If you’ve visited Spring Mill State Park, then you know about its signature attractions: the Pioneer Village and the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial.
But what you might not know is that the southern Indiana park offers unique hiking opportunities that literally go off the beaten path: through old cemeteries, onto stagecoach paths, over fast-flowing streams — and into caves.
Located in the heart of the Mitchell Karst Plain, Spring Mill is renowned for its living history attraction, the Pioneer Village, and the Grissom Memorial, which honors astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, a Mitchell native who was killed in 1967 during a training exercise for the first Apollo mission.
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Both features are well worth the drive to Mitchell. But so are the park’s trails, nine in total, which meander through virgin timber forests, skirt lakes and streams, and lead to caves that can be explored on foot, by boat or from a distance.
It’s a hiking experience like no other in Indiana.
“When you’re walking through the park and you feel like you’re going through low areas and raised areas, that’s actually sinkholes,” said Spring Mill property manager Mark Young, a 1978 Franklin College graduate. “If you could be up in the sky, and we could take all the vegetation off, we’d look like Swiss cheese, pockmarked all over the place by sinkholes.
“That’s all part of the topography of this area.”
Indeed, karst topography is the unique charm of the park’s 10.875 miles of trails, which includes a two-mile mountain bike path and a rugged half-mile stretch up a former stagecoach road.
If your time and/or energy is limited, the best trails for sampling a bit of everything are Nos. 3 and 4. Both are rugged and pass through old hardwood forests, and both afford views of some of the park’s signature caves — Donaldson, Bronson and Twin Caves.
More on those in a moment.
At 2.5 miles, Trail 3 is the park’s longest. It passes through sinkholes and thick woods, goes past Bronson Cave and Twin Caves and slices through the Donaldson Nature Preserve.
Trail 4 is 2 miles long and passes through a pioneer cemetery and leads downhill to the magnificent watery entrance of Donaldson Cave. If you don’t mind getting wet and muddy and aren’t terribly claustrophobic, bring a flashlight and go inside.
“When you approach the entrance to Donaldson Cave, that’s really the showy part,” Young said. “It’s a large opening that’s unusual for caves.”
Part of the Shawnee Cave System that extends outside the park’s boundaries, Donaldson Cave is actually an outlet — the left side “wet,” the right side “dry.” It connects to Bronson and Twin Caves, all three of which can be explored, but with limitations.
Bronson and the “wet” side of Donaldson require special permission from the park to enter. Boat tours are available for upper level of Twin Caves. And the “dry” side of Donaldson is open to anyone who can scale a teep, slippery 8-foot embankment of limestone to the opening.
If you make it inside, you’ll need a flashlight to navigate the approximately 500 feet of narrowing pitch-black passage.
“We treat that as a good introduction to the novice to what a cave experience is like, because once you’re in there, it’s total darkness,” Young said. “So you do get the experience, but you don’t feel like you’ve got to crawl around and get muddy like a lot of cavers do.”
For that experience, with special permission, visitors can enter the watery passage of Bronson Cave and, about two hours later, exit the watery outlet of Donaldson Cave. Water is ever-present in the 8,000 feet of passage, the last 20 or so feet navigable only by swimming.
“You’re going to be wet most of the time, wet maybe up to your knee,” Young said. “Near the end, there’s one location where it’s deep water, over 6 to 9 feet deep, and you have to swim it.
“It takes about two hours if you take a leisurely crawl or walk.”
If caves aren’t your thing, there is plenty of wide open space — on dry land — on trails that afford views of several other natural treasures, such as Donaldson Woods, Mill Creek, Spring Mill Lake and the myriad wildlife that reside within.
“Our trails are lovely,” said Coletta Prewitt, the park’s program coordinator, who has been at Spring Mill for 23 years. “When you’re walking along our trails, and if you walk Trail 4 along the creek, sometimes you see river otters. You definitely see the beaver dam over there.
“You can walk back to Donaldson Cave, which is really one of the prettiest cave entrances in Indiana. You can climb the stones and go on in.”
HITTING THE SPRING MILL TRAILS
Trail 1 (Moderate, .375 mile): A short loop trail from the Spring Mill Inn that passes by through woods and skirts Spring Mill Lake.
Trail 2 (Moderate, .5 mile): Connects Pioneer Village parking area to the Nature Center.
Trail 3 (Rugged, 2.5 miles): A loop trail, and the park’s longest trail, it passes through dense woods, goes past Donald Cave Overlook, goes past sinkholes, goes past Bronson Cave and Twin Caves and leads through virgin timber of the Donaldson Woods Nature Preserve.
Trail 4 (Rugged, 2 miles): A loop trail that goes by the Wilson Monument, Donaldson Cave and Hamer Cemetery to the Pioneer Village.
Trail 5 (Moderate, 1 mile): Loops around Spring Mill Lake.
Trail 6 (Easy paved trail, .25 mile): Loops around Virgil I. Grissom Memorial.
Trail 7 (Easy, 1.75 miles): Loops through picnic area and ties into Trail 4.
Stagecoach Trail (Rugged, .5 mile): Follows an old uphill stagecoach trail that leads into the the Pioneer Village.
Mountain Bike Trail (2 miles): Trailhead begins at camp store. Mountain bikes are available for rental.