Discover our little-known world of nature preserves.
aist-high green and brown grasses sway in the wind across a valley broken up only by small ponds and freshly mown paths. About 10 feet from any pond, the spring peepers and chorus frogs perform a deafening concert, like the sound of fingers across the edge of a comb played over a loudspeaker. If you move any closer, the skittish musicians fall silent and wait for the threat to pass.
Stone Head Nature Preserve is the Brown County home to these garrulous creatures and many other forms of life. Distinct in its own way, this 122-acre area is one of roughly 52 preserves found in Southern Indiana.
As cities and farms expanded across Indiana in the past 200 years, our state’s original natural landscapes have been pushed aside in many areas. Places like Stone Head give us a glimpse into the past and allow us to continue to study and enjoy these lovely wildernesses.
Fifty years ago, the Nature Preserves Act protected natural areas that resemble what the state looked like prior to those first settlements. Since then, more than a half-million acres have been preserved. They range in size from one to over 3,000 acres and in habitat from swamplands to old-growth forests. John Bacone, the director of Indiana’s Division of Nature Preserves, says places like Stone Head are “living museums that are protected for the benefit of future generations.”
To introduce you to Indiana nature preserves, we spoke with and hiked alongside those who manage and love these wild areas. Come along with us and you’ll find out how nature preserves differ from state parks and forests, meet a visionary landowner who donated 122 acres for future generations and discover four distinctive preserves you’ll want to go see right away. We’ll even tell you where to grab a bite to eat along the way. It’s time to discover for yourself the beauty of our pocket wildernesses.
What is a nature preserve?
You’ve probably been to or at least heard of the Hoosier National Forest or Morgan-Monroe State Forest, but nature preserves like Stone Head or Beanblossom Bottoms are less familiar. For this reason, most preserves are less crowded, especially during peak hiking seasons. Man-made noises like voices or cars zipping down the road can take away from a wilderness experience. These more remote and less touristy preserves will put you in awe of nature.
To provide some perspective, Morgan-Monroe State Forest covers over 24,000 acres. In contrast, Tank Spring Nature Preserve, near Shoals, is a mere 60 acres and features creeks and a large spring not found many other places.
|The DNP’s first preserve, Pine Hills Nature Preserve, was established in 1969. Since then, the preserve system has become the most widely distributed system of protected lands across the state. These natural areas are used for a variety of activities and study, from bird watching to ecology.|
Regardless of size, some preserves aren’t on the division’s website. The office does its best to advertise only those areas that have a good access point, parking and a trail to walk on. Visitors shouldn’t have to struggle to get to the preserve, and erosion and other deterioration of natural areas are always points of concern. “Putting in and utilizing a good, sustainable trail keeps the area from being overused or misused, and therefore maintains the beauty of it all,” Bacone says.
Before parking areas or trails can be created however, the land must be dedicated as an official nature preserve. Once the landowner, the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission agree that a property is eligible, the area is then protected from development that might harm its natural characteristics.
Although the largest number of preserves is owned by the DNR, several other institutions contribute to the network. City and county parks and recreation boards, colleges and universities and even private organizations can and do own preserves. Two of the larger private owners are The Nature Conservancy and ACRES, Inc., which both acquire and collectively manage nearly 9,000 acres of natural areas in the state.
These organizations often work closely with the state. Starting in April of this year, the division teamed up with its conservation partners to lead guided hikes through some of Indiana’s natural areas, including Bluffs of Beaver Bend in Martin County. On these hikes, Bacone and other guides give visitors insights about a preserve they wouldn’t hear if they had come on their own.
Today, John Bacone’s position with the division, part of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, is more behind-the-scenes, with lots of paperwork, requests for data and other administrative duties. But he still gets out “in the wild” when he can, guiding nature hikes throughout the year and spending casual days out on his own.
Even though nature preserves are typically smaller in acreage than state parks and forests, they are no less impressive. “They are spectacular places,” Bacone says, “with canyons, gorges, bridges, waterfalls, old-growth forests and wildflower displays."
2017 guided nature hikes
One man, 122 acres
On my first trip to Stone Head Nature Preserve, I know I’m in a place unlike most as soon as I pull into the gravel parking lot. As I step out of my car, to one side I see a quaint farmhouse and to the other a valley of tall grasses speckled with ponds that sweep into a wall of trees.
Like many other nature preserves, Stone Head is a rich source of vegetation and animals. Visitors see minks as well as lesser purple-fringed orchids and the county’s first recorded bladderwort, a small flowering plant found in ponds.
Mike Kelley, a retired orthodontist who lives in southern Brown County, saw the potential in this land he used to hike on his own. First purchased for his private use, the 122-acre mixture of meadows, wetlands and ravines is now Stone Head Nature Preserve and open to the public.
Two years ago, Kelley dedicated the land as a nature preserve for others to enjoy in the future as he had done for years. However, instead of handing over the land to a previously established organization to manage, he did something rather unusual. He founded the Stone Head Nature Conservancy to lease, maintain and manage the preserve, and now he, as president, works with the conservancy’s board of directors to make decisions about the land and its future. Sometimes people confuse the two, Kelley says. “We just really want people to understand that the preserve is the land, and the conservancy is the people.”
At first, since the farmhouse is so close to the drive, I’m not sure if I stumbled upon someone’s private land. Soon, though, I find Kelley and Jeff Riegel, a fellow conservancy board member, waiting for me on the stone-paved back porch. Kelley tells me his year-round house is in a much more secluded and “back-road” location, and this is a rental house he had fixed up a bit and still rents out.
Another back entrance to the preserve exists, but he tries not to advertise it too much. Visitors often get confused and end up in Kelley’s driveway when they try to find it. Kelley says it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy company. But why retire on so much land nestled away in the hills to still have “real world” distractions?
“I think it started out as a privacy thing. Plus, I was just one of those guys who liked trees. I like to tread amongst them,” Kelley says. “I knew that I wanted it to be accessible for easier observation, if for no one but myself. But, of course, that love has to be shared for it to really work.”
After talking at the farmhouse for a while, Kelley, Riegel and I set out into the preserve so I could see why this land is so important to Kelley and the others who support it.
Trekking into the preserve, we stick to freshly mown grass paths and the occasional raised walkway. Kelley mows everything himself. He loves spending time with the land he knows so well, and Riegel says with a laugh that the conservancy loves not having to pay someone to do it.
When Kelley first considered creating the preserve, he thought about how much of Brown County was already dedicated to forests. He wanted something more unusual that could use his personal touch.
What's in the name?
The name Stone Head comes from a primitive statue of a man’s head handcrafted in 1851 by Henry Cross, a farmer and tombstone carver. The marker pointed the way to Columbus and Fairfax and sat next to the farmhouse for more than 150 years. Sadly, it was stolen late in 2016 and has not yet been recovered.
As we walk along the meadow just east of the farmhouse, I see a few objects poking out above the grasses across the valley. Aside from doing a little extra yard work, Kelley made the preserve a place to showcase artwork, mostly from local artists. One of Kelley’s favorite pieces is the “Spirit Shrine Columbarium,” created by Jim Conner of Brown County and found on the Spirit Trail at Stone Head. The piece is crafted from an old, hand-carved sandstone chimney flue that was discovered in the Stone Head farmhouse during its remodeling. The piece is meaningful to Kelley because it contains the ashes of his loved ones and was also the site of his 2014 marriage to Jan, who was then the executive director of Mother’s Cupboard in Bean Blossom.
A nature-lover herself, Jan Kelley walks the trails of Stone Head every day. For her, the whole experience of working with the land and the conservancy board has been exciting, nerve-wracking and an opportunity to learn. “I absolutely love spending time there and knowing that we’re sharing it with so many others in the community,” she says. As they’ve continued fixing up the land and adding more features, the number of visitors has gone up to about 50 to 60 per month. The work by local artists gives the preserve an extra appeal and sense of peacefulness, she adds.
Although I’m doing my best to admire the artwork, prairie grasses and ponds surrounding me, I am more than a little distracted by those chorus frogs and spring peepers that have made homes there. “Good god, the frogs get loud,” Riegel says. “Sometimes you can’t even hear someone else talking next to you if you’re in the right, or maybe wrong, spot.”
You can get away from them, though. Most of the preserve is across the creek and into the forested terrain to the south. Fewer people visit these areas because crossing the creek requires waterproof boots or a commitment to a soggy hike.
During high water and flooding, the temporary bridge has been carried away a couple times. Once the conservancy can create a permanent structure, board members hope more visitors will take in everything Stone Head has to offer.
However, as the preserve stands now, Kelley, Riegel and others spend hours here because they can’t pull themselves away from the land in which they’ve invested so much.
“Nature lovers have an unspoken bond with one another. To love nature is to love life. To share nature is to share this love of life,” Kelley says. “It gives one a feeling of satisfaction, deeply rooted in this love of life. I feel in awe of it all.”
If you go
Stone Head Nature Preserve, located in Brown County
Trail: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: Easy to rugged
Directions from Bloomington, IN: Take State Road 46 east toward Nashville. At the first stop light in Nashville (by the CVS store), turn right and continue roughly 3 miles to the intersection with State Road 135 South. Turn right and continue until the “T” with Bellsville Pike. You’ll see the farmhouse at Stone Head. Turn left and go about 100 yards to the parking area at the Zimmerman Overlook on the right.
3 preserves you shouldn't miss
With some help from John Bacone of the Division of Nature Preserves and Mike Kelley, president of the Stone Head Nature Conservancy, we visited three must-see nature preserves in Southern Indiana. These preserves offer surprising swamps, winding walkways and babbling brooks. Pack some water, snacks and your 812 magazine and join us on the trails.
Beanblossom Bottoms, 337 acres, Monroe County
Trail: 2.5 miles
Bean Blossom is a floodplain forest surrounded by wetlands and relatively flat fields. A 2 ½- mile elevated boardwalk with occasional observation decks gives visitors a special view of sights like the swamp white oak and cottonwood trees, the graceful spikes of lizard’s tail and the rare and endangered Indiana bat.
Pulling into the small gravel parking lot, you’ll immediately see the boardwalk. There’s no guesswork on what path to take because it’s one route that loops back to the parking lot. This preserve is a great option for those wanting a low-intensity hiking experience with lots of nature.
Why it’s special: The observation decks are rare in Indiana preserves and a great spot for nature-watching or taking a break for a bite to eat.
- Spring flooding can make the area inaccessible.
- Stay on the boardwalk to avoid disturbing fragile vegetation and nesting birds.
- Pause at the observation decks, whether for sightseeing or a hiking break.
- Watch out for bugs out when it gets warm. Bring spray to avoid mosquitos in the wetlands.
Directions from Bloomington: Take Kinser Pike (it becomes Bottom Road which it crosses Highway 37) about 5.5 miles to Woodall Road and turn left. Continue for just over one mile to the parking area, which can be seen just past a gate on a sharp right curve.
Twin Swamps, 598 acres, Posey County
Trail: 1.25 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
In the “big toe” of Southern Indiana, Twin Swamps consists of two swampy areas separated by flat woods. Not technically “twins,” one is a cypress swamp, the other an overcup oak swamp.
Rare to Indiana, this area is one of the few remaining swamplands in the Ohio and Wabash river valleys. Although the woods contain many common animals, the swamps attract rare bird species associated with the habitat, such as blue-gray gnatcatchers and prothonotary warblers.
A raised boardwalk weaves through swamps that might be found in the deep South. Bald cypress trees grow here, and their roots poke out above the murky water, where you’ll also find white spider lilies, one of the largest wildflowers in the state, which bloom atop an almost 3-foot stalk in late summer. With its uncharacteristic trees and flowers and vast swamps, the preserve has a primordial feel.
Why it’s special: It’s one of the farthest north swamplands in the United States.
- Stay on the boardwalk and trails to avoid disturbing vegetation and to stay dry.
- Try to go when it hasn’t rained for a while. The Ohio River rarely floods but can cause issues navigating the preserve when it does.
- Bring a camera to capture the plants, animals and environments that are not otherwise found in Indiana.
Directions from I-69 South: Take exit 7B onto Highway 66 West and continue for 28 miles. At the intersection with Graddy Road, turn left and go 1.25 miles to the first intersection. Turn right onto Raben Road (CR 300W), making sure to take the gravel road and not the paved one. In about one mile the parking lot will be on the left near the intersection of Raben Road and Walls Road (CR 1400S).
Tank Spring, 60 acres, Martin County
Trail: 3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Rugged
Tank Spring is a freshwater spring that stems from limestone buried under a sandstone alcove. The looped, three-mile trail zigzags up and down hills through forest that is broken up by small creeks fed by the spring. As soon as you set out, you’re hiking vigorously up a gravel path surrounded by trees. At the top of this first hill you come to a small pond, but don’t mistake this for the spring – keep to the path. The gravel eventually turns to soil, but the hills don’t stop. It’s not until you reach the valley of creeks that you get a break.
Once you’re there, stop and listen to the leaves rustle and the creeks babble. The main “Tank” spring lies just past the valley and over another hill or two. A second, smaller spring is just south of the main spring. After seeing the springs, the trail loops back to the pond and down the original hill.
Why it’s special: A preserve with a place in history, the spring was once used to supply steam-powered locomotives at the nearby railroad.
- CAUTION: Hunting is allowed in season.
- You must park and hike about one mile to the actual preserve.
- Wear hiking boots or shoes with good support because the hills get pretty steep.
- Try to stay quiet as you come back to your car because the frogs will have calmed down and started croaking again.
Directions from Bloomington: Take Highway 37 south to the intersection with US 50. Head west on US 50 for about 15 miles. Once you come to the entrance to Martin State Forest, turn the opposite direction onto State Road 650 and continue for less than a mile to a “T.” At this intersection, turn left onto CR 67 and continue for about 0.3 miles until you come to a sharp right turn onto CR 54. In about a half mile, the small parking area will be on the left.
Mike Kelley’s guide to respecting the nature preserve
- Planning a picnic lunch? Don’t forget to take any and all trash with you when you leave.
- Canines are welcome, but their droppings are not. Be sure to take their excrements with you as you would when visiting a city park, this way no one has to smell it on their shoes on the ride home.
- Don’t damage, steal or obstruct the items placed within a nature preserve. We want to ensure that later generations can enjoy the nature preserve.
- Keep the noise level down. Some visitors may be seeking a space for personal reflection and won’t appreciate the company.
- Take only photographs while at the preserve. You may think taking a pretty wildflower with you won’t hurt anything, but if every visitor did this there will eventually be no more pretty wildflowers.
The nature preserve “must sees”
Take this list with you when visiting each nature preserve!
- The Overlook at Bladderwort Pond
- Here you can sit on a swinging bench before an expansive view of Salt Creek Valley. Bring binoculars and you might see bald eagles tending an active nest along the south ridge.
- The Spirit Shrine
- The resting place of loved ones, this serves as a peaceful place for reflection.
- Maiden Hair Meadow
- Here you will find a limestone carving, Sultan of Stone, positioned atop a carpet of native Poverty Oat Grass, found within a quaint forest opening.
- The Zimmerman Overlook
- Located off of Bellsville Pike, this serves as a perfect spot for a picnic lunch or quiet contemplation before an expansive view of the wetland area.
- The Deck at Cedar Slope
- Found on the slope of a thick cedar woods just west of the Zimmerman Overlook, Mike Kelley says this is the perfect place to relax with a glass of wine in the late afternoon sun.
- Bald eagle nest
- In the first stint of the boardwalk trail, you’ll find a sign telling about the nest. If you look a little to the left in the distance, you might be able to spot it.
- Eagle viewing platform
- If lucky enough, here you can see the eagles near their active nest.
- The frog pond
- Located off the gravel trail between the parking lot and the boardwalk, you’ll likely encounter a frog or two peeping out of the murky waters.
- The Woodland Swamp Deck
- Overlooking the last remnant from Beanblossom Creek, spend some time here to view the great blue heron rookery just across the water.
- The Panorama observation deck
- This is a great place for a picnic lunch, quiet reflection, or simply listening for the calls of the different animal species found at the preserve.
- Growing up to five feet tall, this plant features an orange flower in the shape of a trumpet and can be found in the wettest areas of the nature preserve.. Be sure to watch for ruby-throated hummingbirds that flock in search of nectar.
- Eastern mud turtles
- The rarest species found in the preserve, the secretive turtle is hard to spot as it generally stays at the bottom of the swamp.
- Rarely found in Indiana, this aquatic herb is usually hidden underwater. When it blooms in the late summer to early fall, you can spot its spongy stems atop the water’s surface.
- Prothonotary warbler
- This bird’s vibrant yellow coloring makes it easy to spot. Don’t miss it, though, because it’s uncommonly found in Southern Indiana.
- Spider lily
- Found in the southern flatwoods in the preserve, this plant blooms in August producing spider-like fragrant white flowers.
- The wood sign at the trailhead
- Don’t miss the carved sign and accompanying pamphlet. Tank spring may be in quaint town, but it has a fascinating history that will make the hike all the more interesting.
- Upland forest
- Look for these most common trees: aspens, oaks, maples, birches, basswood, pines, spruce, and balsam firs. These trees make up the canopy covering 50-100 percent of the sky while you’re on the trail.
- Sandstone cliff
- When you see this cliff, you’re almost to the springs. To the left you’ll see the creek bed flowing with water from the spring.
- The spring
- The trail eventually ends at the spring, which was once used by locomotives on the nearby railroad. Consider this your incentive to finish the rugged hike.
Grab a bite nearby
When visiting the nature preserves you might want to take the time to try out a local restaurant. Here are our suggestions.
- Story Inn Restaurant
- 6404 State Road 135 S., Nashville
- Everything served here is made with locally-grown ingredients, either from the restaurant's garden or grown by other Hoosiers. The seasonal dinner menu can be a little pricey, but the brunch options are more affordable.
- Bo-Mac’s Drive In
- 408 Fourth St., Shoals
- In true drive-in fashion, you can choose to be served by car hops or sit on the patio. Enjoy a burger and fries, and don't forget the milkshake! Plan ahead though, because Bo-Mac's is only open during the warmer seasons.
- Village Inn Restaurant
- 311 E. Temperance St., Ellettsville
- Whether you’re in the mood for a stack of pancakes or a southern Indiana-style pork tenderloin, Village Inn has something for everyone. If you’re looking for some friendly conversation, be sure to sit at the “liar’s bench,” the long table in the center of the room.
- Hawg’n’Sauce Barbecue & Grill
- 6580 Leonard Road, Mt. Vernon
- Locals recommend the Ida-fries and a pulled pork sandwich. Don’t forget the peach cobbler.
Think you’re an expert on nature preserves? Try our 10-question quiz to find out and learn more about preserves in the 812 region!
1. How many nature preserves are in Indiana?
2. Among other features, Jennings County’s Calli Nature Preserve contains:
A. Limestone cliffs
B. Red-shouldered hawks
D. All of the above
3. Which orange, trumpet-shaped flower blooms in August in the swamps of Twin Swamps Nature Preserve?
A. Slender mountain mint
C. Spotted jewelweed
D. False nettle
4. Camping is prohibited in nature preserves.
5. Minton Nature Preserve in Floyd County is named after Dr. Sherman A. Minton who was a noted:
6. Monroe County’s Sweedy Hollow Nature Preserve has which uncommon plant species?
A. Guyandotte beauty
B. Pointed-leaf tick trefoil
C. Whorled pogonia
D. White vervain
7. Which of the following is NOT a rare-to-Indiana species found in Meyer Nature Preserve of Morgan County?
A. Hooded warbler
B. Worm-eating warbler
C. Allegheny wood rat
D. Eastern box turtle
8. All nature preserves have a DNR representative on site full- or part-time.
9. Lincoln’s Woods Nature Preserve in Spencer County contains which types of natural communities?
A. Xeric upland forest
B. Mesic upland forest
C. Mesic hardwood forest
D. Dry-mesic upland forest
10. In Bartholomew County, Anderson Falls Nature Preserve features a 14-foot high waterfall.
Answers: 1. B, 2. D, 3. C, 4. A, 5. A, 6. AC, 7. C, 8. B, 9. ABD, 10. A