Westwood Park

The more often I get out and hike the more I really start to realize how much natural beauty is all around us, things that we take for granted in our day to day lives and just don’t see. Spending that quality time for a handful of hours every weekend taking in the sunlight and calm of the forest (and water) is enough to calm even the most frizzled nerves. This past weekend I had the privileged of hiking at Westwood Park in New Castle, IN. and from the moment you pull into the ample parking lot right off of the trail head, you can tell this is going to be a hike to remember.

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The trail itself meanders 10 miles in a loop around the lake and gives you the opportunity to snap some breathtaking pictures, if that’s the sort of thing you’re into. But the mileage is really the only part of this trail that is challenging. There are very few significant elevation changes and those contain ample switchbacks that make them more than bearable for even the most unseasoned hikers.

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Probably the coolest thing about this trail are the number of bridges that it contains. They vary in size and location but are numbered and make for a neat experience as you count your way through the trail miles.

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But there is also great deal of changing scenery, from deep forest trail, to small wooded outcroppings, to grassy fields. As long as the sun is out and the weather is nice you are absolutely guaranteed to have a great trip to this park.

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When you combine that with the views of the water, you really can’t go wrong in New Castle.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/westwood-park

Happy Trails!

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We had a great weekday hike at Westwood Park today.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, March 21, 2016

Like what you see? Come with us next time! http://www.meetup.com/Free-Range-Hiking-Meetup/

Pate Hollow: In the Rain

Over the weekend we traveled to the Pate Hollow Trail in Bloomington and it turned into a great little hike. The weather was about as perfect as it could get for this time of year and since the trail lays across very clay-like soil it wasn’t muddy except in a few areas close to stream crossing even though it was raining steadily for most of the hike. This was also the first occasion that someone else has shown up for one of our scheduled hikes.

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Since we founded Free Range Hiking at the beginning of the year we’ve been doing our best to try and share our love of hiking and the outdoors with people in the areas that we hike by setting up a Meetup group and weekly events associated with the Free Range Hiking Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/freerangehiking/?ref=hl. So today Dave from our Meetup group and his Yellow Lab Corbin decided to show us how Hiking is supposed to be done. Corbin absolutely loves being on the trail and checking out anything that moves in the underbrush as they hike. Dave has been out to a lot of the places that we’ve hit in Morgan Monroe, he also suggested some other nearby trails that he hikes regularly. Dave has been actively hiking for a lot longer than we have and had no problem burning my legs out as he was leading the hike for the first half.

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The funny thing is that you don’t really take your speed into account when you’re hiking as a pair or on your own. But when you hike with someone new you start to think more about your speed versus their speed. If you’re a fast hiker, you probably don’t like to be slowed down and if you’re a slow hiker, trying to keep up can be a real challenge. On this occasion I stopped a few times to snap pictures only to turn around and see that they had left me in the dust. But it was a fun experience and definitely put into perspective where we actually need to be before we try to take on the Appalachian Trail. After starting at about 10:45 because a little delay in finding the actual trail head we made it through the 7.7 mile loop and back to the cars right around 1:30 making this the fastest hike that we’ve completed yet. I try not to think about time from start to finish so much while I’m out there, instead I like to enjoy the scenery and the serenity of the forest and take in the moment. But every once in a while it’s cool to see how quickly you can get through a rugged trail when you’re pushing yourself. I know there are a lot of people that could do those miles faster. But we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the year and we’re only going to continue to get better.

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Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/pate-hollow-trail

Until next time,

Happy Trails!

Yesterday we took on the Pate Hollow trail in Bloomington.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, March 14, 2016

The Low Gap Trail: Revisited in Full.

The Low Gap Trail. In association with Great American “GRAM” Trails. <Link to Video>

Yesterday turned out to be a beautiful, high 50 degrees, light breeze, sunny spring day. It was also the day that we has set aside to hike through the full ten and a half miles of the Low Gap Trail, which has quickly become out favorite trail out at Morgan Monroe State Forest.

Our Original intention was to hike out to a nice camping spot by head lamp on Saturday night so that we could get up at dawn and hit the trail. This would have given my father, Jim, a chance to try an overnight stint in his new DIY hammock (if you haven’t seen it yet here’s a link to the video, Do you wanna build a hammock ). However, as often is the case in life. Something else took precedence Saturday night and we resolved to get up the next morning and hit the trail by 8:30 instead of camping.

When we hit the trail head the next morning around 8:30 it was already busy, we encountered a local boy scout troop and a middle aged couple out to hike the trail. We made small talk with the couple for a few minutes as we all got ready and recounted some of the places we’d been hiking recently. The boy scouts were loud and rowdy, typical of a large group of boys that age. In fact, even when we could not see them on the trail that day we never lost track of where they were just based on noise production alone.

In the past few months we’ve hit several parts of the Low Gap Trail and I’ve been in to see the cave formations a few times. Because the large cave is a fantastic sight when it’s ice covered and still impressive otherwise. But today we intended to hike the trail in its entirety. So this marked the longest single day of hiking that we’ve done since we got back into hiking regularly as well as the most beautiful trail we’ve hit. While I’m sure the Three Lakes Trail (Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure) would give it a run for its money this time of year. It was entirely snow covered when we tackled it a handful of weeks ago and that took away from the views a bit.

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We ended up making better time than we’ve made in previous hikes, along the way realizing that the GPS unit I was using doesn’t register switchbacks or portions of the trail that double back on themselves and it had lost a mile during the morning. We ended up stopping twice, once in the morning to have a late morning snack and to check out the hammock on the trail after our first 2 miles and the second was our lunch break at 1 after we’d hiked 7 and a half miles. I had a chance to pull out the FireBox that I keep in my pack and boil some water to rehydrate some long grain rice and chicken broth. We ended up sitting by this log, swapping plans for the AT and eating jerky, fresh fruit, tortillas and seasoned tuna packets along with some odds and ends stuff that we had for the better part of an hour before packing up and hitting the trail again.

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By this time we’d already been passed by the rowdy boyscout troop, the couple we’d spoken to at the onset of the hike and about a dozen other day hikers that had decided to take advantage of the great weather. The last few miles of the trail were all paved except for the last mile or so that’s currently closed as they work to put in a paved bike trail. At this point in the trail we decided to off trail hike back to the truck, avoiding the construction areas but keeping the trail in view. Once all was said and done we got back to the extremely crowded parking area at right around 3:30. We threw our stuff in the back of the truck and headed back to base camp for a few IPA’s and to recount the story of our morning to anyone that would listen.

We’re one step closer to getting to where we want to be for our AT hike, picking up trail knowledge and putting in a lot of foot time. Now we’re on to the next mini adventure.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/low-gap-trail

Happy Trails!

Pictures are linked below.

We hiked the Low Gap Trail in its entirety today. 10.5 miles down on a beautiful day. Great day, great hike.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Sunday, March 6, 2016

Do you wanna build a hammock

So, Aaron bought a very nice four season hammock system (integrated bug net, tarp, insulation pockets, bivvy cover, kitchen sink) and used it during last week’s overnighter. He liked it a lot, so it got me thinking…

I spent the last year or two of my Scouting adventures primarily hammock camping.  Back then we weren’t concerned about weight, so we used El Cheapo fist-sized nylon mesh hammocks and enormous poly fill sleeping bags covered by plastic tarps we secured by tying a string around a rock in the plastic, and staked them to the ground with sharpened twigs.  It worked.

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Do you think it’ll hold?  It always used to.

http://www.hammockforums.net/forum/showthread.php/670-My-Take-On-DIY-Hennessy-Hammock-A-Tutorial

http://www.tothewoods.net/HomemadeHammock.html

Give them some page hits, and try out their designs.  It’s super cheap if you have access to a sewing machine, a hardware store, and a few yards of ripstop nylon.

I’ll be testing out this first foray into hammock camping in more than 30 years…tonight!

Mississinewa: Lost Sister & Blue Heron Trails with a little off trail meandering

I was born and raised in the Wabash / Peru, Indiana area so this reservoir was familiar to me going into the hikes. However, the last time my dad and I got out and hiked here was roughly 14 years ago when I was a child. So this held some special meaning to him and I.

We decided during the week that we would head up to my grandparents house Saturday night when I got off of work, sit around their fire pit and have a few beers before setting up camp for the night. I was pretty excited about this trip because I haven’t had the opportunity to get up north to see my grandparents since Christmas and I knew that I would be trialing my new Clark Hammock NX-270 to see if all the hype is true about this brand (it is and then some). So after running some errands in town we finally made it to our destination around 9:30 to a roaring fire and cold beer waiting around the fire pit. We had the chance to catch up and pass around a flash of Tennessee Fire for about an hour before we mutually decided to call it a night, camp was quickly set up by headlamp and we were dead to the world within an hour (pictures are from the next morning).

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The next morning we were up around 6:30 and ready to break down camp and get started. So after a hearty breakfast we cleaned up the camp area and headed off to the Lost Sister trail in the Frances Slocum SRA at Mississinewa.  This was listed as being 2.5 miles but when we came out our GPS units only showed it being a little over 1.5. While distance doesn’t matter a whole lot to us, we had still been expecting a little more. So after stopping for a hydration break and munching on some trail snacks we decided to load back into the truck and head over to the Miami SRA on the other side of the reservoir to see the Blue Heron trail. This went off without a hitch, but again, the trail was listed as being 2.5 miles and came up just short of 2 on our GPS. Of course, in our haste to get on this trail and because of the lack of signage, we took a game trail to find the trail instead of starting at the trail head on the opposite side of the picnic area that it starts at. I’m not sure if that equates to a mile or not, but we’ll figure it out next time.

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Since we’d finished the trails that we came to do and the day was still very early, warm and cloudless. We decided to head over to some of the horse trails in the rougher part of the SRA and try our luck out there. This turned out to be the most fun of the whole trip as we spend about 2 and a half hours winding through a myriad of different unmarked trails, followed a trail that ended up being under water, which led to us scaling a very steep hill about 200 feet and wandering through thickets, heavy wind and rocky ledges as we exercised our inner explorers. The off trail parts of our hikes always end up being the most fun. Even if we’re never more than a few miles from civilization in Indiana it always makes you feel a little more at one with nature. Which is after all, why we do this.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/lost-sister-trail  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/blue-heron-trail

Happy Trails!

GPX Maps and Pictures of these hikes are linked below.

This past weekend we took a trip up to north central Indiana to check out some of the trails at the Mississinewa…

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Monday, February 29, 2016

 

Mason Ridge: Sun, Canines and closed trails.

We’ve been lucky enough to have great weather for the past 4 days. Even luckier for me because I have Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays off every week plus the vacation day I took on Saturday. So I got 4 days of sun and warm temperatures right before work starts again, the temps plummet and we’re talking about snow again.

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Because it was so nice out today, I decided it would be nice to take the dogs out and hike the Mason Ridge trail that I didn’t get to hike a few weeks ago when I was out of commission for a week with what the Dr. thought was meningitis (until the spinal tap came back negative to my relief). Anyway, today being the beautiful day that it was I packed up the truck and headed back out to Morgan Monroe to check this trail off my to-do list.

As it turns out, it’s a good thing that list is pretty long. After hiking into the trail about a mile and a half and crossing the road that marks the half way point I found myself faced with a notice explaining that the southern portion of the Mason Ridge trail and a large portion of the Tecumseh (40 mile) trail are closed until further notice. You see, they’re in the process of tearing out thousands of trees and destroying huge portions of the existing trails so that they can put in a paved bike trail. Something that those of us who regularly hike out here vehemently lament. After spouting a few curse words and laughing to myself when I found that someone who had come before me had torn one of the signs off the post it was attached to, shredded it and placed the pieces in a plastic bag containing another notice.

As I doubled back the way I came and watched the dogs sniffing and playing along the trail I reminded myself what hiking has shown me since I started getting back into it regularly. That is that life is not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Sometimes that journey is what you’re expecting it to be and sometimes it’s doubling back the way you came. But when all is said and done, it’s what you remember and cherish the most.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/mason-ridge-trail

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GPS route and pictures are linked below.

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https://www.facebook.com/freerangehiking/photos_stream?ref=page_internal

Starved Rock: Beer, Trails, Stairs and Friends

A little over a month ago my Army buddy Jarred hit me up on Facebook and told us we should come check out the Starved Rock trails about an hour away from where he lives in Illinois. I was going to make the trip regardless of what the trail was like because it’s not every day that you get to see one of your Army brothers once you stop wearing the uniform. But after a quick google search of Starved Rock and some dramatic waterfall pictures this quickly became one of my most anticipated hikes so far. So after taking a day off of work on Saturday, we loaded up the truck and were on the road by 8am. From my front door to his is about a 3 and a half hour drive. But going from central Indiana to Illinois you make up an hour, so we made it right before noon after awkwardly blowing through several toll areas because we’d forgotten to bring cash for the toll road (they just take your license plate # and you pay online).

After quickly introducing my father to Jarred and his (then) girlfriend Cassie, we loaded into the truck again and drove about another hour to Starved Rock. The parking lot was filled almost to capacity when we arrived, since it was 60 degrees in mid-late February and it had snowed heavily the prior week, everyone was taking advantage of the short respite from the winter weather.  So we all piled out of the truck, my father and I strapped our daypacks on and we took off for the trail.

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The first part of the trails here are all built up, wooden walkways, concrete paths. All lined with college kids taking selfies in “nature” and complaining about getting their shoes that are “meant for breathing” dirty in the mud. We admired the views that we could and quickly scrambled further into the trail. After a short walk with a good many stairs and a lot of tourists we came to our first set of incredible views overlooking the levee right off the state park. We played tourists here ourselves and took lots of pictures and heard the backstory of the Starved Rock before moving on to the next area. The whole Lovers Leap, Eagle Cliff and beehive overlook area was like a spider web of wooden paths sneaking through the trees and over the cliffs to pop out for scenic view after scenic view. It was quickly apparent why this state park was so popular.

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So after the overlooks, we moved on to the canyon areas. While we didn’t hit all of them while we were out we did hit most of the more popular views and got some amazing shots of Wildcat Canyon, Lonetree Canyon and Basswood Canyon. These were the homes to some of the most dramatic and awesome pictures and views that we saw through the entire trip and were definitely my favorite part of the hike. Even my protesting legs were okay with the 50 or so flights of steps that we’d gone up and down to see these views. Although at this point I was starting to question my decision to wear the daypack that’s still loaded down with everything I’d need to start hiking the AT today. But I remembered that sometime in the next 4-5 years I’ll be standing at AT approach trail in Georgia and likely wishing I’d hit hillier trails with that pack on BEFORE starting the thru hike.

Anyway, after the Canyons we started Cassie’s (Jarred’s Girlfriend) least favorite part of the trail. The roughly 2 mile portion of bog style mud from all the meltwater and foot traffic on the trail that day. While we covered our boots and shoes with mud we saw a few stray shoes stuck in the mud that reminded us why we tie double knots before we go into stuff like that. This whole portion of the trail took us about an hour each way, even though it was muddy and tedious it was mostly flat and there were no more hellish stairs to clamber up. We made our way to Own Canyon Overlook and LaSalle Canyon and explored off trail for a little while before deciding to turn back, as we noticed that we would soon be running short on daylight.

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After making our way back through the mud, up more sets of devilish stairs that made me appreciate switchbacks and making it back to the truck, we finished out the day having hiked 8.5 trail miles according to my Fitbit Surge with just over 70 flights of stairs. So after this momentous feat we decided to end the journey with beer and nachos at a Duffy’s (fluffy’s) Pub right down the road. So after dropping Jarred and Cassie back at their place and reacquiring the hour that we lost on the way to Illinois we made it back to our homes at 1am and 2am respectively. This made for an incredibly long but immensely satisfying trip, and definitely one that I won’t soon forget.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/illinois/starved-rock-and-sandstone-point-overlook-trail

 

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Our GPS trail and complete set of photos are linked below.

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Our late February hike at Starved Rock in Illinois.

Posted by Veteran's Outdoor Collaborative on Sunday, February 21, 2016

Three Lakes Trail: An Epic Winter Adventure

When we decided to hike the Three Lakes Trail at the Morgan Monroe State Forest over Valentine’s Day weekend we knew that it was going to be a test of our hiking skill and fortitude thus far. This 10.5 mile trail is nearly as rugged as they come in some spots. But in the spirit of making bad decisions so that we have cool stories to talk about later over beer, we decided to tackle this behemoth of a trail (by our standards) during a snowstorm and with day temps dipping down to around 18 degrees. Our plan going in to this hike was to complete the entirety of the Three Lakes Trail, then hike a mile or so into the back country where camping is permitted, as it’s not allowed on the Three Lakes Trail, so that we could test out our winter camping gear.

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So we got underway at about 2:30 on Sunday (valentine’s day) and got our first taste of the trail while the snow fell pretty heavily. Now, when we went into this, we knew that the trail was supposed to be tough. Definitely a test of our fitness level thus far. In any case, carrying a 50lb pack full of everything you need to survive in a subfreezing environment for a day or two is a test of anyone’s fortitude. On this occasion we definitely didn’t take into account how much the snowfall was going to slow us down. Having to trudge through 2-3 inches of fresh snow and deal with slick ledges on narrow portions of the trail slowed us to nearly a crawl at some points.

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As it was we had seriously underestimated this trail. After making it about 5 miles in and with night quickly closing in on us, we made the decision that we would have to find a suitable place to wait out the night, test our gear and hike out safely in the daylight on Monday. We could have tried to make it out and not break the no camping rule. But portions of the trail that we’d already been on had become so slick that we didn’t want to chance one or both of us getting injured in the dark with temps in the high teens. So we hiked as far off trail as we could and found a nice camping spot.

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The night went by without a hitch, we got a nice fire going, heated up some food for dinner and warmed up before turning in. We listened to the haunting call of the local coyotes in the distance bouncing off the trees of the otherwise silent forest. Our 0 degree sleeping bags held up to their promise of keeping us warm and alive through the frigid night.

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The next morning we packed up and were back on the trail by 8:15. We rounded the second lake, snapped a few pictures of the scenery. Then both experiences our first winter hiking “oh shit” falls on the trail. Luckily no one was around to laugh at us except for a few hundred Cardinals and some rather unhappy squirrels. We had tackled the southern portion of the trail on day one, we hadn’t known at the time but most of the serious hills were now behind us as most of the northern portion of the trail is flat. This was a blessing for me especially, being over 300lbs with all my cold weather gear and my pack. My legs will be about the size of tree trunks before our next hike. But at this point they were screaming like kids in a toy store when mommy and daddy are on a budget.

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We kept a slow and steady pace for the remainder of the trail, stopped a few times to get water at some of the semi-frozen creeks and to try to talk the fatigue out of my very unhappy calves and quads. But we finished the trail after another 3 hours, we walked off the trail right around 11am on Monday. At this point we were greeted by one of the local DNR employees who told us he’d seen that my truck had been sitting overnight and was about to go check some of the shelter houses to make sure we weren’t stranded somewhere. We recounted the story of our miscalculation, lamented how tough the trail had truly been and got a bit of a scolding where we were told that under most circumstances there is a $200 fine for anyone caught camping on the Three Lakes Trail. But because of the situation he said he understood the necessity. We took the warning, dropped our packs at the truck and ended the first real epic adventure of the year for the Free Range Hikers.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/three-lakes-trail

 

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Complete photo gallery and the GPS map from this trek are linked below.

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Rock Shelter Trail 1-31-2016

This past weekend we decided to hike the Rock Shelter trail at Morgan Monroe State Forest. This has quickly become one of my favorite destinations for quick weekend hikes and I’m looking forward to better weather so that I can start doing some overnights on the Low Gap and Three Rivers trails. I hiked about 3 and a half miles into the low gap a few weeks ago and actually went through a portion of the rock shelter trail. Since the smaller loops connect the larger 10+ mile Low Gap trail.
Anyway, the scenery was so striking last time that I knew we should hit this hike together. They call this the rock shelter hike because of the large walk through cave in our pictures. It’s been signed in several places and looks to be a pretty popular destination for anyone hiking in this area. The center of this trail that is in the backwoods area is absolutely phenomenal. It’s well maintained and the scenery is absolutely beautiful, even in mid-winter when everything is dead. We did get lucky this weekend in respects to the weather. It was a balmy 55 degrees and we quickly shucked our cold weather gear as soon as we got to the trailhead. Of course the weight of our AT packs still makes for a sometimes sweaty hike. While we’re accustomed to carrying weighted ruck sacks from our years in the military (4 for me, 20+ for dad) you really can’t control how quickly you heat up when you’re scaling a backwoods will with 50lbs strapped to your back.
When we first started the hike we followed the trail head about an 8th of a mile to a paved road that takes you about a mile into the backwoods of the state forest. This is an underwhelming portion of the hike as it’s paved with rock and tends to be pretty muddy. There is also a lot of logging going on around this particular trail so it’s not exactly what you want to see on your weekend out in nature. But after about a mile the trail turns off into the backwoods where you zigzag down a large hill into a large ravine with a stream meandering through it. The stream crosses the trail in many spots, so if you aren’t wearing waterproof boots like I have been, you have to get a little creative to keep your feet dry. As you follow the trail through the ravine you’ll notice the terrain change from steep hills to rocky cliffs, the whole time you continue to hike though the ravine following the trail towards the caves at the center of this trail. Now this week we decided to take out our GoPro cameras and record the hike, so most of this will be published to our YouTube channel in a few days, I’ll be sure to link to it from here and vice versa so that you can see the real beauty of this trail.
Once you get past the caves you start heading uphill, this will be challenging for those of you who haven’t been hiking in a while as climbing these hills with weighted packs works your legs more than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The trail then follows a ridge for another ¾ mile or so before you come to a fork in the trail leading to the backwoods or back to the trailhead. Since we were just hiking the rock shelter trail, we took the left fork back to the trailhead. After about 300 yards that direction the forest trail turns back into a paved (rock) vehicle trail that leads you right back to the parking lot at the trailhead. The whole thing takes about an hour, maybe longer if you take a lot of pictures or decide to stop for lunch. All in all this is a beautiful trail and a much better way to spend a Saturday and Sunday afternoon than sitting around the house.

Directions and further information are available in the link below.  https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/indiana/low-gap-trail-loop

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