When I received an email on the Purdue Outing Club mailing list about a backpacking trip in mid-December, I was not immediately enthusiastic. However, after noting that the weather forecast called for sunshine and temperatures in the upper 40’s, I warmed to the idea. The plan was to hike the Low Gap Trail, a 10-mile loop in Morgan-Monroe State Forest. We would camp in the woods in the backcountry area, relax in the outdoors, and generally have a great time!
Logistics and Planning
There really aren’t many logistics to concern yourself with in Morgan-Monroe State Forest. There are no fees to hike or camp and there are no required permits. There’s not even a fee to enter the state forest or park there. However, if you’re camping in the backcountry area (as we did), you are required to register with the forest office (again, no fee). As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, there are no restrictions on food storage or campfires. Of course, follow leave-no-trace ethics and your own common sense when choosing camping locations and storing your snacks. Just because there aren’t bears around doesn’t mean the racoons, squirells, and mice aren’t interested in your food.
The majority of the Low Gap Trail coincides with the northern end of the 42-mile Tecumseh Trail, so resources for the Tecumseh Trail are helpful when planning a trip on the Low Gap Trail. I find the Hoosier Hiking Council’s (HHC) page the most useful; they have a detailed topo map for sale, as well as a great Tecumseh Trail Guide. The HHC also hosts a page with a short section on the Low Gap Trail, including GPS track coordinates, a topo map, and descriptions of other nearby trails.
Low Gap Trail
December 16, 2017 | 6.8 mi | +1100′ / -1100′ | View On Map
We arrive at Morgan-Monroe State Forest at about 11:00 and pile out of our cars into the chilly December air. Sun streams through the trees, promising warmer temperatures later in the day. After gathering our packs, we take off down the Low Gap Trail. The first section of trail is an easy stroll down a gravel logging road along the crest of Tincher Ridge. I’ve only hiked with one member of the group (Lipgloss, from Shenandoah in March), and I enjoy chatting with the others and getting to know them a little better as we walk. We have a wide variety of people: brand new college students, graduate students, experienced backpackers, and several people that have never been backpacking or camping before!
As we walk, the trail diverges from the logging road and follows a small single-track path deeper into the woods. Everyone is in great spirits thanks to the warm sunshine and crisp, clean winter air. It’s a great day to spend outdoors! We soon descend from the ridgetop into a pleasant leaf-strewn valley. Several creekbeds wind through the valley, devoid of water this late in the season though a few small puddles linger here and there.
The trail follows one of the creekbeds for a short distance, then leaves the rocky gully to pass under a large stone outcropping with walls that are covered in etched names and lichen. This spot, called the “rock shelter,” is a popular spot for a short day hike; it’s definitely one of the most interesting geologic features in the area!
We soon leave the valley and climb back to the ridgetops via a series of switchbacks. I’m happy to be on a “propper” trail, sans staircases like the routes in some of the Indiana state parks. Once we gain the ridgetop, we enjoy several miles of flat walking along Landram Ridge. I shed a few layers and munch on a peanut butter sandwich while walking and enjoying the sunshine.
The trail soon descends from the ridge and crosses Low Gap Road. We cross several more dry creekbeds; according to the Tecumseh Trail guide, these creeks are more reliable than previous water sources, but there isn’t any running water here either this late in the year. We follow the trail back up to a ridgetop, then descend again to a pleasant valley, passing a stand of towering pines on the way. In true Indiana fashion, we’re soon climbing again to the top of yet another ridge. As the sun sinks lower on the southern horizon, we keep our eyes peeled for good campsites. We pass several only feet from the trail (come on people… camping next to the trail is a leave-no-trace no-no…) but keep walking in search of better, more secluded spots.
Near the Shipman Ridge logging road junction we find a nice, flat saddle between ridges and set up camp. A thick layer of fallen leaves blankets the ground, which makes for a soft bed beneath our tents. Additionally, a small, nearby hollow surrounded by fallen trees serves as a convenient place to build a campfire and cook dinner.
Once everyone has set up their tents, we gather in the little hollow and begin collecting sticks of various sizes. The ground is incredibly dry, so there is no shortage of tinder, kindling, and larger branches. After gathering a large stack of wood, I light a small clump of leaves, cradle them to spread the flames around, and then slowly add kindling to the small blaze until it is large enough to continue unattended. The dry wood burns easily, and we soon have a warm, roaring fire.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, we all cook our dinners and eat while chatting. Darkness falls by 5:30 PM, and we’re left staring into the flickering flames. Somebody packed a deck of cards, so we play a half-dozen rounds of Euchre while lounging next to the fire. Even after playing Euchre for a while, it’s still far too early to go to bed. We add more wood to the fire and find other topics to discuss. It’s a clear night, and hundreds of stars are visible above the gently swaying treetops. Although the temperature is decidedly chilly, we stay warm next to the white-hot coals and enjoy the peaceful evening.
The fire eventually burns down to a small pile of embers and we decide that 8:30 is an acceptable bed time. Next week is the winter solstice, so this is literally one of the longest nights of the year with 14 hours of darkness between sunset and sunrise. After dousing the remaining coals with water, we retire to our tents. I sink into my mummy bag, cinch the top mostly closed and relax. The forest is incredibly quiet and the only noise I can hear as I doze off is the sound of the wind rustling through the few stubborn leaves still hanging in the treetops.
December 17, 2017 | 3.4 mi | +500′ / -500′ | View On Map
I’m wide awake, and it’s still pitch black outside. I click the backlight button on my watch and groan a little when I see a glowing 4:03. I’m not entirely unprepared for this situation; I specifically packed a Kindle to avoid boredom. I pass the next few hours reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but eventually nod off again. When I wake the second time, my watch reads 7:40 and the sunrise is imminent.
Weary of being stuck in my sleeping bag, I pull on extra layers and stumble out of the tent into the cool morning air. Yesterday’s clear skies have been replaced with a thick layer of clouds that have trapped some of the warm air, so it’s not really too frigid. I wander off to take care of morning business and retrieve my food bag from the tree I hung it from last night.
Soon, my hiking companions are all stirring and we begin tearing down camp. A few of us cook and eat breakfast before we hit the trail again. At Shipman Ridge, the trail branches: the Techumseh Trail wanders off to the west, and our route – the road back to the trailhead – trends east. We walk shoulder-to-shoulder down the logging road, chatting as we walk.
We cross Low Gap Road once more, pass a few houses on the state forest boundary, and eventually reach a singletrack trail again. The final mile winds along a ridge, neither gaining nor losing much altitude. It’s easy going and we make good time. The weather forecast predicts rain late in the morning, so we hurry back to the cars and arrive just as the first drops begin to fall.
The Low Gap Trail is a great loop for an easy weekend hike, even late in the year with little water available. The rolling hills, intresting geology, and quiet forests are the perfect combo for a short escape from civilization. I’m planning on returning to hike the full Tecumseh Trail in the future; I’m excited to experience more of this peaceful wilderness.