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Take a fall color tour across southern Indiana’s Ohio River hills

Saint Meinrad Archabbey./Spencer County photo
By Peggy Sailors
Published: Sep/Oct 2000

Jack Frost saves the best for last, tiptoeing across Indiana’s southern reaches in late October and painting the hardwood hills with broad strokes of brilliant fall color.

Traveling the 103-mile loop tour that begins in Lincoln City, smooth two-lane roads rim the Ohio River’s sinuous bends and ride the rolling woodlands, at times climbing impossibly steep hills that glimmer gold, crimson and copper during autumn’s leafy display. A vast stretch of the Hoosier National Forest, perhaps Indiana’s most rugged woodland setting, engulfs quiet towns that were once bustling ports along the Ohio River. All along the route, you’ll find that the Ohio River highlands are as rich in history as they are in autumn’s stunning scenery.

Lincoln heritage flourishes in the hills

Still carpeted in thick woods, the Spencer County countryside must look like it did in 1816 when Abraham Lincoln was seven years old and settled there with his family. In Lincoln City, seven miles south of Interstate 64, the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s 14 boyhood years in Indiana. The memorial grounds enclose a landscaped park with a grassy plaza, anchored on one end by a low-slung stone memorial building. Step inside and watch the 24-minute film, "Here I Grew Up," then tour the museum. Across the lawn is the gravesite of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the president’s mother. From here you can follow a 300-yard trail through the woods to the living history farm where a split rail fence surrounds a log cabin and costumed interpreters depict pioneer farm life, tending animals and crops.

Nearby, a plaque marks what is thought to be the original site of the Lincoln farmstead. Across from the memorial, Lincoln State Park stages the outdoor drama, "Young Abe Lincoln" at the Lincoln Amphitheater (June through August). At Buffalo Run Grill & Gifts, one mile east on state Route 162 you can taste buffalo burgers then browse ostrich and buffalo products, antiques and gifts.

Quiet Ohio River towns once bustled

Fifteen miles south in the quiet river town of Rockport, the Lincoln Pioneer Village and Museum recall the early 19th-century life and times of the Lincoln family and their pioneer community. Stroll the shady village and marvel at the replica law office, schoolhouse and other log buildings in various stages of renovation. The museum displays a hutch handcrafted by Thomas Lincoln and other artifacts. Downtown, the Rockport Inn is located across from the historic courthouse. You can overnight at the inn or six miles east along the Ohio River at Grandview’s gingerbread-trimmed 1860s mansion, the River Belle Bed and Breakfast.

State Route 66 hugs the river’s edge rounding a lazy bend at Troy where a park atop Fulton Hill commands a sweeping view. A brightly painted mural along the riverfront floodwall traces the history of Tell City when the Swiss Colonization Society planned the town in the 1850s. A statue of William Tell and his son stands downtown.

Century-old Tell City Pretzels occupies a storefront bakery along Main Street and still hand-twists pretzels. Three miles south, the Cannel Coal Company established Cannelton in the late 1830s. Stately public buildings and majestic churches evidence the town’s golden era a century ago.

The Perry County Old Courthouse Museum fills a tall yellow brick building trimmed with Indiana limestone. Two blocks away, the twin towered five-story Cannelton Cotton Mill made uniforms for Civil War soldiers during its 100 years of operation. Just east of town, pause and watch big boats ease through the Cannelton Locks and Dams.

Vibrant woodlands roll to the river

Backtrack to state Route 237 then follow state Route 37 north as it carves through the Hoosier National Forest. Along state Route 37, three forest recreation areas, Celina-Indian Lakes, Tipsaw Lake and Saddle Lake lure visitors with boating, fishing, hiking and camping.

From state Route 37, follow state Route 70 south to the quiet riverside hamlet of Derby. Diane and Gary Johnson accommodate overnight guests at the Ohio River Cabins, a string of vintage cottages that perch on the riverbank. You can rent a boat and cruise the Ohio, then relax and count barges from the cabin deck. Diane says the marina even taxis rental boats to your cabin’s dock.

In 1854, Swiss Benedictine monks founded the Saint Meinrad Archabbey at the junction of state Route 62 and state Route 545. Reddish brown sandstone quarried nearby built the spired church and monastery buildings that tuck among towering trees along a knoll. You can take a self-guided cassette tour then browse the Abbey Press Gift Shop.

Follow state Route 62 west then state Route 162 south to Santa Claus, a village that claims a unique postmark and the nation’s first theme park, now called Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari. Christmas decorations stay up year round at Santa’s Lodge, a newer motel with a soaring lobby that’s built around hand-hewn 1883 barn timbers. For a fitting conclusion to the highland journey, climb aboard one of the classic wooden roller coasters for a joy ride that matches a cruise across southern Indiana’s heritage-rich hills. The parks close for the season after Oct. 8.

Peggy Sailors is contributor from Indianapolis, Ind.


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