Looking to spend more time outdoors, become more active, or travel on a budget? Consider participating in a state park challenge! Essentially, you commit to visiting each of your state’s parks. These parks often provide fun and affordable ways to experience your state’s best natural resources. In addition to hiking and camping, state parks frequently offer budget-friendly options for outdoor activities like fishing, horseback riding, boating, biking, swimming, and winter sports. Here we explain why we chose to complete a state park challenge, provide tips for planning park visits, and highlight our progress thus far. We hope you are inspired to take on a similar challenge in your home state!
What is a State Park Challenge?
Soon after my birthday in 2018, I decided to begin a 52 Hike Challenge. Basically, I committed to going on 52 hikes within a year’s time. Less than a year later, I completed the challenge in one of my favorite places, logging not just 52, but 54 hikes for the year!
While I enjoyed this experience, I found it challenging indeed! Going on a hike every week was more demanding than I had anticipated. Some weeks I could easily go on 3 or 4 hikes. Other weeks our family was so busy that it was difficult to fit in just one hike. Rather than repeat the challenge, I decided to visit each of the state parks within my home state of Indiana during the next year, all 25 of them! In effect, I created a new outdoor challenge, a State Park Challenge. While I am visiting the Indiana State Parks, you could do the same type of challenge in any of the 50 states.
Why Visit all of the Parks in Your State?
There are so many reasons to visit all of the parks in your state! If you’re anything like us, you love spending time outdoors, but sometimes need a little extra motivation to actually get outside. Visiting state parks is a great way to go beyond your neck of the woods, whether it be your backyard or your neighborhood, and explore your state!
Or perhaps you are simply looking for something entertaining to do in your spare time. In addition to managing a state’s natural resources, the parks often offer a number of fun and affordable ways to experience those resources. We typically think of visiting a state park in order to go camping or hiking. However, these parks frequently provide affordable means to go fishing, horseback riding, boating, biking, swimming, skiing and snowshoeing, just to name a few. Additionally, many states parks offer free or low-cost naturalist and parks programs.
Our goal in visiting all of Indiana’s state parks has been to explore areas of our state we have yet to see while trying some outdoor activities beyond our “go-to” of hiking. Thus far, we have gone caving, kayaking, fossil hunting, road biking, mountain biking and swimming at a waterpark…all at Indiana State Parks. We hope you are inspired to follow our lead and experience what your state’s parks have to offer.
Over the course of visiting our state’s parks, we have come up with a few tips that help you to get the most out of a visit to any state park:
First, consider what time of year is best to visit a particular park. Many parks have features or offer activities that are best experienced during certain times of the year. For instance, water activities like swimming, boating, and fishing are ideal during warmer months. While skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and ice-skating clearly only occur during the winter. In our state of Indiana, we have four definitive seasons. So we did a quick scan of the state 25 park’s and grouped them by season. Parks we’ve visited, such as Indiana Dunes and Chain O’Lakes, were ideal for summer or early fall. Whereas parks like Pokagon, which offers a number of winter activities, we are leaving for early winter.
This brings us to our second tip, consider the activities offered at each park. In order to get the most out of your visit to a particular park, we highly recommend that you experience what that park is known for! For example, with its woods, lake and lodge, Indiana’s Pokagon State Park is a great park to visit at any time of year, but it is unique for its toboggan run. When our family visits this park, you can be sure we will be going tobogganing! Similarly, Chain O’Lakes State Park has some beautiful hiking trails, but it’s known for its series of 11 interconnected lakes. When we visited this park in September, the first thing we did was rent kayaks and start paddling.
Over the past 5 months, we have visited 12 of the 25 Indiana State Parks. Here are some of the highlights from our visits:
Whitewater Memorial State Park
Liberty, Indiana, 8/17/19 – The first park we visited for the Indiana State Park Challenge was Whitewater Memorial. Since every other member of our family had a prior engagement for the weekend, little Phoebe and I slipped away for a hike. The main attraction at the park is Whitewater Memorial Lake, so we set out to hike the Lakeside Trail, only to find that it was heavily overgrown in parts. We switched trails, hiking the Red Spring Loop Trail and logging a total of 2.85 miles. Ideally, it would have been nice to spend some time on the lake, kayaking or canoeing. But paddling isn’t exactly easy while keeping an eye on a 13-month old. Hopefully next time!
O’Bannon Woods State Park
Corydon, Indiana, 8/24/19 – A rare activity-free weekend, meant that the entire family could come along on my visit to O’Bannon Woods State Park. First, we hiked 1.76 miles along the Ohio River Bluff Trail. Luke and I enjoyed the views of the river, while the kids were excited to spot giant centipedes and a teeny tiny snake. Afterwards, we picnicked along the riverbank.
Then took a tour of Wyandotte Cave, which is perfect for kids. The tour is relatively short, includes some nice cave features, and the kids enjoyed spotting cave salamanders. Finally, we visited the park’s pool, which is very nice indeed. The pool was clean, fairly empty, and had two water slides and splash pad. Best of all, the concession stand had cheap ice cream! We loved this park we’ll definitely consider returning to camp!
Potato Creek State Park
North Liberty, Indiana, 8/30/19 – On our way to spend the Labor Day holiday in Michigan, we stopped at Potato Creek State Park. The park is named for a creek near which Native Americans collected “wild potatoes”. Since then, the creek was dammed to create a reservoir, Lake Worster, for fishing and recreation. We biked 6.5 miles on a paved bicycle trail around the lake, which lead through forests and wetlands. I can’t recommend this trail enough, especially if you are biking with young children. There are very few traffic crossings, it’s mostly shaded, and it has lots of turns and small hills, which make biking all the more fun for kids.
Afterwards, we completed the park’s annual fall prairie maze and visited the fishing pier to look for critters. We spotted a snake, bullfrog, painted turtle, and an osprey! As always, we hit up the camp store for ice cream. We would definitely return to bike, possibly even test the park’s 7 miles of mountain bike trails.
Indiana Dunes State Park
Chesterton, Indiana, 9/2/19 – While we have visited Indiana Dunes National Park, we had not yet visited the neighboring state park. For our visit, we hiked Trail 8, a 1.5-mile loop that leads visitors up and over the park’s three tallest dunes. The hike, also known as the 3 Dune Challenge, provides breathtaking views of the park and Lake Michigan. Afterwards, the kids participated in a naturalist program in which they fed animals outside of the nature center.
Chain O’ Lakes State Park
Albion, Indiana, 9/14/19 – The main attraction at Chain O’ Lakes State Park is a series of nine connecting lakes that you can paddle your way through. Luke Jr and I rented two kayaks from the park’s boat rental and spent a good 3-4 hours exploring 5 of the 9 lakes. The best part was paddling through the tree-lined channels connecting the lakes. It was so peaceful. Afterwards, we went on a short hike along Trail 8 to visit two more of the lakes as well as the park’s historic one-room Stanley Schoolhouse. The schoolhouse brought back so many memories of field trips and summer camp spent at a similar schoolhouse north of where I grew up.
Charlestown State Park
Charlestown, Indiana, 10/16/19 – For fall break we stayed a little closer to home this year and explored Southern Indiana & Northern Kentucky. Our first stop was Charlestown State Park. We hiked Trail 3 to Trail 7, around the Rose Island abandoned amusement park and summer resort. The resort and park were destroyed in the flood of 1937. Signs and markers are located throughout the park to show you where all of the various buildings once stood, from the hotel and dance hall, which no longer remain, to the swimming pool (which still exists). Included on the signs are numerous photos and stories about the park in its heyday, which help bring the history to life, especially for the kids!
Falls of the Ohio State Park
Clarksville, Indiana, 10/16/19 – Although this park along the Ohio River is a favorite of the boys, I was doubtful that they would be interested in staying for long. It was cold & windy on the day we visited! But I was wrong. Apparently fossil hunting, or “dry snorkeling” as the park calls it, never gets old. We spent a good hour looking at the fossils embedded in the limestone, then went on a quick hike on the Woodland Loop Trail. If you are traveling on I-65, I highly recommend Falls of the Ohio State Park as a quick pit stop. It is literally minutes from the highway, costs only a few dollars to park, and is one of the largest exposed fossil beds in the nation.
Versailles State Park
Versailles, Indiana, 10/27/19 – There was little chance I was going to stay inside on what might be the last 65° of fall. It was a toss-up between horseback riding at Brown County SP or mountain biking at Versailles SP. Matthew chose the latter…big surprise. The boys have previously biked here before with Luke…although I have not. There are 6 mountain bike trails at Versailles. We started out with the “easy” 1-mile Turtle Loop…considering that I haven’t been on a mountain bike for over a decade. Then progressed to the “more difficult” 3.8-mile Shadow Ridge Loop. Proud to say that I only had one fall. But more so, that I tried something out of my comfort zone and was able to enjoy a beautiful fall day with Matt in the process.
Turkey Run State Park
Marshall, Indiana, 11/29/19 – This was the second year in a row for our day after Thanksgiving Day OptOutside hike. While we all set out to hike the Turkey Run 5 Mile Challenge, the little kids wore down quickly, so Luke took them back to the nature center at 2.3 miles. The boys and I kept on, knocking out 6.8 miles for the afternoon. If you want a truly great Indiana hike…this is the one! A suspension bridge, abandoned coal mine, covered bridge, ravines with waterfalls, ladders, boardwalks, & plenty of creek stomping!
White River State Park
Indianapolis, Indiana, 12/4/19. When you get sunshine, blue skies and mild temperatures in December, you take full advantage of it. And we did! Joe, Emily and I strolled around Indiana’s most urban state park, White River State Park, which includes 250 acres of green space as well as surrounding cultural attractions. In particular, they loved the park’s Art in the Park sculpture program. Their favorite was “The Tent”, a multicolored paneled sculpture that moves in the wind.
A close second was the 92 County Walk, a series of sculptures on the walls and grounds of Indiana State Museum that represent Indiana’s 92 counties. We looked for our county but sadly couldn’t find it. We did find Parke County, which we visited the week prior when hiking in Turkey Run. The county is famous for its covered bridges, one of which we passed while hiking. The sculpture panel for Parke County pays homage to its famous bridges. If you are visiting any of White River State Park’s cultural attractions from the museums, to the zoo, take the time to walk around the green spaces as well. You won’t regret it!
Spring Mill State Park
Mitchell, Indiana, 12/6/19. I had not visited Spring Mill’s Pioneer Village since a middle school field trip nearly three decades ago. While I’m fairly certain that not much has changed, it would be difficult to tell. Our latest visit was at night and it was DARK! We came after sundown to experience Christmas in the Village, an annual event during which interpretative staff prepare for and celebrate the holiday. We wandered through many of the village’s historic buildings, including the famous three-story mill, while listening to Christmas carols and sipping wassail. It was sadly too dark for any decent photos, at least with my limited skills. But maybe that was for the better? If the point is to experience what Christmas may have been like during simpler times, right?
Ouabache State Park
Bluffton, Indiana, 12/28/19. With the unseasonably warm weather we had over the holidays, I thought it would be fun to pack up the bikes and go for a trail ride at Ouabache State Park. I was wrong. The weather forecast at home predicted a high of 55° and partial sun. It was high 30°’s and overcast outside of Bluffton, Indiana. Not ideal biking weather. But we made the best of it. We biked 5 miles along the park’s paved trail. Then hiked Trail 1 around the bison exhibit. We counted at least 8 bison, one of which kept dashing back and forth at an impressive speed. We found the others huddled near a shed and gate. It must have been close to their dinner time. You can read more about how the bison exhibit came to be at Ouabache here.
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