The 436-acre Portland Arch Nature Preserve in Central Indiana is home to one of the few known natural bridges in the Hoosier State, Portland Arch. This arch sits on a tributary of the towering, ninety-foot cliffs of Bear Creek Canyon, a relic of the last Ice Age. Its unique ecosystem hosts an abundance of rare and endangered plants not found anywhere else in the state, granting it the status of a National Natural Landmark in 1973. Steeped in myth and lore dating back to a time when this land was home to the ancestral Shawnee Tribe, a walk through these woods will transport visitors to a time when this area was at the farthest edges of the early American frontier.
Portland Arch Nature Preserve | Google Maps
North Trail | Portland Nature Preserve
As someone who’s fascinated by history, it gives me great pleasure to learn more about the places we explore, but that information is not always so easy to come by. In the case of the Portland Arch Nature Preserve, the history of the area is encapsulated by the environment itself. As the ancestral homeland of the Shawnee Tribe, this area was once within the capitol of the Ohio Valley Confederacy. Made up of a coalition of Shawnee, Miami, Potawatomi, Wea, Kickapoo, Delaware, Chippewa, Ottawa, Wyandot, Seneca, and Piankashaw, they were one of the last obstacles in keeping white settlers from expanding into the continents interior.
Led by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, tribes from as far away as Florida and Minnesota heeded a call to put a stop to white settler intrusions that were quickly eroding their traditional way of life. This struggle came to a head at The Battle of Tippecanoe, in the confederacy’s headquarters near present day Prophetstown State Park. A plaque at the entrance to the nature preserves north trail serves as a memorial to honor the indigenous tribes that once called this land home.
Although there are two main hiking trails at the Portland Arch Nature Preserve, I opted to hike the more popular North Trail. At roughly 1 mile long, this easy to navigate loop passes through some of the most historically important and dramatic areas of the preserve. Parking in the north trail lot along Scout Camp Rd, I made my way through the simple fence, over to the trail log to sign my name and begin my journey.
This trail starts us off on a hike through the rich understory of one of the most diverse forests found in the state. The uplands are made up of mostly hickories and oaks, while the bottoms and ravines support black walnut, basswood, flowering dogwood, and beech. In just a few more weeks during the heart of spring and heading into summer, guests can be sure to encounter shooting star, showy goldenrod, purple milkweed and many more savanna species.
Heading downhill along the trail I’m able to spot the entrance to Tecumsehs' Cave, on my left, just across Scout Camp Rd. This area is known for having many caves and rock shelters which were once used by the Shawnees who lived on this land. Local lore has it that Chief Tecumseh himself once used this very cave to evade capture by pursuing American soldiers.
Upon entering the cave he climbed through a secret shaft hidden inside the roof of the cave to exit out the top, giving him the oppurtunity to escape and fight another day. Unfortunately, his rebellion was short lived following his death at the Battle of the Thames a few years later, where he was mortally wounded.
Following the wooded rail curving down the hillside, we began our descent into the bottoms of the nature preserve. Being early spring, the lack of foliage on the trees gives the forest floor a dousing of sunlight, encouraging a flourish of spring growth. I can easily spot the foliage of young wood poppies beginning to emerge alongside dutchman breeches. In some of the boggy areas, shrubs of velvet leaf blueberries are beginning to bud in anticipation of a beautiful flower display. This preserve is also home to a rare community of huckleberries and wintergreen, mostly found at higher elevations.
As we near closer to the banks of Spring Creek, we spot the remains of a building foundation that was once part of the busy resort that existed here in the mid 1800’s. After the defeat of the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe, white settlers began arriving in the area en masse, establishing the town of Portland in 1828. With the creation of trade routes along the Wabash River came an influx of infrastructure, including a hotel built here on the upper slopes near the Portland Arch. It is said that a young Abraham Lincoln was a regular at the hotel, having stayed there several times.
Drawn in by the scenic beauty of Bear Creek Canyon, the area was soon turned into a resort seeing as many as 1,000 visitors in a single weekend. For a mere, 0.10 cents, people could swim, hike, picnic, and climb the rugged cliffs above the arch. Once we headed down the crudely cut stone steps into the ravine of Spring Creek, I began to understand why people were so mesmerized by this place. It felt as if we were stepping into an entirely different world. The gentle, meandering waters of Spring Creek passed alongside cliffs laden with ferns and mosses draping over every nook and cranny.
On the far bank directly ahead of us, was the first rock shelter we encountered on the trail. These cliffs have some of the most unique rock stratification I’ve seen in the midwest. Each layer ranges from several millimeters to many meters in thickness and appear to be falling over like a row of dominoes. Just around a bend is a foot bridge leading over to the opening of Portland Arch. Spring Creek winds its way through the opening, creating this natural wonder, and exiting out into the larger Bear Creek.
At 7.5 feet high, the arch resembles a large doorway, being just big enough for a grown adult to walk through. For its diminutive size, it is still quite striking. The limestone stratification on these cliffs are truly incredible, ranging in color from deep red, orange, yellow, and green. With a little digging, I was able to find black and white photos from the late 1890’s of tourists in victorian era attire posing within the arch.
You could have someone today stand in the same pose and the arch with its surrounding area would look identical. As I was pacing around trying to get a good photo, I spotted something float within a few yards of me down Bear Creek. Turning to catch a glimpse of what I suspected was a floating log, I was dumbfounded to find that what I was starring at was in fact a beaver. Having only seen beavers out in the wilds of northern Montana and Colorado, I was shocked to see one in a small tributary in the middle of Indiana of all places.
Beavers were once an integral part of this landscape until they were hunted into extinction in the late 1800’s. Starting in 1935, the state began a program to re-introduce beavers into protected habitats with the hopes that they may once again take their place in establishing and maintaining healthy wetlands. Today, their populations are found living in almost all of Indianas' 92 counties.
Turning to follow the trail along the banks of Bear Creek, one is met with the towering cliffs of Bear Creek Canyon. At ninety feet high, these towering cliffs play a leading role in creating the unique ecosystem surrounding the Portland Arch. At one point in its history the owners of the resort began an ambitious plan to build a dam across Bear Creek. This dam would be used to generate power for the ever expanding resort, but near its completion the project was abandoned due to a lack of funds. The catastrophic events of the Great Deppression may have been the saving grace of this natural landscape. Part of the flood walls and pillars are all thats left of the project, just a mere 20 yards from the arch entrance.
Right behind the flood walls are a series of colorful rock shelters adorning the side of the cliffs. Its not too often that I find one of these structures without a significant amount of vandalizing, but the rock shelters here are in beautiful condition considering their heavy use. Walking over to the banks of Bear Creek, I could spot several sizeable rock shelters and caves throughout the length of the towering cliffs. The water running here is so pristine that you can see all the way to the bottom for most of its length as it exits into the Wabash River.
In order to facilitate the transport of goods and services during Americas rapid expansion, a plan was put in motion to connect several streams and creeks across portions of Ohio and Indiana to create the Wabash & Eerie Canal. This spurred a short-lived economic boom to Portland and the many small villages dotted along the Wabash RIver. The project was costly to build and maintain. In the end, the canal proved to be futile as travel by river barges was soon replaced by the faster pace of railway travel.
Jumping back on the trail I approached a wooden staircase leading onto an expansive boardwalk spanning nearly 100 yards long. Elevated above the creek, this boardwalk hugs the side of the canyon cliffs, dipping in and out of pocket caves and rock shelters where some of the preserves rare and endangered plants thrive. Walking its length, one gets a better view of the canyons many formations including what appears to be an underground spring on the opposite banks.
The early peoples whom lived here would have undoubtedly sourced a lot of their sustenance from this river. The waters of the Wabash River were known for their sizable population of muskrats, which was the most trapped furbearer in its day beside beavers. Muskrat stew is just as popular today as it was 100 years ago, but beware of removing their musk glands first before cooking them, or you could be in for an unpleasant dinning experience.
Just up the canyon, the trail bends uphill via a switchback as it begins its return back to the parking lot. Before heading back though, I spotted a small waterfall on the opposite side of the creek and headed down to take a closer look. The many sandbanks here were once popular spots for kids to swim from and enjoy a day out on the water. In the 1930’s the area saw some renewed interest and was purchased by the Boy Scouts of America. Opening in 1937, Portland Arch Scout Reservation welcomed children each summer for weeks long camp outings and excursions.
(Source: Karen Evans & The Book Nook)
Children were allowed to freely roam the property exploring the many interesting rock formations and hidden coves in the area. One of the few areas that was deemed off limits was a section of cliff along the canyon wall known as the Devils Staircase. In the summer of 1954, a group of children went out exploring this part of the reserve, which resulted in one of the scouts falling off the cliff and dying. Till this day the area is still off limits and hikers are dissuaded from trying to make the steep scramble.
Heading up the switchback, you travel underneath an interesting rock pinnacle that appears to be painted black. Its coloring in fact comes from the leaching of manganese and iron oxide. This section of trail, as it winds through the upper slopes of the canyon, is a great place to view wildflowers during summer. Even now they hillside is covered with spring beauties in their many shades of white and pink.
After a short stroll, we are back at the trail sign in post, right where we started. Before heading out, take a walk down the road and check out the small area surrounding Tecumseh’s cave and the tall pinnacle across from it known as the Tea Table. If you’ve visited Portland Arch, drop a comment below and tell us about your experience! Until next time, see y’all on the trails!