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Brown County State Park is a rugged and ridged oasis for outdoor enthusiasts.
Located about an hour south of Indianapolis, and a mere twenty minutes from Bloomington, Indiana’s largest state park offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing, and swimming.
There’s so much to do because the Brown County State Park is huge. Its size of 15,815 acres is nearly triple that of Indiana’s second largest park, and it’s one of the largest state parks in the United States. An estimated 1.3 million people visit this jewel in Indiana’s park system crown each year. Tourists primarily flock in the fall, when the park’s wooded hills explode with autumn extravagance, but it’s a year-round destination with something to offer every season.
Ironically, when the park was established in 1929, those hills were pretty barren. In the previous century, settlers had deforested the county, to the point that deer and wild turkeys were extinct where they’d once thrived.
Now the park’s a mecca drawing hikers, campers, mountain bikers, and other active folks. Let’s dig into how this destination was saved and the many, many things you can do when you visit Brown County State Park.
History of Brown County State Park
I owe a lot to James Goodrich.
Apparently, Indiana’s state parks do, too.
Not the same James Goodrich. One is my husband, a Montana-man from Missoula. The other was the 29th Governor of Indiana.
Imagine my surprise when I began researching Brown County, Indiana, and its resident state park and discovered that the man responsible for creating the Department of Conservation had the same name as my spouse. (Almost. Their middle names are different. But still! Pretty freaky.)
James Goodrich, the Governor, held office from 1917 to 1921 and was responsible for, among other things, the establishment of the Indiana Department of Conservation at the urging of his friend Richard Lieber.
Lieber had already established the first two state parks, McCormick’s Creek and Turkey Run, under Goodrich’s predecessor, Samuel Ralston. As the Conservation Committee Chairman, Lieber ushered in ten new state parks before his resignation in 1933, including Brown County State Park.
The park started as a game preserve. In the early 1900’s, Indiana had this funky law prohibiting the use of state funds to purchase land for a park. The state could, however, fund a game preserve. So, in 1924 Lieber established a preserve of 7,680 acres. Three years later, the preserve increased to over 10,000 acres.
That same year, the Indiana legislature decided that counties could buy land and then give it to the state to be used as a park. Brown County took them up on that oh, so magnanimous offer, donated another 1,129 acres, and the eighth Indiana state park was born. Soon, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up two camps and began building shelters, roads, vistas, trails, and the west lookout tower. They even hand-dug two lakes and, perhaps most importantly of all, planted hundreds of thousands of trees.
Those trees make Brown County State Park what it is today.
This park is an example of how quickly Mother Nature will take back what is hers.Patrick Haulter, Interpretive Naturalist III
Things to do in Brown County State Park
No matter how physically fit you are (or aren’t), you can find a trail at Brown County State Park. There are more than twenty miles of hiking trails that range from easy to difficult.
The options range from Friends, a short, flat, and paved trail with benches so you can sit and look out over the woods, to the rugged 2.75 mile Taylor Ridge trail.
There are also moderate trails; the CCC built Trail #2, a two-mile trek with stone bridges, stairways, and retaining walls. You can take a self-guided audio tour of Trails #2 and #3. MP3 players are available at Abe Martin Lodge.
If you want to see Yellowwood Trees, Trail #5 through Ogle Hollow Nature Preserve is your only option. There’s a grove of the endangered trees along a slope of this rugged trail.
TLTip: If you see a yucca plant when you’re hiking, it was probably planted by a homesteader. The plants survive on little water and settlers grew them for food.
According to Patrick Haulter, Interpretive Naturalist III , mountain biking is the fastest growing activity at Brown County State Park. There are 27 miles of mountain bike trails. Beginners will find several easy rides, and accomplished cyclists can tackle the challenging Hobbs Hollow or Bobcat Loop.
Visit the Nature Center
One of Richard Lieber’s biggest legacies was his belief that each park should have a nature guide program. This was so important that his Department of Conservation funded nature guides as early as 1927.
Our parks and preserves are not mere picnicking places. They are rich storehouses of memories and reveries. They are guides and counsels to the weary and faltering spirit. They are bearers of wonderful tales to [they] who will listen; a solace to the aged and an inspiration to the young.Richard Lieber
Inside the Nature Center at Brown County State Park you can check out snakes, watch birds, and learn more about the native flora and fauna. There are also naturalist services so you can dig a little deeper into this unique landscape.
One of the best ways to see the park is seated in a saddle. With more than 70 miles of bridle trails, you can explore parts of the park that can’t be seen any other way.
If you’ve got your own horse, there are day-use spots in the Horsemen’s Campground. You’ll need a Horse Tag; it’s $5/day or $20 annually (January 1 – December 31). Conveniently, you can purchase it online.
No horse? No problem! The Saddle Barn provides 35-minute and 1-hour guided trail rides. Children must be aged 7 and up, and they have pony rides for younger kids.
The Saddle Barn also offers seasonal hay rides. On Fridays and Saturdays from the end of May through October a tractor will take you on a 5-mile loop. Can’t make it on the weekend? They also offer private hayrides.
Bring your pole and your state fishing license and you could be reeling in bass and bluegill on Ogle Lake and Strahl Lake. You’ll also need to bring your own boat (non-motorized or electric only, please), since there’s no boat rental on-site.
The fishing doesn’t end when the leaves fall. Once those lakes freeze over, it’s time for ice fishing.
Need to cool off? Go for a swim! While you can’t swim in the lakes, Brown County State Park has an Olympic-sized swimming pool near the north entrance of the park. It’s open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day (but may close earlier). If you’re visiting later in the summer on a weekday, call ahead to confirm the pool will be open.
There’s an additional fee to use the pool. Check indianaoutfitters.com for rates.
There’s also an indoor water park at Abe Martin Lodge. This year-round Aquatic Center has a water slide, a lazy river, water volleyball and basketball, fountains, and more. If you’re staying at the lodge or in one of the cabins, admission is included. Otherwise it’s $15.
Picnic tables can be found throughout the park, and there are several shelters available for groups. Picnic areas include grills, toilet facilities, and playground equipment. The Hoosier’s Nest Shelter, near the West Fire Tower, looks like a homesteader’s cabin.
Where to stay in Brown County State Park
When you’re visiting Brown County State Park, you’ve got a few options for accommodations. There’s the on-site lodge and cabins, camping, and places to stay in nearby Nashville.
Disclosure: we stayed at the historic Abe Martin Lodge, courtesy of Indiana DNR.
Abe Martin Lodge
The many projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps included building an inn. This was another of Lieber’s tenets: by offering lodging, the parks could generate their own revenue. It also makes it pretty convenient for visitors who want to stay more than a day.
The CCC built the Abe Martin Lodge in 1932 and the main entrance, lobby, restaurant, and 30 rooms are located in the original building. In the 1980’s an annex added 54 rooms, and the aquatic center was added in 2008.
The lodge is named for a cartoon created by humorist Kin Hubbard in the early 1900’s. Although he lived in Indianapolis, Hubbard set his character in the hills of Brown County. At the time, the area was so remote that some people who lived there could go weeks without seeing anyone but a traveling huckster.
Abe Martin, Hubbard’s anti-hero, had a knack for distilling human behavior into a phrase or two, and he and his fellow Brown County residents entertained readers of more than 200 papers by 1910.
Hubbard passed away in 1930, but his legacy lives on. Stroll through the lodge and you can meet Abe and some of his neighbors.
In addition to the rooms at the inn, there are also sleeping cabins and furnished year-round family cabins, all named for characters in Hubbard’s strip.
Brown County State Park Camping
There are three campgrounds in Brown County State Park with 401 electric campsites, 28 non-electric, 118 equestrian electric, and 86 equestrian primitive.
- Buffalo Ridge Campground
- Taylor Ridge Campground
- Raccoon Ridge Campground
Camping Fees range from $12 for non-electric to $30 for electric. Equestrian camping is $13 to $33. Holiday weekends are more expensive. Visit the Indiana DNR site for information and to reserve a site.
Places to stay in Brown County
In addition to Abe Martin Lodge and the campgrounds, there are a few different place to stay near Brown County State Park.
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Brown County State Park Admission
Like all of Indiana’s state parks, there’s an admission fee. This is because Lieber also believed that visitors who paid would take more care with the park itself. That’s proven to be accurate, and the Indiana State Park system is one of the most well-respected in the country because of Lieber’s convictions.
Fortunately, the fee is minimal. Admission is just $7 for in-state noncommercial vehicles, and $9 if you’re not from Indiana.
Brown County State Park is located near Nashville, Indiana. It’s a great place for a walk in the woods, but it’s also so much more. Thinking of visiting? Pin this for later!