Turkey Run, Shades differ in grades of spectacular
An argument can be made that, while Turkey Run State Park may not have been Indiana’s first, it ranks as the most spectacular. Col. Richard Lieber, a.k.a. the Father of Indiana State Parks, wanted its canyon land to be No. 1. And during this 100th anniversary of the state park system, Purdue University Press chose to publish a coffee table book devoted to the Parke County reserve with the subtitle: A Celebration of Indiana’s Second State Park in Photographs and Words.
I wouldn’t for a second disagree with the case for Turkey Run. The narrow, stark sandstone gorges in the Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon Nature Preserve – lined with ferns, hydrangeas, and native hemlock trees – are unsurpassed in their distinct natural beauty, based on my decades of Indiana nature travels, anyway.
But from granddaughter Raina and my experience last Sunday, Shades State Park and its Pine Hills Nature Preserve a few miles up the Sugar Creek would edge Turkey Run out of the top spot if ranking nature preserves were any more reasonable than ranking grandchildren. That may, however, reflect my bias toward the less-developed Shades – and the fact that Pine Hills was Indiana’s first Dedicated State Nature Preserve.
Shades and Pine Hills: incised meanders, backbones
The 480-acre Pine Hills Nature Preserve was purchased by The Nature Conservancy and deeded to the state in 1961 as Indiana’s first nature preserve – 14 years after Shades became the fifteenth state park. Located in Montgomery County, Pine Hills is recognized by the U.S. Park Service as a National Natural Landmark.
Pine Hills features deep ravines formed by glacial meltwater that, over the past 13,000 or so years, has carved the Indian, Clifty and Sugar Creeks out of the region’s Mansfield sandstone, so named for the nearby town. Situated roughly 10 miles upstream from the Wabash, the Pine Hills landscape is covered with an evergreen-hardwood mix that features relict stands of white pine, hemlock, and Canada yew.
The water’s erosive power left in its path four narrow ridges called backbones in Pine Hills that rise 70 to 100 feet above the creeks. The most dramatic, Devil’s Backbone, narrows to six feet in one spot. According to the Park Service, Pine Hills Natural Area “is probably the most remarkable example of incised meanders in the eastern United States.”
Pine Hills is separated from the 3,541-acre Shades by State Road 234. Shades is a relatively undeveloped state park – primitive camping only during season – that in early settlement times was referred to as the “black forest” and earned the name “Shades of Death.” Various accounts say that moniker evolved from the land’s eerie, deep-forest environment; an early settler death at the hands of the Piankeshaw Indians; or another settler’s death at the axe-wielding hands of his wife.
Turkey Run: past and present in rocks, trees, leaves
The Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon preserve in Turkey Run differs from Pine Hills more in degree than in kind. Situated on the Sugar Creek a few miles west of Shades, this preserve sports narrow gorges of colorful, textured Mansfield sandstone with small waterfalls over the bedrock.
The upland areas support old-growth mesophytic forest, an intermediate type that thrives in between the moisture-loving beech-maple and drier oak-hickory forests. The Sugar Creek terraces support old-growth floodplain forest.
Part of the Rocky Hollow-Falls Canyon preserve is recognized as a National Natural Landmark, because, according to the U.S. Park Service, it “contains forested areas of virgin beech-maple stands, steep sandstone gorges that harbor virgin boreal relict populations of eastern hemlock and Canada yew, and some of the largest black walnut in the Midwest.”
The 2,382-acre Turkey Run features deep, sandstone ravines, hemlock groves, stands of old-growth walnut and sycamore, and scenic views of the Sugar Creek. Lush plant life, including lichens, mosses and ferns, bedeck the canyon walls and regularly share the ecosystem with deer, beaver, pileated woodpecker and turkey vultures.
“There’s a feeling of awe standing next to a sandstone face that is hundreds of millions of years old," the professor of geoenvironmental science and science education at Purdue University writes. "The trees that grow at the base of the bluff suggest a harmony between the living and nonliving. The past and the present are seen in the rock and the tree, and in the green and yellow leaves of the trees.”
Col. Lieber and wife Emma’s ashes are buried amid a hemlock grove at Turkey Run.
Photographs: Top, Second - Turkey Run State Park, Rocky Hollow-Pine Hills Nature Preserve; Third, Bottom - Shades State Park, Pine Hills Nature Preserve.