Monday, October 9, 2017

The Ups and Downs of Pate Hollow Trail

When reading the reviews on one of the campground-finder web-sites someone said "Blackwell Horse Camp is a great place. Too bad it’s in Indiana".

Now I agree that there are parts of Indiana I’m not in love with, such as Indianapolis, and parts that are so-so, such as much of the northern 1/3 of the state, (With some noted exceptions!) but I think southern Indiana deserves better than to be dismissed like that.

For example, just 6 miles from where I camped at the Blackwell Horse Camp, one mile out to the highway on Tower Ridge RD, then 5 miles north on SR 446, is the National Forest’s Pate Hollow Trail.

This 6 mile loop trail wanders around the sharp ridges and deep hollows near the northern shore of Monroe Lake. But when it came time to find the trail, despite being a favorite of the rangers I talked to back at headquarters in Bedford, there's no signage for the trail out on the highway

Sign at the trailhead, if you can find it!

making it slightly difficult to find.

The fact that the trailhead, and the parking for it, actually sits on the property of the Paynetown State Recreation Office and Indiana Conservation Officer Headquarters does pretty much nothing to lessen that confusion.

In fact there’s nothing to tell you for sure that you are in the right place until you park on the big, steeply tilted, but otherwise unmarked bit of asphalt there behind the state building and wander over to the north edge of the parking area where the trailhead sign sits tucked into the trees. (I took this photo while standing at the trailhead sign.) In fact, at this point I was still standing in the Paynetown State Recreation Area and wouldn’t reenter the National Forest until I was a few feet down the trail.

I was actually a bit concerned at this point because I knew from research that the Pate Hollow Trail gets down to the shoreline of Monroe Lake, but after crossing the causeway over the lake it sure did seem like the highway did a whole heck of a lot of climbing before I got to the trailhead! Climbing that I was now going to have to undo on foot then redo all over again to get back to The Van.

But I bravely hitched my pack up onto my back, grabbed my hiking stick, and set out.

But only a few feet up the trail I got temporarily sidetracked by the starkness of this hollow at the base of a tree right on the edge of the trail.

These kinds of hollows are actually fairly common, in fact another one would play an important part of this hike later on, but the unnaturally clean, sharp edges of this one make it stand out.

A few steps later and I understand.

Someone has gone to some effort to fit a board into a natural hollow here and create a geo-cache that at one point came complete with a hinged door.

A few steps later and I was immersed in the up and down world of southern Indiana where everything is either a narrow hollow, a knife-edged ridge, or the slopes in between.

Most of Hoosier National Forest exists because in the 30’s the feds bought up hundreds of little farms that couldn’t make a go of it on the thin, barely fertile soils of the ridgetops and the dense, wet tangles of the hollows.

There's an old road in here, maybe put in by Pate as he attempted to make a go of farming the area?, that cuts across the middle of the loop trail. I would have loved to learn more about who put the road in and what was at the end of it back then, but that info wasn’t forthcoming and I stuck to the trail instead,

which, for a while anyway, wandered off along a separate ridge.

But ridgeline, slope, or hollow, in late August this place was an arachnid paradise and I ducked whenever I could, but spiders were soon frantically rappelling off the brim of my hat as I walked through unseen web after unseen web.

And I was right about that downward slog, but eventually there appeared a brightness behind the trees that hinted at open space of some sort just ahead. Rare in this dense hardwood forest.

Yep, there’s the lake at about the 2.5 mile point, (If hiking the loop counterclockwise which is my default unless there’s a compelling reason to go the other way around instead. Don't know why. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm left handed.)

but if you took this hike because you are a ‘lakie’ you’re going to be disappointed because there’s actually only about a quarter mile, if that, of actual lake-side hiking, before the trail turns up-hollow again.

This particular hollow starts out wider and flatter than most in the area and I have to wonder if this is was actually Pate’s hollow, though after casting back and forth for a while, cutting a fat-man sized zig-zagging swath through the spiderwebs, I can find no sign of road or structures or old fence-lines.

And it isn’t long before the hollow narrows and the trail starts to switchback up towards the ridge above.

That guy you see on the trail up there left-center isn’t wearing a reddish shirt, in fact he’s not wearing any shirt at all. Just a hat, shoes and black shorts and he, with his 4% body fat, stingy muscles and protruding tendons, thumpity-thumped by me at a rapid jog. Good for the health I suppose, (Bad for the knees though!) but I think I’ll stick to enjoying my trails at a quiet snail’s-pace.

Besides, doctors, most of whom are sporting 10, 20, 30% body fat, may try to cram the health benefits of extra low body fat down our throats but I’m not convinced.  Ever notice how often the extremely skinny get run down or sick? Keeping your body in that ‘doctor approved’ condition leaves virtually no reserves for body or immune system, so it might be healthy as long as nothing goes wrong, but we all know things go wrong; then what??

I mean this dude was so skinny that when I worked my way up the ridge right behind him spider webs were still blocking the trail (That out-of-focus orangish blob right in the middle of the photo is a spider hanging out in the middle of her web.) because he slipped right between the strands!!

About the time that jogger was fishing in the secret pocket tucked behind the waistband of his shorts for the car keys so he could get to his lunchtime Pilates class on time I decided to wander off trail and find a spot for my own lunchtime routine, namely a nice, healthy, fat-maintaining snack!

At this point the trail was tracking across a slope just below a ridgetop so I headed upslope away from the trail to find seclusion and a nice comfortable tree to lounge against.

I’ve talked before about the importance of looking back as you’re hiking, especially when you leave a clearly marked trail for untracked parts, and this photo illustrates that nicely.

Although I’m only 10-20 yards off the trail at this point, because of the terrain there is absolutely no hint of it anywhere and all these ridges and hollows and slopes around here look pretty much the same.  But I took this photo looking back the way I had come and if you look close you can see that a tree just left of center has one of those little hollows at its base. (In the photo there’s a yellow leaf right in line with the hollow but to the eye the leaf was not quite that prominent.)

If I hadn’t been watching my back-trail I wouldn’t have seen it, but I was, and this became my landmark to make sure that after turning around several times as I dropped pack and scraped out a seat, and then lounging and just generally zoning out for a while up there on that trackless ridge, I would head the right direction when I was ready to continue.

And clearly it worked because I'm still here to write this and not wandering southern Indiana trying to find the trail!

Though the actual elevation difference along this trail is only about 250 feet from its highest to lowest points, because of the ridge-and-hollow nature of the terrain I actually climbed, and descended, over 1300 feet by the time I got back to The Van.

Some people are not fans of forest hikes, finding them claustriphobic and boringly repetitive, they prefer the openness of hiking above tree-line, but I personally find forest trails soothing and meditative, and frankly this one was over too soon because now I was back to worrying about what hurricane Harvey was doing to The Wife back home. . .


  1. That forest looks just like the one here in north Alabama inicluding the up and down.

    1. The southern peninsula of Michigan has/had (At least when I was growing up there) very similar hardwood forests but not the abrupt ridges and hollows ups of southern Indiana/Illinois. It was nice to walk forests like that again, even if there was a lot of climbing and descending.

  2. Hwy 446 use to be my main bicycling road back in my college days. Where that crosses Lake Monroe, it looks a lot like Whidbey Island WA.

    1. I attended several conferences in Seattle and once made it out SR-20 to Anacortes but only for a brief visit to Washington Park before turning around and heading back towards 'the city' because I had two other conference attendees with me that weren't so much into sightseeing and nature as fancy eating and drinking. . .