This weekend I had the increasingly rare pleasure of visiting Spring Mill State Park, one of my favorite places in the world. As Indiana state parks go, it’s relatively small, dwarfed by giants such as Brown County and Versailles. However, I would argue that it has more to offer than practically any other park in the system.
Like any state park, one of its biggest draws is its natural beauty. The park is an amazing example of Karst topography, which means the landscape has been shaped by water eating away at limestone for millions of years. The whole park is dotted with
sinkholes – any time you see a spot where the ground suddenly dips into a bowl, you’re seeing where water runs down into the underground system below. In places where these sinkholes have collapsed and opened, caves have formed. Donaldson Cave is perhaps the most impressive, a yawning cavern with two dry chambers and a wet channel that runs for miles under the park. Bronson Cave gives a glimpse into how these features formed. In Twin Caves, I was able to take a boat tour and see gorgeous formations deep in the cave, glimpse a state-endangered blind cavefish, and experience total darkness as the guide extinguished the light. It’s a pretty amazing experience for $3 a person.
For those who prefer to do their hiking aboveground, Spring Mill has an amazing variety of trails. Trail 3 passes through Donaldson Woods, a forest of giant trees that have never been logged.Trail 4 takes you to Donaldson Cave, past a wetland, through the Pioneer Village, and up to Hamer Cemetery. Trail 6, which is a paved accessible trail, offers beautiful wooded scenery and, on the day I visited, a pair of Barred Owl fledglings begging their parents for food.
The most unique feature of the park has to be the Pioneer Village. People are sometimes skeptical of this attraction, assuming that “Pioneer Village” means a few cabins someone didn’t want anymore and were thrown into the park as an afterthought. That could not be less true. In fact, the village has several original buildings, including the three-story stone grist mill that has stood on the site for nearly 200 years. The most amazing part is that much of the village is still functional. The mill, powered exclusively by water from nearby Hamer Cave, runs every hour and grinds corn that is sold right there. In fact, the village employs no less than seventeen workers: a blacksmith forges fire pokers while a weaver creates beautiful rugs on her loom. A potter throws mugs, a gardener tends heirloom plants, a leather worker crafts purses and wallets, and you might occasionally find Civil War soldiers roaming the grounds. It’s truly a walk back in time.
While the village will take you 1864, the last portion of the park I’m going to touch on concerns more recent history. Gus Grissom, the second man in space and the first to go up
twice, was born in nearby Mitchell and lived there for much of his life. The park contains a memorial to him, including yearbooks, personal mementos, and a touching video about the American hero, his life, and his death in the Apollo I craft. Central to the memorial is the spacecraft he flew the second time he left Earth, the Molly Brown. Seeing the craft, which looks less advanced than most modern cars, makes you truly appreciate the bravery it took to climb into one and trust it to take you beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The memorial is easy to overlook, but stepping into this portion of American history is definitely worth the visit.
In short, Spring Mill is small but mighty, taking visitors from cave formations formed millions of years ago, to an 1864 Pioneer Village, and on to space. And of course, anyone who stops in the nature center gets to see my wonderful husband Wyatt doing what he does best. If Spring Mill wasn’t on your list for a visit this summer, I hope it is now.