Indiana's Shades State Park

Rare stands of virgin hardwood and creekside camping beckon sunburned hikers.
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Rare stands of virgin hardwood and creekside camping beckon sunburned hikers.

At first blush, Indiana's Shades State Park might not seem like a soul-cleansing, backcountry escape. After all, the 3,000-acre park harbors car campers, an amphitheater and even a small airstrip, for Pete's sake.

But recently I took a closer look-at the short-yet-rugged trails, the columns of oak, maple, and sycamore, the canoe-in campsites along placid Sugar Creek-and found a destination perfect for a quick weekend getaway or a first-time backpacker.

Located in west-central Indiana, where ancient glaciers scoured the

landscape before receding to the Arctic, Shades hides one of the last remaining virgin hardwood forests in the region. Although most

of Indiana's forests were harvested by the beginning of the twentieth century, the trees here have remained-past and present mingle in the stones that scatter under my boots.

Most of the park's 10 marked trails, as my hiking partner and I discovered, are difficult, slippery and steep, winding past mossy sandstone walls and

weathered features with names like Steamboat Rock and Devil's Punchbowl. A 2.5-mile hike leads to the park's seven designated backpacking sites (backcountry camping is prohibited), filled on a first come, first served basis. On a weekday, you'll likely have the place to yourself. Interconnected, Shades's trails can easily fill a weekend with some strenuous hiking. One of my favorite ventures is a connecting trail that leads to Pine Hills Nature Preserve, an offshoot of Shades. There, a rare mix of evergreen and deciduous trees harken back to a glacial era, and thin sandstone ridges called backbones slice paths through the air. Surprisingly, few hikers venture to Pine Hills, which is fine to those of us who like solitude.

Some campers bring their canoes and indulge in a float down Sugar Creek. It's about 2 miles from the put-in at Deer's Mill Bridge to the paddlers-only campground, which is just over the hill from the hike-in campground.

Oh, and about that airstrip. The backpacking campsites are actually directly in the flightpath of the 300 or so small planes that use the grassy field each year. The good news is that almost all of the traffic occurs on weekends, so obviously, plan to visit weekdays.