Beat cabin fever at Indiana’s state parks this winter

Snow-based outdoor recreation opportunities, holiday events, and special programs await the park visitor willing to don a heavy coat and winter hat. In northern Indiana, where snow is more abundant, state park properties offer plenty of opportunities to beat cabin fever, from tobogganing and cross-country skiing to sledding and even snowmobiling.

At Pokagon in Angola, three groomed cross-country skiing trails total 7 miles and accommodate skiers at almost all skill levels. It’s the only park that rents skis to the public, and rentals cost $7 per hour for adults and $5 per hour for children 15 and younger. The park also offers ice skating and ice fishing on Lake James and Lake Lonidaw, along with sledding hills.

But when it comes to winter recreation, Pokagon is perhaps best known for its refrigerated toboggan run. The dual-track facility drops 90 feet over a quarter-mile. Snow or no snow, the run is open on weekends after Thanksgiving and through February. Thirteen bucks gets you and as many as three friends the use of a park toboggan for one hour.

plate_033One ride lasts 25 to 30 seconds, according to the park’s interpretive naturalist Marie Laudeman. “We have a radar gun toward the end of our track,” she said. “The fastest speed ever recorded was 42 miles per hour. The more weight on your sled, the faster it goes.” The toboggan run ends near the park’s historic Potawatomi Inn, on the shore of Lake James. The inn has two restaurants, an indoor pool, a game room and cozy fireplaces.

During winter, Potawatomi and the six other state park inns offer a two-for-one winter special. Stay two consecutive nights, and only pay for one, Sunday through Thursday only. The other state park inns are at Brown County, McCormick’s Creek, Spring Mill, Fort Harrison, Turkey Run, and Clifty Falls state parks.

For cross-country skiers, Chain O’Lakes in Albion, Tippecanoe River in Winamac, Potato Creek near South Bend, and Indiana Dunes in Chesterton also offer skiing trails, although visitors to these properties must bring their own skis.

Additionally, Chain O’Lakes and Potato Creek offer ice fishing, and Potato Creek and Indiana Dunes offer sledding hills. Devil’s Slide, a 110-foot hill at Indiana Dunes, is especially popular among sledders, but windy winter storms sometimes blow the snow off the unofficial sledding course. Call (219) 926-1390 for conditions.

For those with a snowmobile, Salamonie Lake offers 40 miles of snowmobile trails through woods and fields, with beautiful views of the lake from high bluffs. Maintained by the Salamonie Trailmasters Snowmobile Club, the snowmobile trail is the only one in Indiana located entirely within a state property. Snowmobile trails are open December through March, when there is adequate snow cover.

Finally, for those looking for recreation that doesn’t involve blazing across the powder at high speed, Tippecanoe River offers excellent winter wildlife viewing. According to assistant property manager Jason Hickman, the popular river otters seem to be especially active during the colder months.

Across Indiana, state parks are also a great place to celebrate the holidays, hosting special events to get visitors into the spirit.

At Spring Mill State Park in Mitchell, you can go a-wassailing and celebrate the season like Hoosiers did in the 1800s, during the park’s annual Holiday in the Village, December 3 and 4. Visitors can stroll through the Pioneer Village as heritage interpreters craft decorations, bake cookies, and prepare for the holidays. At the village tavern, children can share their wish list with Father Christmas. The village innkeeper also serves wassail and cookies.

If you’d rather stay in the comfort of your heated vehicle, check out Ouabache State Park’s annual “Wonderland of Lights” display. Visitors to the park in Bluffton can drive through the campgrounds and view impressive light displays. Visitors are encouraged to vote for their favorite site. The displays will be open for public viewing November 24 through December 25, every Friday through Sunday, and every night during Christmas week.

You might not see two turtle doves, but Christmas is also a great time to bird watch and help science at the same time. Christmas Bird Counts started in 1900 as an alternative to popular holiday bird shooting competitions. It has grown to involve roughly 60,000 participants a year in 2,200 locations across 20 countries. The counts are conducted between December 14 and January 5. The data collected offer biologist a treasure trove of information for studying the long-term status of birds.

Indiana has 110 counts, and many of them take place in and around state parks. They are a chance to meet like-minded folks and get some exercise. You don’t need to be an experienced birder either. To find a count near you, visit ChristmasBirdCount.org.

“The history of the CBC and the time of year works well for a lot of people,” said Brad Bumgardner, interpretive naturalist at Indiana Dunes State Park. “It all combines to make a neat event.” Similar to the Christmas Bird Counts, a First Day hike is another way to celebrate the holidays and the outdoors simultaneously.

Most state parks in Indiana offer a First Day Hike on January 1 as a healthy way to usher in the new year with other outdoor lovers. Information is at dnr.IN.gov/dnr/parklake/2420.htm.

Finally, winter is the best time to see bald eagles in Indiana. The reason is eagles from Canada and the upper Midwest move south as lakes and rivers freeze. Indiana is often the first place they find open water. One of the largest winter eagle roosting sites in the eastern U.S. is on the tailwaters of Mississinewa Lake, where naturalists from DNR’s Upper Wabash Interpretive Services recorded 158 eagles in one day in 2011. Eagles also congregate in large numbers on Salamonie, Monroe, and Patoka lakes, and along Sugar Creek at Turkey Run State Park.

DNR-sponsored eagle-watching events are January 7 at Patoka; January 7 and 21 at Mississinewa; February 11 and 12 at Salamonie Lake; and January 27-29 at Turkey Run. For more information, visit InterpretiveServices.IN.gov or call the property you plan to visit.

Former DNR naturalist Jeff Riegel hosts the eagle-watching event at Monroe Lake through a non-profit organization (eaglesatlakemonroe.com). That event is January 27-29. Resist the urge to hole up inside your house this year. The cure for winter doldrums is as close as your nearest state park.