Brown County, Indiana: A Colorful Tale
One hour from downtown Indianapolis, Brown County’s fall show continues to captivate visitors more than a century after artists first fell under its spell.
Perhaps a novel isn't always the best read on vacation. Maps, for example, provide a pretty compelling story line of their own. Not convinced? Unfurl a map of Brown County, Indiana, and settle in for a tale.
Great blocks of green color much of the page, speaking of park and forest lands blanketing 85 percent of the county. Only thin lines penetrate most of the woods, tracing hiking and biking trails. Heavier lines squiggle along the routes of backroads and highways weaving through rumpled terrain like irresistible plot lines.
But the best tales seem to wait behind place names almost too colorful for a mere road map. Hesitation Point. Bear Wallow. Gnaw Bone. Even as ink on paper, they evoke a sun-dappled, bourbon-soaked, weathered destination where everyone says y'all and cooks with plenty of butter. And in person, on a weekend fall drive …well, the promise holds pretty true.
The view from Hesitation Point in Brown County State Park; photo by Bob Stefko
Brown County covers 316 square miles 60 miles south of Indianapolis and 18 miles east of the university town of Bloomington. But a curtain of tranquility separates the county from the rest of the state. Nestled here are Brown County State Park (Indiana's largest at nearly 16,000 acres), Yellowwood State Forest and parts of the Hoosier National Forest. The topography prevents looking too far ahead on roads or trails, making the payoff all the sweeter when you round a corner to spot one of the famed covered bridges or top out at a vista transformed by fall's brush.
The county's 15,000 or so residents scatter among a handful of unincorporated communities and the single town-Nashville. Most people come to be alone with the land, punctuating days with visits to Nashville, which can swell from 1,000 to 20,000 when fall color comes to the hills.
The view has changed dramatically since the father of the town's spirit arrived. In 1907, renowned landscape artist T.C. Steele built his home and set up a studio on a Brown County hilltop, surrounded by woods reduced mostly to brush by heavy logging. But in a matter of years, both the forest and Steele's influence rapidly rose.
Today, more than 75 artists' studios and galleries fill the county, spiritual descendants of those who established the Brown County Artists' Colony shortly after Steele settled down above the village of Belmont. At his home and studio, now a historic site offering regular tours, visitors get a sense of what drove Steele's unmistakable sense of place.
On an autumn afternoon, with the breeze stirring the nodding heads of snapdragons and carrying the call of southbound geese, it's easy to see how Steele's wife, Selma, named the place. Sitting on the screen porch, she noticed that "it sounded like the wind was singing us to sleep." So "Singing Winds" it was.
Tree-lined roads twist for 20 miles through Brown County State Park, 2 miles outside of Nashville, Indiana; photo by Bob Stefko
Down in the valley, Nashville's Van Buren Street stays busy with travelers strolling narrow, root-rumpled sidewalks at the height of mid-October's leaf season, exploring shops, cafes, theaters and galleries. You can buy antiques, visit galleries, refresh your wardrobe or just meander along snacking on kettle corn or ice cream. At one shop, wood carvers turn out statues of stallions and motorcycles. At another, an artisan wielding a tiny pipette crafts exquisite blown-glass figurines with delicate puffs, almost whispering them into existence.
A couple of dollars dropped into a guitar case buys a busker's accompaniment outside Big Woods Pizza Company. Down the street, another performer fiddles folks into the Nashville House for country ham and garden vegetables. On Van Buren, the 67-year-old Brown County Playhouse and Performing Arts Center presents concerts, musicals and other events every weekend.
The Nashville General Store and Bakery can set you up with a bottle of bourbon, along with candles, jams, aprons and home decor. It's more store than bakery, but the small kitchen turns out a specialty that feels perfect for the setting: fried biscuits, flaky and warm, served with made-in-house apple butter.
The surrounding hills provide plenty of ways to channel the energy from the steady supply of comfort food. About 120 miles of hiking trails cover the county. You'll find 150-some miles of mountain bike trails within 30 minutes of Nashville, and the 25 within the state park have earned recognition as an Epic Trail System by the International Mountain Biking Association.
Walnut Trail; photo by Bob Stefko
In Brown County State Park, Ogle Hollow trail (also known as Trail 5) climbs 259 feet over its half-mile course out of a ravine, through a protected stretch of yellowwood forest. The sunlight filters though the trees' coppery foliage, settling into golden pools on the forest floor. It's the kind of moment that makes you stop and reach for the map, eager to find out where the next chapter may lead.
The Brown County Sampler
BIKE: Walnut Trail
Access the state park's rugged backcountry on 2.1 miles of narrow singletrack, from Hesitation Point to Hoosiers Nest.
DRIVE: Covered Bridge Road
North of Nashville and off State-135, a two-lane road leads to the rickety-looking but drivable century-old Bean Blossom Covered Bridge.
HIKE: Trail 10
The state park's 2.2-mile Fire Tower Trail loop leads into ravines and over hilltops. Unbroken woodland views reward climbing the 90-foot tower.
Brown County Trip Guide
For information or to plan your trip, contact browncounty.com; (800) 753-3255.
What to do
Bear Wallow Distillery Indiana-grown grains distill into whiskey moonshine and other craft liquors in Gnaw Bone. Watch the process during tours, then taste the fifths in a room meant to look like a backwoods shack. bearwallowdistillery.com
Brown County Art Guild The guild sells work by more than 45 local artists, plus artisans' pottery, jewelry and prints. browncountyartguild.org
Brown County Playhouse and Performing Arts Center The curtains part on live events (plays, musicals, concerts and comedy acts) and movies in this 426-seat theater founded in 1949. browncountyplayhouse.org
Brown County State Park Forest and lakes cover these 16,000 acres, with 25 miles of mountain bike trails designated an Epic Trail System, 18 miles of hiking trails and extensive facilities for horseback riding. The 84 rooms at the Abe Martin Lodge join numerous campgrounds. in.gov/dnr
Hoosier National Forest More than 260 miles of trails scatter across nine counties of hills turned red and gold with oaks, hickories, maples and beeches. Picnic at one of the tables overlooking the 200,000 acres. fs.usda.gov/hoosier
T.C. Steele State Historic Site Tours of T.C. Steele's home and painting studio teach about the Hoosier Group impressionist who is largely responsible for turning Brown County into an artists' colony. tcsteele.org
Yellowwood State Forest You'll have to hunt for the specimen yellowwoods, but plenty of pines, walnuts, locusts and oaks shade the horseback and hiking trails around a lake popular for fishing. in.gov/dnr
Where to eat
Big Woods Pizza Company Ales like the Hare Trigger and Six Foot Blonde are on tap at Brown County's only microbrewery. The 21-and-older crowd pairs Big Woods Brews with pizzas such as Emily's Garden-spinach, onions, mushrooms and olives topped with feta and mozzarella. bigwoodsrestaurants.com
The Nashville General Store and Bakery Walk alongside a trickle of a stream to this shop selling antiques and homemade canned goods like jams, jellies and pickles. A small kitchen turns out baked goods, the popular fried biscuits with apple butter, and basic lunches. Nashville General Store and Bakery on Facebook
Where to stay
Robinwood Inn Sleep beneath a portrait of a peacock in a loft amid the woods a few minutes outside Nashville. A well-supplied art room encourages creativity. Breakfast gets delivered to your flat or cottage. robinwoodinn.com