugar Creek was mesmerizing. From here the trail follows the creek upstream through several rock shelters amid wet weather waterfalls streaming over every ledge into Rocky Hollow Canyon. I was immediately struck by the extraordinary beauty of this place. When you think of Indiana, the first thing that comes to mind are flat expanses of farm fields, not cavernous canyons and ravines. It felt as if I had just stumbled onto a closely held secret.
While the creek meanders through the various coves in Rocky Hollow Canyon, it separates Trail 3 into a handful of small islands. Each creek crossing here is more whimsical and exciting than the previous one. From skipping large boulders to balancing along the length of downed logs, this area is easily a family favorite. Cheers and echoes of laughter could be heard all along the trail from kids successfully traversing the slippery obstacles. All along my hike I kept wondering to myself, "how is this place here?”
As glaciers melted and receded less than 20,000 years ago, meltwater rushed through the region, forever altering the landscape. The raging torrent eroded through glacier debris and cut into the bedrock of Central Indiana. Boulders and rocks carried by the deluge swept into these gorges, further carving out the valley. Wedge Rock, a towering rock formation in the shape of a cheese wedge, is a perfect example of this time period. This rock was once a ledge at the top of the canyon. Water seeping into cracks froze and expanded the cracks. Over time Wedge Rock broke free and plunged to the canyon floor, where it lies today. Now the trail passes right through the underbelly of the rock
Trail 3 continues through what seems like an endless canyon filled with interesting nooks and crannies to explore. It has one of the largest concentrations of rock shelters and caverns I’ve hiked through outside of Red River Gorge or Arches National Park. These unique spaces are home to the states largest concentration of Bryophyte plant communities. Liverworts and mosses are among the most ancient plants on land. Due to illegal foot traffic throughout areas of the canyon that are normally roped off, most of these plants have vanished from the canyon floor altogether and exist only on the steepest rock faces. This is but a small example of why its important to follow Leave No Trace principles.
After two more creek crossings, I begin to reach what appears to be the end of Rocky Hollow Canyon amid a streaming waterfall gushing out of a large crack in the rock face. There are no signs here directing hikers as to where to go, so I stood around feeling puzzled. As I tried to get my bearings while looking over the trail map, a group passed me by and began climbing through the torrential waters of the creek gushing through the cliffs face. I immediately thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” In all of my research before attempting this hike, not once had I read about the creeks actually running with water. Even so, this was A LOT of water.
Making sure I had all of my gear zippered in tight, I took one hard swallow and began the slippery climb up the waterfall and into the heart of the canyon. Its impossible to explain the conditions of trekking through the narrow maze of tunnels in this area, while a river of water streams towards you. Water levels varied anywhere from a shallow pool to nearly a foot deep. If you were lucky, you might find dry land on the steep banks of the creek to either side of the main body of water in the center of the trail. Downed trees hung from the ridges overhead creating obstacles to maneuver around, over, and under.
At some point I began to notice that there was indeed a trail, but I had been looking down instead of up. All along portions of the canyon, narrow trails have been cut into the steep rock face making elevated paths. I was starting to find hand-cut stone steps leading to these secret paths every so often, which would give my feet a much needed reprive from the freezing cold water. What had first been my initial reaction of bewilderment and shock, had slowly tuned into amusement and excitement. I can imagine that this trail is way more fun with water than not.
At this point you really just have to follow the canyon, keeping an eye for the wooden pillars with the yellow trail markings every few hundred feet. Coming upon a fork in the ravine, I found the entrance to the Punch Bowl above another small waterfall similar to the one that kicked this whole journey off. Winding my way through the sliver of trail amid a torrent of water, I entered the large circular chamber containing this magical waterfall. The Punch Bowl is a perfect example of a “pothole” that was scoured out by glacial erratics, or rock debris, caught in a swirling backwash. In simpler terms, think of how the water swirls in your toilet when you flush it. Now throw in a handful of large chunks of sharp rock and watch it carve out a circular shaped hole in the ground.
Exiting the Punch Bowl, I jumped back on the trail and headed past the Trail 4 junction. Take note of the tremendous looking stone staircase thats been cut out of the solid bedrock. Its just one of the many projects completed by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the 1930’s. As the trail begins to veer west from the main tributary feeding the Punch Bowl, water levels drop to a manageable level. From here, one continues to maneuver over the fallen debris until reaching the ledges near the top of this canyon. Carefully hiking up the ripples of this quiet waterfall, we reached the stairs leading out of this water world.
One would think the hard part of this trail is over, but you would be wrong. Now comes the woodland stretch of the journey. Walking up the 4 sets of stairs onto a wooded ridge, I look up to see an endless maze of stairs snaking up hillsides and through some of the smaller ravines here. These are the infamous 140 steps of Trail 3. Its actually a nice change of pace and scenery from being down in the wet gulches. Spring is in the air and much of this woodlands understory is in the early stages of blooming. I can spot the blooms of dogwood, spicebush, and witch hazel all along this area. Continue heading straight, past the Trail 10 junction.
This is the perfect stretch of trail to take a lunch break. All along its length are benches built into the wooden deck railings and even some sawn off logs turned sideways to use as chairs. Leaving the upper woodlands behind for the last time on this trail, I take the last of the 140 steps back down into a gulch. This area is somewhere between the upper ridge and lower gulch. A lot of the debris that gets washed down from the ridges during heavy rains ends up trapped here, creating a wasteland of deep muck. Maneuvering through the swamp like bog is a challenge as their is really not dry place to step. Having tall boots comes in handy here. There are a few technical scrambles along this stretch of trail that required sliding down muddy embankments on my rear end.
Finally reaching the wooden deck overlooking the ladders of Bear Hollow, I stopped to stare down at the gorgeous scenery. This is by far the most famous aspect of Turkey Run Park, with posters and postcards capturing the adventurous spirit of ladders going back to the 1930’s. While the first ladder is vertical, the other two are at a 60 degree angle, descending 25 feet against the canyon walls . Getting down is by no means difficult if you are a fit and able person, but it can still be dangerous so exercise extreme caution while making the trek down. If traveling with kids I would highly recommend keeping them close by as the ledges have no railing and the area is very slippery.
Those not interested in climbing down the ladders into Bear Hollow can veer to the right after the first ladder and jump on to Trail 5 at this point. There are many different ways to tackle the Trail 3, 5, & 9 Loop via completing all three loops, following along the outer loop, or by making a winding “figure 8” along all three trails via the short connecting spur on Trail 5. (Our preferred route)
Traversing the last ladder was by far my favorite as its positioned next to a cascading waterfall. Besides climbing the ladders during the busy summer season, one of the best times to visit Bear Hollow is during winter. Turkey Run has an annual Ice Hike every February where guests get to strap on shoe spikes and climb into this frozen wonderland filled with icicle chandeliers and frozen waterfalls. Another great place to experience this is by paying a visit to Hemlock Cliffs during the middle of winter.
Bear Hollow marks the final 0.50 mile stretch of Trail 3 until reaching the southern portion of Trail 5. It ends much the same way as it began, but here the creek is much more narrow and easier to traverse. This is closer to the way I envisioned the hike going when I initially arrived. I took this opportunity to soak in the views of one of the most unique landscapes I’ve visited in quite a long time. Patiently roaming through the narrow passages I took note of all the different rock formations, hanging ferns, and oddly positioned tree trunks dangling from the upper ridge. Pretty soon the gulch began to retreat lower into the ground as I exited onto the shores of Sugar Creek.
For those exhausted from this rugged hike, wanting to head back, just take a Left Turn here. This last 0.25 mile of trail heads back to the suspension bridge via a series of bridges and boardwalks beneath the massive stone cliffs bordering Sugar Creek. Aside from wandering through small caverns, you’ll get a chance to explore a unique geological feature in the park known as the Ice Box. If you plan on continuing along the famed “figure 8 loop”, Turn Right on the fork and cross the small footbridge onto the start of Trail 5. To follow us on our journey through Turkey Run State Park flip over to our Article on Hiking Trail 5. Until next time, see y’all on the trails!