Four Great Hikes in the Lake Monroe Watershed
Did you know that the Lake Monroe watershed is over 400 square miles in size? That means rain that falls on about ¾ of Brown County, about ¼ of Monroe County, and about ¼ of Jackson County ultimately flows into the lake. We often forget that activities throughout the watershed impact the quality of water in Lake Monroe. Soil that is washed from a construction site in northeastern Brown County may well end up in the lake.
There are three main streams that feed into the lake – North Fork Salt Creek, Middle Fork Salt Creek, and South Fork Salt Creek. Over 80% of the watershed is forested, with houses scattered throughout. Farms are mainly clustered along the three forks of Salt Creek due to their wide, flat valleys of fertile land. When Indiana was first settled by pioneers, the hills were cleared for farming as well. This turned out to be a bad idea due to the steep slopes and highly erodible soils. Many farms failed and in the early half of the 20th century, the state and federal governments purchased large amounts of acreage to establish Brown County State Park, Yellowwood State Forest, and the Hoosier National Forest.
As part of our work developing a watershed management plan for Lake Monroe, we are working to collect data throughout the watershed. Evaluating a 400 square mile area is a bit daunting and requires gathering data in the field in addition to compiling existing studies. We are also working to develop ways to present the information to the general public so everyone understands the watershed.
For Earth Day, we’ve prepared a list of four hikes in the watershed that showcase some of the diversity of the area. Remember to practice social distancing and stay at least 6 feet away from other groups while you explore. Enjoy!
HITZ-RHODEHAMEL NATURE PRESERVE
This Nature Conservancy property straddles a ridgetop that divides the Lake Monroe watershed from the Beanblossom Creek watershed. Rain that falls north of Freeman Ridge Road goes to Beanblossom Creek and rain that falls south of Freeman Ridge Road goes to the North Fork of Salt Creek (and on to Lake Monroe). Be prepared for hills as you explore the 3-mile rugged loop trail complete with interpretive signs explaining how fire is used to manage the forest. The preserve is a great example of the forested hills that characterize much of Brown County and the Lake Monroe watershed. Approximately 40 minutes from Bloomington, near the town of Beanblossom.
STONE HEAD NATURE PRESERVE
This 122-acre nature preserve owned by the Stone Head Conservancy showcases a diversity of habitat types – meadows, wetlands, wooded hills, and deep ravines. The Middle Fork of Salt Creek flows through the property, shaping the terrain. All three branches of Salt Creek (North, Middle, and South) feature wide valleys that are valued as farm land but also subject to frequent flooding. Take a moment to compare the restored wetlands and meadows within the preserve with the active farms surrounding it. Approximately 40 minutes from Bloomington near Story.
JACKSON CREEK TRAIL (YELLOWWOOD STATE FOREST)
This short but sweet trail has interpretive signs teaching about different habitat types and the benefit of forests to both humans and nature. Yellowwood Forest, like much of the protected land in the Lake Monroe Watershed, features steep terrain and highly erodible soils. The area was initially farmed by pioneers and experienced significant erosion before the land was acquired by the government and reforested. Trail is a 1.5-mile loop. Approximately 25 minutes from Bloomington.
NORTH FORK RIDGE TRAIL (HOOSIER NATIONAL FOREST)
There are many great trails in the Hoosier National Forest especially in and around the Charles Deam Wilderness Area. This less traveled trail provides a quiet forest walk with panoramic views of the valley below. Head north from the parking lot for the best views. Approximately 45 minutes from Bloomington near Kurtz.
Other trail options within the Lake Monroe watershed can be found at Brown County State Park, Yellowwood State Forest, Charles Deam Wilderness Area, portions of the Hoosier National Forest, Paynetown State Recreation Area, Fairfax State Recreation Area, Allen’s Creek State Recreation Area, and Hardin Ridge USFS Recreation Area.
Not a hiker? Springtime is also nice for a drive to admire the redbuds and dogwoods that bloom in April. It’s also a great time for birdwatching in areas like Stillwater Marsh. And if you’re curious to see the major streams that flow into Lake Monroe, here are some good roads to travel:
1. Green Valley Road near Nashville (North Fork Salt Creek)
2. Elkinsville Road near Story (Middle Fork Salt Creek)
3. Pike Road between Kurtz and Maumee (South Fork Salt Creek)
Happy nature exploring!