Story by Scott Roberts, Photos Indiana DNR
About: State Parks are the perfect places for the holidays
Twinkling lights, cookies and wassail, and cozy cottages.
Indiana State Park properties are offering a chance to experience these and more this holiday season. If you’re looking for a break from the hustle and bustle, skip the shopping lines and relax at a park to take in some holiday cheer.
First, the twinkling lights.
Just because the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were camped away from home at what is now Ouabache State Park in 1939 didn’t mean they weren’t going to have a Christmas celebration.
Instead of spending the holidays in a drab shelter with no decorations, the men took matters into their own hands. They found some blue lights, strung them from a flagpole diagonally, and made a tree shape. There were 16 strands and 16 lights per strand on that first tree, according to the historical committee of the Ouabache State Park Friends Group.
“It was the very first light show on the property,” said Kathy Schwartz, Friends group president.
It was also one of the first in the area, so people came from all around to see it.
Eighty years later, Ouabache is celebrating that first light display at its annual Wonderland of Lights Celebration with a CCC tribute tree. The tree will include blue lights, though not 16 per strand like the original.
“We thought it would be a great way to honor the CCC guys who helped build this area,” Schwartz said.
What makes the event a wonderland of lights is local businesses and organizations that decorate sites within the campground with their own holiday lights. They take great pride in their creations, Schwartz said, and it creates a great show.
Proceeds from the event go toward improvements at the park. The light show has become its biggest fundraiser.
“We reinvested to make it even bigger and better,” Schwartz said.
People who participate in the 5K Reindeer Run and 1.5 mile Jingle Jog on Saturday, Nov. 30 hosted jointly by the Bluffton Parks Department and the Ouabache Friends Group will get a sneak preview of the displays, as the course will take them through the park.
The Wonderland of Lights will run Dec. 4-31 from 6 to 9 p.m. each night. The cost to enter the park is $5 per car.
Now, for those cookies and wassail.
Spring Mill State Park’s Christmas in the Village event will be on Friday, Dec. 6 from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 7 from 1 to 9 p.m. with those tasty treats available both nights beginning at 6:30 p.m. until they are gone. Take a look inside the buildings as villagers prepare for Christmas with holiday meals and decorate the village with bows and boughs.
Music is a big part of the celebration at Spring Mill. Carolers may greet you outside, while the Bedford dulcimer society will be performing inside the first cabin. On Friday night at 5 p.m. at the grist mill, the Appleseed Band will perform, while on Saturday night at the same time Wildflowers and Wheat will take the stage.
The event has been going on for more than 25 years and Colletta Prewitt, program coordinator for Spring Mill State Park, said the event keeps getting better.
“The amazing part is, with the exception of a couple of people, it’s all run by volunteers. It really gets you in the holiday spirit.”
The cozy cottage in Anderson’s Mounds State Park will keep that spirit alive. The Bronnenberg Home was built in 1840 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Each December staff at the park decorate the home like it’s 1897 and invite the public to celebrate a historic Christmas.
This year’s event will be on Dec. 14 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. and there will be Victorian-era crafts, gingerbread cookies, spiced cider, and different events for families to participate in throughout the evening.
“I really think it’s one of our favorite events of the year,” said Kelley Morgan, interpretive naturalist at Mounds State Park. “It’s interesting to see how the holidays were celebrated in a time before today.”
Each year Morgan said the staff bakes more than 450 gingerbread cookies, so be sure to save some room for dessert when you attend.
The state park admission fee of $7 for in-state vehicles and $9 for out-of-state vehicles applies to both the Spring Mill and Mounds state park events.
If you’re looking for non-holiday events, many state park properties will have bird counts on Dec. 14, including Brown County and Indiana Dunes state parks. Properties are also hosting full moon hikes that weekend. Check calendar. dnr.IN.gov for all of the information about when and where the counts and hikes will be.
Hikers can also participate in the first day hikes offered at most state park properties on New Year’s Day. Times and lengths of hikes vary, check the DNR calendar for details.
If you want to stay inside, state park inns can provide a warm getaway. Stay two nights and get the second one free from Nov. 24 to Feb. 27, Sunday to Thursday nights. The deal is not available from Dec. 22 to Jan. 2.
Share the fun of state park winters with holiday gift packs and cross some people off your gift list. The $99 gift pack includes a 2020 resident annual entrance permit, a one-year subscription to Outdoor Indiana magazine, and one of two $65 gift card options. There’s a $65 gift card that can be used at the campgrounds — or for those who like to enjoy nature from the comfort of the indoors, a $65 State Park Inns gift card. There’s also an option to upgrade the gift card to $100 for $35 more.