Indiana is not particularly well known for incredible scenery and excellent backpacking opportunities. However, there are a few local trails that supply some challenging climbs and pleasant views. One of these trails is the “Indiana Adventure Hiking Trail,” or AHT, located within the boundaries of Harrison-Crawford State Forest and O’Bannon Woods State Park. The trail forms a 25-mile loop and winds its way through the hills of southern Indiana, past old pioneer homesteads and along cliffs that border the Ohio River. I planned a trip to navigate the trail in two days and two nights: On the first night, I stash water at a few road-trail intersections and then hike a fraction of a mile to a shelter along the trail for the night. The following day, I hike about 14 miles and spend the evening at a shelter overlooking the Ohio River. The final day calls for an easier 10 miles, leaving plenty of time to drive home.
Indiana Adventure Hiking Trail Planning
Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources has published a handy brochure with most of the information you’ll need to plan a trip on the Indiana Adventure Hiking Trail. I find their map a little lacking, so I’ve created on one the CalTopo site (embedded below). The map is interactive; by clicking on icons, you can read additional notes about the shelters and parking options. The CalTopo system also provides tools to print the map yourself, like this map I’ve created from the data below.
No formal permit is required to backpack along the AHT, but you do need to register with the O’Bannanon Woods State Park office (marked on the map) for safety reasons. You’ll likely want to stash water at road-trail intersections because the karst landscape is mostly devoid of surface water. Lastly, take care to avoid wrong turns while hiking! The AHT can be difficult to follow at times, but keep and eye out for the green and white blazes and you’ll find the way.
Travel to the Trailhead
My dad, Steve, and I meet up on Friday evening for a cheerful pizza dinner before driving to O’Bannon Woods State Park, which is about 30 miles west of Louisville, KY. We arrive at the park an hour before dusk and spend most of the remaining daylight stashing a few water-filled gallon jugs at strategic locations where the trail intersects the road. By the time we finish this first task, night has fallen and we are left traipsing a few hundred yards in a light drizzle along a wide trail, lit by headlamp, to the first shelter.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected from a shelter; a picnic shelter with a cement pad, a few picnic tables, and a roof overhead, I suppose. Fortunately, the shelter is much more camper-friendly. The floor is just dirt, and three graffiti-covered walls and ceiling surround a picnic table and fire ring. Although we have a tent and rainfly, the prospect of keeping all our gear dry without any special effort brightens our evening. We pitch the tent, again by the light of our headlamps, and toss in our sleeping bags and pads. We prop our packs against one of the shelter walls and hang our food supply from one of the rafters. No, it isn’t hundreds of feet from our tent, and yes, a determined animal could probably get to it. However, there aren’t any bears here; the worst we worry about are mice and raccoons. Steve and I are both tired, so it doesn’t take long before we drift off listening to the light patter of rain drops on the roof.
Day 1 – Routefinding
May 21, 2016 | 16.2 mi | +2185′ / -2185′ | View on Map
In the morning, I boil some water and we feast on homemade instant oatmeal packets – Cherry Almond, recipe by Monica – before donning our packs and heading out into the misty morning. There are still water droplets falling from above, but they seem to be falling from wet leaves in the trees above, dislodged by the wind. Even though it isn’t raining in the conventional sense, it’s still incredibly wet. Dozens of droplets cling to every leave and stem, and they all find their way onto our pants and shoes as we hike. Neither Steve nor I have hiked this trail before, so we’re a little unsure which way to go. We come to a bridge spanning a dry, rocky river bed; it’s strange that there is so much water all around, but no river under the bridge. The correct course from here takes a left turn and is marked by a sign post with white and green blazes; these posts mark the entire AHT and are easy to see if you’re looking for them. Unfortunately, we are not looking for them and take a right instead. This path leads us along a horse trail, which, at first, appears to be a well-traveled gravel road that should keep us away from the wet plants. However, after a few hundred yards we begin to encounter large puddles spanning the entire trail, and then disgusting, muddy stretches full of horse-hoof-holes and mud that pulls at our shoes as we squelch through. Unsurprisingly, our shoes and pants are soon soaked from the mud, puddles, and wet plants that line the trail.
Eventually, we find one of the Indiana Adventure Hiking Trail trail blazes. Compared to the wide, well-worn (albeit puddle-filled) horse trails, the AHT is a mere game trail. A tiny sliver of dirt winds away through the bushes and trees, promising to bring us into contact with miles of rain-covered plants… I’m extremely hesitant to proceed, but what option do we have? Either hike the trail or turn back, and the thought of slogging through all that mud again eliminates that option. So, onwards!
A few minutes on the AHT calms my fears considerably. Yes, the plants are wet and we are getting soaked, but the ground is in considerably better shape since horses are not allowed on this tiny trail. It takes Steve and me several hours to reach a road crossing and verify our exact location on the map. We realize that we’ve only traveled a few of the 14 miles we planned on and pick up the pace.
One of the big complaints I’ve heard about the AHT is that it is not well marked and is difficult to follow. Steve and I do not find this to be the case! Trail blazes are located every few hundred feet along most stretches of the trail, and all intersections are very clearly marked. Other than a few fallen trees (ok, more than a few), it is quite easy to follow the trail. I offer a different complaint: the AHT is not well maintained. By “not well maintained,” I mean that many sections of the trail double as creek beds for runoff, especially sloped parts of the trail. A few switchbacks and the occasional drainage opportunity would really improve the conditions. We have particular difficulty on the steep ascents and descents (no switchbacks, just a straight shot up or down the slope!) as they have turned into muddy slip-n-slides… On the other hand, the encroaching plants and sometimes faint footpath give the trail a neat wild feeling; it’s an adventure!
Around midday, we reach our first water stash and stop for lunch (peanut butter, crackers, and dehydrated apples). It has stopped raining, but our shoes are completely soaked through and won’t be dry anytime soon, what with the wet foliage and frequent stretches of puddles. We decide to reduce today’s mileage by cutting a corner and following some of the horse trails. Although this route saves us a few miles, it also brings us back to the muddy hell that is a horse trail in this park… While on our shortcut, we stumble upon an old cemetery; some of the gravestones list dates that are several hundred years old!
While we are taking a break in the afternoon, the sun breaks through the clouds and sends dappled light down to the forest floor. It’s amazing how sunshine can affect one’s mood! Steve and I hike the remaining few miles in much higher spirits and soon reach the Ohio River Shelter, which is practically a developed campground. There are several fire pits and picnic tables arranged around a log cabin. The cabin has shuttered windows on each wall and a door to boot! The wooden floor inside is dirty, but we’re just grateful for another dry place to sleep. Hypothetically, hikers are permitted to practice distributed camping along this trail, but we have not seen any spots that would offer a flat, foliage-free piece of ground; practicing Leave No Trace would be difficult. Since the cabin has a wooden floor, we leave the tent packed away and set up our sleeping pads and bags on the floor. After hanging our socks and pants out to dry, we boil water and enjoy some homemade dehydrated meals. The sun doesn’t set for several more hours, but Steve and I are both exhausted and fall asleep before dark.
Day 2 – Finish the Loop
May 22, 2016 | 10.3 mi | +2185′ / -2185′ | View on Map
The next morning, I wake to a forest full of mist. At first, I’m wary that this will mean another day of wet plants and mud, but the breeze seems to have blown the droplets off of most of the foliage! As the sun rises, it begins to cut through the mist, creating awesome crepuscular rays. I snap a few photos near the cabin before eating breakfast (cold cereal with dehydrated milk). Steve and I hit the trail nice and early and make good time. Perhaps this section of the trail is just in better shape than yesterday’s trail, but we encounter much less mud after leaving our shelter.
The rest of the day remains sunny and considerably warmer than yesterday. The trail travels up and down hill after hill, eliciting a considerable amount of sweat and complaints about sore muscles on the way up and aching joints on the way down. Similar to yesterday, the ascents and descents tend to be straight shots up and down the hills and have formed small stream beds; finding secure footing is difficult due to the mud, loose gravel, and leaves. Regardless, the Adventure Hiking Trail continues to deliver beautiful hiking as it winds its way through the woods.
Around mid-morning, Steve and I arrive at the iron bridge and stop for a break. The next several miles prove to be some of the swampiest miles of the entire trek. Part of the trouble is that the Indiana Adventure Hiking Trail parallels a horse trail for a while here, but several sections are just natural low areas and are full of water. We take several detours to avoid soaking our shoes again and eventually reach drier trails. We arrive back at our original trailhead early in the afternoon and drive off back to civilization, eager to find some ice cream and take a warm shower.