Hiking the Knobstone Trail
A day on the longest and toughest footpath in Southern Indiana
6:30 a.m. My alarm begins to hum at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, and the only thought in my sleepy head is, "Why did I agree to do this?" Instead of snuggling in my blankets and staying in my warm bed, I decided that today is the day my friend Ian and I were going to tackle a stretch of the Knobstone Trail.
Having zero experience with hiking, I never imaged that it could be challenging. Spending the day walking through the forest looking at nature was a hobby that anyone could have. Ian had tried to warn me that it would be difficult but I had shrugged him off. So that morning I go to pick him up wearing my black and pink Nike gym shoes, with two granola bars and a bottle of water in my purse for the day.
The Knobstone Trail follows the Knobstone Escarpment from just north of Louisville all the way to Salem. It is a 58 mile stretch, covering 40,000 acres of land. Escarpments are long rugged geological regions. The Knobstone Escarpment is the most rugged terrain in Indiana with steep hills and ravines. According to the Hoosier Hikers Council, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to maintain and extend the Knobstone Trail, the escarpment was "created by the movement of two tectonic plates, the Scottsburg Lowlands to the east and the Norman Uplands to the west" that created the line of high knobby hills that hikers have come to love to train on.
The Knobstone is dubbed the mini Appalachian Trail because serious hikers prepare for the real Appalachian Trail on it due to its difficult elevation and long length. The Knobstone rises 500 feet and drops into deep valleys and through ravines. Trail builders decided to model the Knobstone after the 2,168- mile Appalachian linear trail. Jim is the store manager at J.L. Waters and Co. in Bloomington, a hiking and backpacking store where hikers can buy gear and topological maps of Southern Indiana. "The Knobstone Trail is the longest trail in these parts without going to Virginia," he says. "It's the best trail in Indiana that's close to Bloomington."
9:00 a.m. In order to get to the trailhead we have to drive on gravel roads that tunnel through thick woods. We get lost in several small towns and take gravel roads that lead us nowhere before we finally find the first trail head. Parking the car off the gravel road, we locate the trailhead next to Spurgeon Hollow Lake, which is actually the end of the original trail. We had decided to hike it backwards because the end of the trail was closest to Bloomington. We put our packs on our back and head off into the woods.
Five feet in, I slip on a mud puddle and my shoe sticks. The bottoms of my sweatpants are covered in mud, and I think that this is probably not the best start to my first hiking experience. Still, we forge on into the woods.
The DNR maintains the Knobstone Trail with summer staff and volunteers, many from the Hoosier Hikers Council. They carry the equipment into the woods and clear the trails of brush and vines. When a tree falls across the path, the workers bring in chainsaws, slice the part of the tree that's in the way and move the chunk to the side. Making improvements is tedious and hard work. The only way to access the trail is by walking it except at some points where ATV's help clear the way.
9:30a.m. After walking for 30 minutes I'm convinced we had hiked for miles. That's when we reach the first mile marker. The trees completely encompass the trail, and the only sounds are the tweeting of a few birds and the high-pitched mating call of the bullfrogs. Surprisingly, my cell phone works so I feel connected to civilization, but after a while I forget about texting my friends and about how beautiful the trail is and focus on climbing up the inclines and breathing and talking to Ian about things that normally we're too busy to talk about.
11:30a.m. The beginning of the trail is mainly flat, but around the four-mile mark the trail goes straight up in the air. Not only is it muddy, but suddenly I am huffing, puffing and sounding like the big bad wolf. Scampering up the hills is out of the question. My biking workouts did not prepare me for the Knobstone's ridgelines and ravines, and I feel myself falling behind Ian's quick pace and wondering if I am going to make it. Then I realize the only way to get back to my car is by continuing on.
Originally only 32 miles long, the foot trail was established in 1980. Now the Hoosier Hikers Council wants to extend the trail up to Martinsville. Jim says the delay is due to private land owners working out details of selling the remaining land. "The Hoosier Hikers Council has finally negotiated the details with the last two landowners and are clearing out and surveying the last section of the trail in order to join the trails up," he says.
The new addition of 42 miles of rugged hills would connect the original Knobstone Trail, the Tecumseh Trail and the Pioneer Trail. The Knobstone Trail is just north of Louisville and connects Clark and Jackson-Washington state forests. The Tecumseh Trail connects Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood state forests and was completed in 2001 by volunteers and the DNR. This is the northern third of the trail. The Pioneer Trail is the missing central link. HHC volunteers built the first section in 2008-2010 and finishing the second half of the Pioneer Trail completes the 140-mile-long Knobstone Trail.
12:00 p.m. My tummy begins to rumble. Breakfast seems like decades ago. Ian had brought an entire Fourth of July meal, minus the ice cream, but I reach into my pack and pull out one of two peanut-butter-and-pretzel granola bars. Ian warns me that I must bring out of the woods anything I bring in, so I pack away the empty wrapper. Leaning against a tree with the letters KT painted on it so hikers won't get lost, I chug down my water and notice that there aren't many streams to get more water from if we run out. Ian packed iodine tablets and filters to clean any water we do find, but it seems sparse. In mid-summer it must be nearly impossible.
If you plan on doing the entire trail, you must either carry all your water with you in packs, which adds a lot of weight, or cache water along the way. You can leave containers at trailheads with a date on them and can pick them up when you reach the destination. Or there's a hiking guide you can pay to leave water at designated locations. Not only is water sparse but in my experience so was the wildlife. It seemed that every animal hid from me. But that's not typical of the trail. "Hikers can see typical Indiana wildlife in the area. Deer, raccoons, possums, hawks, eagles and predatory birds are all common sights," Jim says. "I haven't heard of any bears or cougars though."
1:00 p.m. Two men in cowboy hats walk past us on the trail. They seem perturbed that Ian and I are chatting and scaring off wildlife. They wander off the trail while Ian and I continue. He warns me to be quiet so I don't disturb other people, like I was the only one gabbing away. The trees are so thick and tall that you can't see the sky, and it seems as if the woods have swallowed us whole.
2:00 p.m. The trail continues to go up and up. The hills are not hills but mountains without any end in sight. My Nike shoes are encased in mud, as are the bottoms of my pants. Not from tripping and falling but from mud puddles left by heavy spring rains.
In order to see the entire trail in one weekend, you must also become campers. Although there are no established campsites, you can spend the night in the woods. You must be at least one mile from all roads and trailheads and on public land. It is safer to be out of sight of the trail.
Seeing the entirety of the trail is something that every hiker must experience. "The visionary 140-mile trail will prove a challenging experience that will attract tourists from all across Indiana and the U.S.," the HHC says. "Thru-trails capture the imagination and inspire hikers through connection with the landscape and their heritage."
2:30 p.m. On our last mile of the 10-mile hike I get my first blister. We walk around the ridgetop and discover that the trail is covered in water. In order to complete the trail, we must cross through the stream. I search for a big log to cross on but no such luck. Then I see some large stones and toss them into the stream to build a rock path to walk across. As I timidly place my shoe on the rocks, they slip and my foot goes into the stream. It's too late to jump over to dry land, so I walk through the water. Ian begins to laugh then realizes he has to do the same and puts his hiking boot in the water and scampers over.
2:45 p.m. We loop back around to the beginning of the trail, exiting the way we came in. We see the lake on our left and the woods on our right and not a soul in sight. A complete calm is in the air. My silver Toyota Camry waits to take us away from serenity and back to Bloomington.
Monday morning comes with aches and muscle strains. My feet have finally warmed up and the mud came out of my clothes. But my back's sore from the backpack and muscles that I didn't know existed are throbbing. My ambition of hiking and camping the entire trail is unrealized for now. Hiking 58 miles is not for amateurs.
The completed trail will pass many landmarks specific to Indiana from Fort Hattabough from the pioneer era to Hoosier settlements and Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve.
I may never hike the complete trail from start to finish in a week, but I plan to see the entire trail in manageable snippets. On the trail I saw a completely different side of Southern Indiana -- a side I'd like to see again.