Eyeing southern Indiana's mighty Knobstone Escarpment from the cornfields below may not quicken the pulse the way your first sighting of the Rockies does, but one thing's for sure: Hiking the Knobstone Trail will make your heart race. Sections of this 58-mile trail seem to stand on end, forcing a hand-over-hand style of hiking more akin to climbing a ladder. Radical stuff in what's supposed to be horizontal Hoosierland.
With a leap of more than 400 feet-some of it nearly vertical-and a length exceeding 100 miles, the escarpment is the most prominent geological feature to disturb the otherwise tranquil Indiana landscape. Heaps of glacier-deposited shale and siltstone cover the flat-top ridges and create a succession of "knobs" that march north from the Ohio River toward the center of the state. It all combines to yield a hiking experience unlike any other in Indiana. In fact, the rugged Knobstone Trail (KT) has become a convenient training ground for Hoosier hikers preparing for the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance hikes.
The stiff climbs give way to open ridgetop panoramas of the surrounding farmland. Several vista points along the southern KT offer views of downtown Louisville 20 miles away. Enjoy them while you can because soon enough, the KT will continue its up-and-down grind. You'll saunter along ridgetops, hop small streams filled with geodes, dip in and out of ravines dripping with ferns, and pass through valleys carpeted with wildflowers. Hike quietly and you might spot white-tailed deer, wild turkey, raccoons, box turtles, and garter snakes. At the least, you'll hear the chorus of songbirds in the canopy of oak, hickory, beech, and maple.
Already the state's longest trail, the Knobstone could double in length in the near future. Plans are afoot to extend the pathway north 60 miles through national and state forests. Maybe then hikers will warm up on the Appalachian Trail before tackling the Knobstone.
QUICK TAKE: Knobstone Trail, IN
DRIVE TIME: The south terminus near Deam Lake State Recreation Area is 25 miles (45 minutes) north of Louisville, Kentucky. The north terminus at Delaney Park between Brownstown and Salem is about 80 miles (just under 2 hours) from Indianapolis and 260 miles (41/2 hours) from Chicago.
THE WAY: To Deam Lake Trailhead from I-65 at Sellersburg (exit 9), go south on IN 311 to IN 60. Turn right (west) on IN 60 and go 8.5 miles to Deam Lake SRA road. Turn right, then go to the intersection of Broom Hill and Wilson Switch Roads. Turn right, and go 1.4 miles to the trailhead parking lot on the left. The trail is on the right side of the road.
TRAILS: Hike the 58-mile KT in weekend-length sections, like the 9-mile trip from Leota to New Chapel through the lush North Branch Valley, or hike the whole thing in four to five leisurely days. Camping, within specified guidelines, is permitted along the trail, but water sources can be scarce.
ELEVATION: The high point is Round Knob at 1,001 feet. More than a dozen knobs exceed 900 feet and require climbs of 300 to 400 vertical feet.
CAN'T MISS: Some of the oldest tree stands in the state are found at the southern end of the KT.
CROWD CONTROL: The Leota to New Chapel and New Chapel to Jackson Road legs are less traveled than elsewhere on the KT.
PIT STOP: In Starlight, a hilltop burg off IN 60 at the south end of the KT, both the Huber Winery and Huber Family Restaurant offer plenty to eat and drink, as well as a farm market.
WALK SOFTLY: Several unique plant species populate the KT area, but none is more unusual than Deam's foxglove, which grows nowhere else in the world.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Indiana Department of Natural Resources offers a free map (address below).
MORE INFORMATION: IDNR Division of Outdoor Recreation, 402 W. Washington St., Room 271, Indianapolis,IN 46204; (317) 232-4070; www.dnr.state.in.us/outdoor/index.htm.