Visiting this idillic State Park nestled among the hills, rivers, and forests of south central Indiana has been on my To-Do List for quite a while. Its a relatively short drive, but I hadn’t yet managed to make the time for a full day trip. Heck, I’ve driven past it on my trip to Indiana Caverns just up the road this past summer.
Its black diamond rated bike trails make it a sought out mountain biking destination in the region as well as bringing hardcore outdoor enthusiasts for the rugged 25.5 mile Adventure Hiking Trail. Several friends informed me that this would be one of the last weekends that I would have the park to myself before crews began work on restoring trails for the spring season, so off I went to see what all the fuss was about.
The winding drive through pristine farmland tucked into the foothills edging the Ohio River made the trip worthwhile even before arriving at O’Bannon Woods. On several occasions one has to pull over to take photos of cattle herds grazing and gravel country roads meandering off into the distance. Some farmers have taken to restoring their barns with classic signs from the era which they were built, adding to the feel of classic Americana. The vistas went on and on as far as the eye could see. Anyone who appreciates landscape photography would swoon over this scenery.
Turning off IN-62 onto IN-462 and crossing over the Blue River, you enter Harrison-Crawford State Forest. The forest is a state managed resource, having been planted by 517th Co. Civilian Conservation Corps and harvested for lumber since the 1930’s. Establishing the 2,294 acre O’Bannon Woods within the State Forest offered additional protection to the sensitive areas of Post Oak Cedar and Mouth of Blue River Nature Preserve as well as the Charles C. Deam Nature Preserve, which runs the forests length of the Ohio River shore. Located north of O’Bannon are the Wyandotte Caves, which are technically part of the state park despite being located several miles away within Harrison-Crawford State Forest. Wyandotte Caves will be featured in another post as soon as they reopen for the season this upcoming summer!
Driving through the main gate, the first thing one notices is the bright red and green fire tower, rising 88 ft above the forest canopy. My first stop would be the nature center to get some information on points of interest and the best trails to hike. On the way there, the road climbed and dropped over some seriously hilly knobs, similar to the terrain of Clifty Falls. Large wooden signs along the drive classify each parcel of forest with the tree variety and date planted. Various sections of the park are in the middle of their scheduled lumber harvest, closing off a few of the hiking trails.
The Hickory Hollow Nature Center is located in the central section of the park surrounded by a rustic 1800’s farmstead. Despite the fact that the center was closed, it was easy to navigate the area thanks to all of the posted signs. While having a look around some of the barns, I turned a corner to spot the largest cattle I have ever seen. They stared me down, inspecting my every move without so much as blinking. For a second, one would think they might even be fake replicas, until I raised my hand to pet one of them and it reared its head in disapproval.
Rolling around in the hay opposite the cattle, oblivious to passersby, were two small donkeys. These cute little creatures were having the time of their lives taking dust baths and rummaging for food in the outdoor livestock pen.
This expansive village of wooden cottages, with their moss covered roofs, are a re-creation of what an early settlement here in the foothills of Indiana might have looked like. There was a trappers cabin with antique animal traps hanging from the log covered walls.
A replica of a mill wright shop, with hand sawn benches strewn about in different stages of completion and across from that a smokehouse surrounded by piles of stacked firewood. The assortment of small cottages gave the scene a feel of being far off in a Scandinavian village.
This area of southern Indiana has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Early Native Americans roamed these hills in search of caves, similar to those in Mammoth Cave National Park, to mine the valuable blueish-grey flint for thousands of years to make spearpoints, knives, arrowheads and other tools. Soon after discovering the Ohio Valley, pioneer settlers traveled through in the early 1800’s to establish towns and to trade with riverboats coming up the Ohio River.
Fast forward 100 years and much of the area had been over farmed and void of trees until the Department of Natural Resources began buying parcels of land to establish the Harrison-Crawford State Forest in the 1930’s, therefore preserving the historic significance of this area.
The 2 mile long Tulip Valley Trail cuts through the nature center area and offers views of the preserved mixed canopy forest of poplar, ash, and hickory. Wooden boardwalks and bridges zigzag over field stone lined creeks cutting through the hillside, making their descent towards the Ohio River.
Mid-way along the trail is a two story wildlife viewing station built to resemble a tree house. I walked up the ramp and took a seat near one of the windows hoping to spot some wildlife while taking a lunch break. Sure enough, a few minutes later the sound of leaves rustling led my camera lens to the edge of a meadow to spot a deer looking right at me! Maybe she smelled my bag of Frito-Lay Munchies.
The northern end of Tulip Valley connects to the 2 mile, black diamond rated Rocky Ridge Trail. This is one of the trails mountain bikers from around the region seek out. This loop passes through deep ravines and ascends scenic, rocky slopes. A total of 6 mountain biking trails cut throughout O’Bannon Woods, meeting in different areas to form a large loop. They all range from blue square (more difficult) to double black diamond (extremely difficult).
Another trail intertwining through O’Bannon Woods and the Harrison-Crawford State Forest is the Adventure Hiking Trail. This rugged 25.5 mile “American Discovery Trail” is Indiana’s longest backpacking experience. Hikers can spend anywhere from 2.5-3 days hiking the high bluffs of the Ohio River, over sinkholes, and through ravines while camping in one of the five overnight shelters along the trail. The southern end of this trail connects to the 1.25 mile CCC Ghost Trail. This hike takes you up long, steep climbs and rocky descents while following a dry creek bed near the Group Camp.
Directly East of the Group Camp is the Post Oak Cedar Nature Preserve Trail. The 0.8 mile loop passes through a cedar grove while gradually climbing a ridge where small glades, under openings in the forest canopy, sport prairie like vegetation such as little bluestem and purple coneflowers. Lower and moister areas are more heavily wooded and feature limestone outcroppings tucked with native fern species and woodland orbs.
Heading south along the main road I pulled over to check out the Pioneer Cabin Shelter along the Adventure Hiking Trail. A small group was packing up the remainder of their gear from overnighting in the shelter, planning to head south along the Charles C. Deam Nature Preserve. Despite having no walls to protect yourself from the elements, the shelters vintage stone fireplace is adequate enough to keep one warm throughout the chilliest of nights. The Cliff Dweller Trailhead is just opposite the shelter, but a posted sign announced its closure due to the lumber harvest.
I followed the road till its end in the Mouth of Blue River Nature Preserve. This 470 acre area is dominated by deep ravines and steep bluffs adjoining the shores of the Ohio River. Its a great place to view wildlife as well as a variety of endangered plants. After a week full of rain the river had begun to crest over flood stage and lower portions of the 1.5 mile Ohio River Bluff Trail was impassable.
I doubled back along the path to take the steep climb up the ridge, to the Ohio River Lookout. The climb is helped by an assortment of fieldstone steps made to act as a staircase, but even so I found myself leaning and using my hands to climb, especially near the top.
Once you reach the top of the fieldstone steps, the forest opens up with views of the hilly knobs across the river into Kentucky. A quarry lies next to farmland pastures on the opposite bank with tug boats escorting barges up and down the rivers edge. Even today, the river plays a major role as a route for transporting goods throughout the area.
With the sun beginning its descent behind the hills it made for a gorgeous scene. On the hillside overlooking the river you’ll find a boardwalk leading to a wooden deck with picnic tables, a perfect spot to sit, relax, and watch the day fade into night.
Feeling a lit bit froggy, I decided to climb the forest tower in order to catch the last few moments of sunset left. I’ll admit it, I am not a fan of heights, but my worries dissipated once I glanced over the railing to see the sky ablaze every shade of yellow, orange, and red you could think of.
Much like the vistas stretching into the horizon at Red River Gorge, the scenery here has the power to transport you to another place and time. A few moments later, the bright glare mellowed into softer shades of pink, blue, and purple.
Feeling perfectly content in that moment, surging with pride for having set aside my irrational fears to climb the fire tower, I was reminded of a few words by American poet Robert Frost, “Freedom lies in being bold."