I struggle to make time for hiking during the academic school year. It seems like there is always something going on, and it’s easier to stay in town on the weekends and liesurely tick chores off of my to-do list than travel to a trail and go hiking. However, when the forecast predicted a December weekend of sunshine and  temperatures in the upper 50’s, I experienced a rush of motivation and spent a Saturday exploring Shades State Park.

The area allegedly gets its name from the deep shadows that lie in the sandstone ravines beneath the thick forest canopy. This geology is very similar to that of Turkey Run State Park, but very different from what you might imagine Indiana is like! Many of the trails follow dry (or not so dry…) streambeds down through high-walled ravines to Sugar Creek. Hiking in this landscape is certain exciting!

shades state park map

Most of the interesting trails are densely packed into the ravines near Sugar Creek. The backpack trail takes off to the west to reach the backcountry campsite 2.5 miles away.

Logistics

Shades Statek Park is located about 60 miles west-northwest of Indianapolis and includes 10 miles of hiking trails that range from easy forest paths to rugged scrambles through streambeds in the ravines. Between April and October, you can camp (both car and backcountry) in the park, and picnic areas with large shelters are available for reservation year-round. You’ll pay a $7 fee to enter the park if you’re an Indiana resident, or $9/car if you’re from out-of-state (rates info). The Indiana Department of Natural Resources website is a great resource where you can find more information about the park, reservations, and other activities.

Backpack Trail

December 2, 2017 | 5 mi | View on Map

The drive to Shades State Park is pleasant; I follow small state highways and county roads through open farmland, cheerful because of the abundant sunlight. In the midst of chronically developed Indiana farmland, Shades is a small natural oasis of thick trees. After driving through the front gate and picking up a map, I pull into the Hemlock parking lot, brining the total number of cars there to three. Although the weather is perfect for hiking, today’s warmth is unusual for December and I doubt many folks made plans to be outside today.

After collecting my backpack from the passenger seat, I make a beeline for the “Backpack Trail.” As a backpacking enthusiast, I’m curious to find out where it leads, although I already know a few details from the map I picked up at the park entrance. From the trailhead near the hemlock parking area, the path trends west away from the parking lot through typical Indiana woodlands. Perhaps a mile in, the backpacking trail intersects with the “Campground Loop Trail,” but don’t worry about getting lost; massive trail markers clearly indicate which path is which.

shades state park backpack trail

By far the longest path in the park, the Backpack Trail leads to a backcountry campsite.

Although most of the Backpack Trail is flat, there are several descents and climbs. Curiously, every altitude change of more than a few feet is accomplished via wooden stairs; there is not a single switchback on the trail. I wonder which costs more: repairing washed out trails or repairing collapsed stairs?

About an hour later, I reach the end of the trail and check out the campsites. Each has a fire pit and a picnic table surrounded by plenty of flat, open area for camping. A nearby set of pit latrines disqualifies this camping area as a true “backcountry campsite” in my opinion, but I wouldn’t mind popping out here on a free weekend every once in a while! The hike is short and, despite the civilized luxuries, is much more “wild” than car camping.

On my way back to the center of Shades State Park, I revel in the silence. I frequently go for walks in the woods near my apartment and am always a little frustrated by the constant noise of nearby cars and trucks. Out here, on the other hand, I can’t hear a single automobile. In fact, it is so quiet that I can hear powerlines humming as I crunch through the fallen leaves.

Ravine Trails

December 2, 2017 | ~5 mi | View on Map

At the bottom of a long flight of stairs, I leave the Backpack Trail and follow signs for trail #8. Calling this path a “trail” is rather generous; the only way to proceed forward is to walk through the creek. Luckily, the water is shallow and I don’t have any trouble keeping my feet dry as I hop between rocks and continue downstream. There are a few tricky spots where I struggle to avoid slipping on the carpet of fallen leaves, but in general I find the traverse through this ravine, Shawnee Canyon, pretty straightforward. The rock-hopping only makes the trek more exciting and fun!

kintz ravine shades state park

A warm afternoon in the Kintz Ravine in Shades State Park

Shawnee Canyon eventually empties out into Sugar Creek, a wide, slow-moving waterway lined with silver-barked sycamore trees. I pause for a few minutes to admire the scenery; the smooth water reflects the trees and whispy clouds perfectly. I follow trail #8 as it winds along the riverbank and then transition to trail #7 and begin climbing back uphill toward the parking lot.

sugar creek reflection shades state park

Silvery sycamore trees are reflected in the mirror-like waters of Sugar Creek

In an attempt to see as much of the park as possible without repeating sections of trail, my plan is to wind back and forth between the high ground near the parking lot and the lower elevations at Sugar Creek. Upon returning to the high ground, I continue on to trail #4 and hike down into the Frisz Ravine. The geology in this ravine is different than that in Shawnee Canyon; the walls are much steeper and the sandstone bedrock is exposed. The steep sandstone walls here show clear signs of erosion; I’m sure hiking through this ravine would be trickier if any water were flowing.

shades state park frisz ravine

Although there isn’t much water at the moment, the erosion makes it clear that this trail is frequently a stream bed.

I climb down several ladders, the tallest of which is probably 20 feet long, on my way down the ravine. The wooden rungs are silky smooth, but not slippery, from from the thousands of shoes and hands that have traversed them. Behind the ladders, the sandstone is worn away and I imagine being able to sit behind spring waterfalls when the water levels are higher.

ladder shades state park

One of several ladders that facilitates hiking through the ravines at Shades State Park.

During the next few hours, I continue hiking the other trails: #5, then #1, and finally over to #2. There are plenty of impressive sights, including some great views of Sugar Creek from Prospect Point. But none of them compare to the epic views in Pearl Ravine on trail #2. Whereas the other ravines are perhaps 20 – 30 feet deep, Pearl Ravine looks to be 50 or 60 feet deep! A thick layer of leaves carpets the ravine floor, obscuring the edges of a small creek that winds through. Dark green moss covers fallen trees, and bright afternoon sunlight accentuates the warm autumn colors.

pearl ravine shades state park

One of many beautiful spots in Shades State Park; this one on trail #2 in Pearl Ravine.

I climb happily through the ravine as it winds from Sugar Creek back to the ridgetops, pausing every once in a while to take photos. As much as I’m enjoying the beautiful scenery today, I’m looking forward to returning in other seasons to discover what they have to offer! Spring wildflowers, a blanket of snow, the thick, green summer canopy… there is so much left to see!

Due to time constraints today, I have to return to the car with a few trails left on my “to explore” list. I’ll be back, of course! Out of the few state parks I’ve had the opportunity to visit, Shades State Park is definitely one of my favorites. If you’re a hiking enthusiast or just need some fresh air, I would highly recommend a day trip to Shades (or Turkey Run) for some awesome canyon and ravine scenery!

Until next time, happy trails!

Andrew Cox