By Jenny Elig // Photography submitted by Indiana Department of Natural Resources
State system has something for all seasons
Parks in Indiana are representative of the Hoosier state’s natural diversity. Composed of 32 properties and managed by Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources, the state parks and reservoirs have more than 2,000 buildings, 700 miles of trails, 636 hotel/lodge rooms, 17 marinas, 75 launching ramps, 17 swimming pools, 15 beaches, 7,701 campsites, more than 200 shelters, 160 playgrounds (give or take) and 150 cabins.
As rich as they are in variety, the state parks are equally rich in history; the system traces its days back to 1916. During the parks movement of the early 20th century, Indianapolis businessman Col. Richard Lieber saw other states around the country forming their own parks systems.
“Lots of states and counties even around the country were looking at creating outdoor places for people to enjoy,” says Ginger Murphy, Indiana State Parks deputy director. Lieber led a committee that recommended that Indiana form its own parks. The system was a centennial gift to the state and its people.
This gift to Hoosiers kept on growing and giving; during the 2017-18 fiscal year, the properties drew more than 16.7 million visitors. Properties are overseen by either managers or interpretive naturalists — people who, Murphy says, “are telling the stories of our parks and the meanings behind the structures and the natural resources and helping people understand the value of them.” The parks, which include prairies, cliffs, trails and picnic spots, inns and watch towers, and consistently unexpected delights, offer visitors a chance to escape the everyday, she says.
“It’s the opportunity to put aside the stress or the work of the day and to just relax and listen and walk and be a part of the natural world,” Murphy says. “It’s going to surprise you every time if you’re willing to let it.”
Of course, we recommend you visit all 32 properties. You can find information at in.gov/dnr/parklake. But if you have to pick, here are suggestions for each season.
Bloomington’s Monroe Lake is the place to be if you want to be near water as the temperatures soar. But did you know these blissful waters are home to a true success story? “Monroe Lake is where bald eagles were reintroduced to the state of Indiana, after an absence of almost 90 years,” says Jill Vance, interpretive naturalist for Monroe Lake. “In addition to the roughly 12 nesting pairs we see at the lake each spring, eagles can now be found nesting successfully throughout the state.”
Just over an hour’s drive from Indy’s north side, Mississinewa Lake is an 11,000-acre park with a 3,200-acre lake. Mississinewa Lake has the only state-operated seasonal campground, where campers may stay on their site from May 1 through Oct. 31; it’s also one of the state’s five largest campgrounds, according to property manager Larry Brown. Stay here and you’ll be sharing space with another important resident. “Many people think of Monroe when looking for resident eagle populations at DNR-managed properties in Indiana,” Brown says. “And they were the first. However, Mississinewa also has a growing resident population here. It is not uncommon to see eagles year-round. During the eagle migration in January and February, we typically have the largest population in the state here.”
Brown County State Park’s 16,000 acres are well-known in the region for their brilliant fall foliage. The display has drawn visitors for decades, even before the area was designated a park in 1929, Patrick Haulter, the site’s interpretive naturalist, says. “This diversity of flora creates an amazing palette of colors that paint these beautiful hills during the fall season,” he says. The glaciers ended their travels just north of Brown County, creating vistas in the area. “These vistas overlook miles of forested land, which makes those fall views even more spectacular and has given us the nickname ‘the Li’l Smokies,’” Haulter says.
Jasonville’s Shakamak State Park has three man-made lakes, providing 400 acres of water for fishing and boating, while a family aquatic center provides swimming fun. And because approximately two-thirds of the campsites are in a wooded area, visitors will find gorgeous autumn foliage. “Its features keep people coming back year after year,” says property manager Robert Hogg. “People come from all over to swim in the pool, fish in the lakes or stay in a family cabin.”
Ten thousand years ago, the land that’s now Pokagon State Park was shaped by melting glaciers that left behind kettle lakes and rolling hills; Potawatomi tribes later used the land for hunting, fishing and farming the rich soil. This Angola park became Indiana’s fifth state park in 1925, when the residents of Steuben County gave the land to the state as a Christmas gift, says Pokagon’s interpretive naturalist, Nicky Ball.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 556, worked in the park to build roads, trails and beaches, planting hundreds of trees and building structures that still stand today. “When families visit Pokagon today, they can feel like they are stepping back in time,” Ball says. Come winter, visitors thrill at the park’s cross-country skiing and sledding opportunities, as well as the ice fishing and a twin-track toboggan run.
“Potato Creek is loads of fun in winter,” says Barbara Tibbets, the North Liberty park’s interpretive naturalist. In addition to a nature center that’s open year-round and well-stocked with loaner snowshoes, the park offers a 1st Day Hike on Jan. 1. After the park’s Worster Lake freezes in winter, ice fishing becomes a popular pastime. Plus, wintertime snows at Potato Creek offer visitors a chance to look for the tracks of resident wildlife. “Last winter we found bobcat, coyote, fox, raccoon, opossum and mouse tracks, all on a single one-hour hike,” Tibbets says. “A drive through the park in winter frequently provides a glimpse of deer or barred owls. The road is nearly six miles long”
“The Indiana Dunes State Park’s beautiful, 3-mile beach along the shore of Lake Michigan may be its most popular resource, but there is much more to do and see,” says the park’s interpretive naturalist Marie Laudeman. Visitors head to the Chesterton park, which was recently named a national park, for the more than 16 miles of hiking trails.
“It’s a special combination of diverse plant and animal communities all along the varied shoreline of giant wandering dunes, fore dunes, pine-covered ridges, blowouts, marshes, swamps, bogs, forests and oak savannas, ranking the Indiana Dunes more diverse than the state of Hawaii,” Laudeman says. Here, you’ll find endangered orchids and have a chance to see more than 350 species of birds.
Charlestown State Park offers a fun twist: It contains Rose Island, an amusement park on the Ohio River, which was a regional attraction in the 1920s, says property manager Lucas Green. “The park also sits on land that was once the Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, which was constructed during World War II to help with powder production for the war effort,” he adds. At almost 5,300 acres, the park is Indiana’s third-largest in size; Charlestown is one of two state parks offering full hookup campsites in its 192-site campground “In spring, our beautiful wildflowers are in bloom, and guided hikes are available with our interpretive naturalist.” The redbud trees along the park’s entrance give visitors a beautiful backdrop during a lunch along the Ohio River.