Cool Reasons to Visit Indiana State Parks

By Frank Oliver/DNR -- Pokagon State Park in January of 2011.

Story by Scott Roberts, photography by Indiana DNR 

Angie Manuel, Chief of Interpretation for Indiana State Parks, recognizes that people don’t always think of “winter” and “state parks” in the same sentence.

“It’s a challenge in a good way, one that we set for ourselves, to keep people coming to our state parks (in the winter months), because many think we aren’t open. We have to give them reasons to remember how cool we are all year,” Manuel said.

Some of those reasons to think about state parks in the winter include unique events, warm cabins and inns and getting to see a different side of nature not seen at any other time. Whether you’re a hardy camper who wants to rough it with the challenges of nature or a casual hiker who just wants to get out of the house and avoid cabin fever, Indiana’s state parks have the lodging and events to help you enjoy the wonders of winter.

One reason to remember state parks in the winter is the toboggan run at Pokagon State Park. Open through Feb. 24, the run has about 90,000 riders every season and operates with or without snow. It has a 90-foot vertical drop from its start and operates Fridays 5:30 to 9 p.m., Saturdays 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rates are $13 per hour and you are guaranteed at least one ride. That does not include the $7 per car entrance fee standard at all Indiana state parks.

Pokagon also has options for everyone to enjoy their stay, depending on how close
to nature they want to get. The campground offers spots with one heated restroom and available water. There are also heated family cabins near the toboggan, cabins at Trine State Recreation Area, and finally, the Potawatomi Inn. However, during toboggan season the cabins and inn rooms go fast.

But Pokagon is not the only park with winter activities. “Potato Creek is really a great winter destination park,” Manuel said. “If the lake freezes, it is great for ice fishing.” They also have snow shoes visitors can borrow from the nature center, as do Indiana Dunes and Pokagon state parks.

But even for non-anglers, there are opportunities. The property hosts the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 16 and 17, a nationwide initiative that has people count birds to create a good estimate of bird populations in areas across the country. People take note of the birds they see and report them to www.birdcount.org.

Potato Creek also offers heated family cabins for those who want to stay on site.

If you’re looking for bigger birds than those normally seen at feeders, eagle watches are very popular and are available at Monroe Lake, Mississinewa Lake, Patoka Lake and Salamonie Lake. Turkey Run State Park has an eagle watch featuring a full weekend of activities, with cabins and an inn for people to come in from the cold and warm up after a long day of bird watching and hiking.

Your four-legged friends can get some winter exercise as well at Brown County State Park’s Winter Dog Hike Feb. 2. Participants can hike with their canine companions while working on scavenger hunt. They’ll retrieve hidden codes worth points, and whomever has the most by the end of the day wins prizes. Brown County’s Abe Martin Lodge even has four pet-friendly rooms if the day gets long and your companion need to spend the night.

Near the end of winter, Clifty Falls State Park is hosting a cabin fever weekend March 16 and 17. This will be the first year for the program, and there will be games, crafts, programs and hikes to get people outdoors after being cooped up all winter.

Booking a campsite has been made easier by a change in state parks’ reservation system. This modification allows people to book a campsite at any time of the year as long as they book less than six months in advance. Christie Sorrels, Business Services Program Director for Indiana State Parks, said this is something campers who visit in winter and spring have been asking for.

“Before you could only book May to October,” Sorrels said. “But now people visit to camp and not wonder ‘oh, what site will they assign me’’ Some people like to plan in advance and this allows them to do that.”

More and more state parks are offering winter events because more and more people are camping during the winter.

“Modern RVs and trailers are better at keeping people comfortable,” Manuel said. “It used to be that we didn’t see many campers before Memorial Day. Now people are camping in April and sometimes even in March, and parks are offering more events because of it.”

But even if you think it’s too cold to spend too much time outdoors, state parks still have events to offer.

“We offer many indoor activities, and guests are still being connected with the park through a workshop or an in- depth learning opportunity such as building a bird house or a bat house,” Manuel said.

For example, Turkey Run Inn is hosting its second Valentine’s Day dinner and themed program titled “Nature’s Mating Game,” about Indiana wildlife and their mating rituals. The dinner and program is $36, and a package including lodging is $170.

Most state parks will have some events going on each weekend during the winter. Whether it’s a hike, a workshop or a talk at a nature center, there’s something for everyone to see and do. Check the DNR calendar at www.calendar.dnr.IN.gov for more information.

There are also specials and discounts on lodging not regularly listed that people looking for a getaway can take advantage of. Sorrels directs people to look on the Indiana State Parks Facebook page or the Facebook page of an individual properties for updates. Inn getaways and discounts are often listed at www.stateparks. IN.gov/inns/specials.html.

To book a room at any of the seven state park inns or the cabins at Pokagon, Turkey Run or Brown County, call 877-LODGES1 or go to www.indianainns.com.

To book a cabin at Potato Creek or at Trine SRA, visit www.camp.IN.gov or call 1-866-622-6746.