Story by Elizabeth Granger
Spring is calling and Mother Nature unites with a myriad of opportunities that offer oh-so-satisfying adventures in Indiana’s great outdoors.
It was Scouting that led Mark Arenz of Indianapolis to the great outdoors.
First, as a pre-schooler with an older brother who was a Boy Scout, and a dad who was a Boy Scout leader. Now, decades later, Arenz himself has his own personal history as a Boy Scout who earned the rank of Eagle and as a Boy Scout leader himself.
The outdoors continues its pull on him. Always will, he says. And he continues to encourage others, from greenhorns to skilled naturalists, to play outside. The possibilities are endless, from short nature walks through a park to day-long paddles on the water to multiple nights in a forest tent. Each offers distinct delights.
Winter had Arenz pining for warm weather and hammock camping. “There’s nothing better in the summer,” he asserts. But first, spring, with its re- awakening sights, sounds, smells, ….
A short stroll around the neighborhood can lead to walking trails in city, county and state parks as well as on ever- expanding rails-to-trails paths. Indiana offers more than 4,200 miles of trails open to the public. Some are especially well-suited for backpacking, biking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, even canoeing and kayaking.
The Indiana State Nature Passport program, launched in February, adds further encouragement.
“The great outdoors has never been more popular,” says Amy Howell, director of communications and media relations at the Indiana Destination Development Corporation. “This was evident during the pandemic when regular, as well as first-time users, flooded the parks, campgrounds, forests, rivers, and other natural resource assets. You don’t have to go far to feel far away.”
Arenz’s recommendations include many of the sites in the passport program. And more. He suggests checking out the not-so-well-known as well as those wildly popular sites. Brown County, Spring Mill and Fort Harrison state parks, to be sure. Whitewater Memorial State Park near Liberty has become a favorite in recent years. “The coolest thing about it is a full waterfront area on the lake that has both swimming and boating areas, with canoe rentals,” he says. “Fantastic for little kids. Lots of times it’s hard to get a beachy area. The whole time I was there I kept wondering why I hadn’t known about it earlier.”
He also likes Falls of the Ohio State Park on the banks of the Ohio River, especially the small caves along the shore when the water is low. “Kids eat this stuff up,” he says. “Dogs love it, too.”
There’s also an element of history here. George Rogers Clark established a post on an island at the Falls of the Ohio during the American Revolutionary War. In 1803 Meriwether Lewis stopped there to pick up his friend, William Clark, as they set off on their journey westward – you know, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Today, the Clark Historic Homesite is within that state park.
History looms large at Lincoln State Park in Spencer County, too, where it’s “like taking a step back into time when the land was wild and Abe Lincoln was a boy.” Across the road is the Lincoln Boyhood National Site.
Fort Wayne is situated on three rivers that converge in downtown Fort Wayne offering eight miles of riverfront. Most of the riverfront is kept natural for kayakers, paddle boarders, canoers and boat cruisers to explore. However, the new Promenade Park is a one-of-a-kind park that joins their natural rivers to their vibrant urban center with features like a tree canopy trail, water features for kids to play in, and many modern amenities.
In Hammond, you’ll find an abundance of outdoor activities, clustered around three lakes within just two square miles. Wolf Lake Memorial Park is home to boating, kayaking, fishing, windsurfing and a full host of outdoor recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy the Pavilion at Wolf Lake and the Wolf Lake Aquatic Play Center, which are linked to the Hammond Marina and area amenities by way of a pedestrian trail. There’s also the Observatory Pier at George Lake, which allows public access for fishing and bird watching.
Another outdoor gem in northern Indiana is Valparaiso, where their city parks encompass more than 700 acres of parkland with of 23 miles of linear pathway, 14 children’s playgrounds, 27 athletic fields and two golf courses. Central Park Plaza, in downtown Valparaiso, features the Northwest Health Amphitheater, William E. Urschel Pavilion, Indiana Beverage Activity Center, splash-pad play area, and so much more.
With two prominent lakes, an amusement park, and a drive-in movie theater, White County is a destination that will keep you busy with outdoor fun. There are boat rentals available on Lake Shafer, including pontoons and waverunners. At Indiana Beach Boardwalk Resort you’ll enjoy rides, games, waterpark, camping, and more. When you’re in the area, take in a double feature at the Lake Shore Drive-In Theatre, a classic drive-in that’s been around since 1949.
Arenz is hooked on forests, too, primarily the Hoosier National Forest and Morgan-Monroe State Forest near Bloomington and Martinsville. He’s particularly fond of the Low Gap Trail for backpacking. Last year Indiana designated Ravinia Woods, a section of Morgan-Monroe State Forest, as a state forest in its own right. Visitor amenities are in the works, but it’s already good for back country hiking.
Southern Indiana’s cave system offers a variety of activities that range from walking tours to downright wet and dirty cave crawls. “You get wet, and you may get stuck,” Arenz says. In Harrison County, Squire Boone Caverns has cavern tours that feature amazing cave formations, rushing streams, and waterfalls.
Instead of sloshing through water, however, he is more likely to stay on the water in a canoe or kayak. He loves the logistics help that canoe liveries provide, driving canoeists to the start of their run and then picking them – and their canoes – up at the end of the run. Noblesville’s White River Canoe Company gets a definite nod. “They really run a good operation,” Arenz says.
In Wabash county, White Rock Recreation offers “white glove” treatment, which means they do all the hard work. Their full-shuttle service transports you, the boats, and equipment upstream to your selected drop site to paddle or float back to your car. No heavy lifting, just easy paddling. Their location also has trails, fitness court, outdoor ping pong, ice cream, and wood-
Near French Lick, Patoka Lake is the second largest reservoir in Indiana, and the Patoka Lake Marina offers a variety of cabin rentals, boat rentals, boat tours, winery, event space, and a full service marina.
Zip lining and ropes courses get people up off the ground. Options include Koteewi Park near Noblesville, Go Ape in Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis and Indiana Zipline Tours in Crawfordsville.
Biking trails are everywhere. In Carmel, many of their roadways are interconnected to make an accessible bicycle network including the popular Monon Greenway, the Hagan-Burke Trail, Greyhound Trail, and White River Greenway. There’s also Cardinal Greenway in eastern Indiana (with free bike rental at Cycling and Fitness Warehouse in Richmond), Rivergreenway Trail in downtown Fort Wayne, Monon Trail in Indianapolis, Erie and Lackawanna Trail in Lake County, B-Line in Bloomington, and Nickel Plate in Miami and Howard counties.
Outdoor fitness can also be enjoyed on the dunes along Lake Michigan. Indiana Dunes State Park has the popular 3 Dune Challenge, and Indiana Dunes National Park has a new sister challenge – the Diana of the Dunes Dare.
Opportunities for those with disabilities are growing with improved accessibility to trails throughout the state, some with help from volunteer groups that include Friends of the Mounds at Mounds State Park in Anderson. Winona Lake Limitless Park in Kosciusko County is a universally accessible playground where everyone can be included in the play. In practical terms to be “accessible” means the playground will have a surface that is solid (like poured in place rubber or turf) and ramps which helps include anyone with mobility or balance concerns. It also includes features that encourage sensory play such as musical boards and balance beams. At the Marquette Park Lagoon in Gary, there’s a handicapped-accessible launch for canoes and kayaks.
More ways to enjoy Indiana’s Great Outdoors
• Old Town Waverly Park near Martinsville – with a 2-mile river walk trail, historic bank building, traditional arts demonstration areas, mural walls and a new game area.
• Lemon Lake County Park in Crown Point – with five disc golf courses.
• Holiday Drive-In in Rockport – old-time family fun with affordable nightly double features on six movie screens.
• Avon Gardens in Hendricks
County – 10 acres of flowering gardens, pond, ravine.
• Sugar Creek Nature Park in Montgomery County –covers nearly 64 acres with trails along the creek and boasts outdoor classroom work stations.
• Crown Haven Center near Kokomo – an equestrian’s heaven with horseback riding, pony rides, more
• Cope Environmental Center in Richmond – oodles of outdoor activities.
• Outdoor Art Experiences and Art Scavenger Hunt in Kokomo – walk or bike local trails (rental bikes available) and take on the scavenger hunt.
• Carmel Parks – The city of Carmel manages and maintains more than 550 park acres including 15 parks and four greenways.
• Pokagon State Park in Steuben
County – Well-known for its winter toboggan run, this park features two lakes that offer boating, swimming, and fishing during warm months.
• Wilstem Wildlife Park in Paoli
– 1,100-acre attraction for animal encounters, ziplining, ATV tours, and horseback riding.
• Salomon Farm Park in Fort Wayne – working farm with wetlands, historic buildings, and 1.8-mile walking trail.
Editor’s Note: With the Covid pandemic not yet over, readers are strongly encouraged to check sites’ websites before venturing out. Also check tourism offices for outdoor adventure packages.
For Even More Information
Carmel City Parks
Cope Environmental Center
Fort Wayne Promenade Park
Indiana State Nature Passport Program
Indiana State Parks
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial
Squire Boone Caverns
Sugar Creek Nature Park
White Rock Recreation
Wilstem Wildlife Park
Winona Lake Limitless Park
Wolf Lake Memorial Park