Life can change pace pretty quickly.
Back when I attended Indiana University in the mid-1990s, Brown County, located about 30 miles east of the Bloomington campus, was where you took your folks on parents’ weekend to pick through craft stores and ogle the changing fall colors in the rolling, wooded hills. And you can still do those things. Just don’t be surprised if you’re sharing the surroundings with packs of geeked-up mountain bikers who drove all night to shred some of the best single-track in the country.
These days, Brown County has attained a paradoxical reputation as both a rousing destination for outdoor adventure and as a quaint artists’ colony. The area boasts an IMBA Epic Trail and has been designated a Bronze Level Ride Center for its variety of experiences on and off the bike. Over 100 businesses fill the rustic village of Nashville, right at the heart of the action, from small boutiques and old-timey candy shops to trendy new brew pubs. At night, visitors stay in cabins, guesthouses and small hotels nestled in the “Little Smoky Mountains,” or camp at Brown County State Park.
The state park occupies 15,800 acres and boasts more than 150 miles of trail — 30 made from scratch for mountain bikers. The terrain, while not endowed with jaw-dropping vertical or never-ending mileage like some bike systems, is flowy and fast and undeniably fun. It was impossible not to smile while bombing down Hobbs Hollow Trail and launching over its two sections of tabletops and jumps. Intermediate-level Green Valley Trail, the longest in the park, had swoopy berms and switchbacks for days. Bobcat Trail and its rugged bridges, hand-built rock features and log jumps was above my pay grade, but it was cool to watch others push their limits.
Additional places to ride include eXplore Brown County, which has three downhill courses designed for speed and a North Shore Course where riders can test their skills on a wooden path that narrows to a 2-inch-wide challenge. (It also offers paintball, ATV and buggy tours, and arrow tag — in which you pincushion people like Katniss in The Hunger Games.) Nearby Gnaw Bone Camp and Hoosier National Forest also offer trail systems, though more remote and less polished.
Beyond mountain biking, Brown County presents 170,000 acres of forested land that provide year-round recreation opportunities such as hiking, camping, paddling, disc golf and more. You can take a guided or self-guided wilderness canoe and kayak tour with Most High Adventure Outfitters; experience the thrill of ziplining with Holler Hoppin’ Zip Lines; or head to Salt Creek Golf Retreat for a more refined outdoor experience on its 18-hole championship course.
Back in Nashville for the evening, we rolled into Big Woods Pizza Co., a family-style joint with indoor and outdoor seating that wouldn’t be out of place in West St. Louis County. Upstairs is a bar and tasting room, where we discovered that Big Woods also runs Quaff On! Brewing (eight flagship beers, plus specialty and seasonal batches) and Hard Truth Distilling Co., which crafts five spirits at its home base, Hard Truth Hills, a little outside of town.
Other food options are limited — Mexican at Casa del Sol, pub grub at Out of the Ordinary Restaurant & Hickory Sports Bar, country cooking at Hobnob Corner Restaurant — but Bloomington is relatively close by and has all the restaurants and nightlife you’d expect from a top public college.
Livin’ the Dream, located a 15-minute drive from Nashville and Brown County State Park, is where the 10 of us stayed when we visited last summer. Managed by Hills O’ Brown Vacation Rentals, the “log” cabin had tons of space, a casual ambiance and a private hillside setting. We mingled in the basement party room (with foosball, air hockey and pool table), kicked back in the hot tub and gathered to trade stories around the fire pit. When we weren’t riding, that is.
There was always a lot to see and do in Brown County, even when I was in school at Indiana. Now, I feel like we hardly scratched the surface in the four days we spent there. But that’s OK, it’s an easy four-hour drive from St. Louis, and everyone who joined me last time agreed it was absolutely worth the trip. Sounds like an annual tradition in the making.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine
Photos: Courtesy of Brown County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau