Monday, June 22, 2015

Eagle Creek Park: Blue Trail (Blog Hike #520)

Trail: Blue Trail
Hike Location: Eagle Creek Park
Geographic Location: northwest side of Indianapolis, IN
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2015
Overview: A loop hike featuring a causeway through a bird sanctuary.

Directions to the trailhead: On the northwest side of Indianapolis, take I-65 to 71st Street (exit 124).  Exit and go west on 71st Street, which quickly ends at the park’s north entrance.  Pay the entrance fee, then drive another 200 feet to the perpendicular parking area on either side of the road.  Park here.

The hike: Consisting of a sprawling 5300 acres, Eagle Creek Park is the crown jewel of the City of Indianapolis’ park system and one of the largest city-owned parks in the country.  Most of the park land was farmed as recently as the 1930’s, at which time wealthy people from the city began buying the depleted farm land to build country estates.  One such wealthy person was Josiah K. Lilly Jr., the grandson of the famous pharmacist Eli Lilly and President of Eli Lilly and Company.  Josiah Lilly bought over 2200 acres in western Indianapolis, and his library is used today as the park’s Ornithology Center.
            In 1958, Lilly donated the land to Purdue University, which in turn sold it to the City of Indianapolis in 1966.  The dam that would create Eagle Creek Reservoir, a major source of recreation and drinking water for the city, was built in 1969.  Eagle Creek Park officially opened in 1972.  The park features many amenities including a pistol range, a marina, the Eagle Creek Bike Trail, the aforementioned Ornithology Center, a nature center, a golf course, and several buildings that can be rented for meetings and other occasions.
            In terms of trails, Eagle Creek Park offers 5 designated hiking trails that total nearly 17 miles in length.  The park’s longest trail is the 6.75 mile Red Trail, which forms a grand tour through the entire park.  I wanted a shorter hike on the hot summer day I came here, so I opted for the 3 mile Blue Trail.  The Blue Trail runs conjointly with the Red Trail for its most scenic section, but it avoids the more developed areas of the park frequented by the Red Trail.
Trailhead near park's north entrance gate 
            The trailhead for the Blue Trail coincides with its crossing of 71st Street, the road you drove in on.  The Blue Trail forms a loop, so you could go either way.  I chose to start on the dirt trail that heads east into the forest and use the wide gravel road that heads west as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail is unblazed, but many metal signs written in blue ink identify the trail and keep you from getting lost.
            The initial segment of trail is nearly dead straight as the combined Blue, Red, and Green Trails head due east on a wide dirt path.  At 0.1 miles, the Red Trail exits to the right.  Soon the highway sounds from I-65 can be heard, but the interstate never comes into view thanks to the beautiful mature maple, beech, and oak forest.  A few pine trees also make an appearance.
            At 0.2 miles, the trail curves 90-degrees right just before the Green Trail exits left. The Green Trail stays near I-65 for most of its distance, and therefore it is one of my least favorite trails in this park.  Now heading south, the Blue Trail intermingles with a Parcourse Fitness Trail before crossing paved 65th Street on a marked crosswalk.  After crossing Acer Lane on another marked crosswalk, notice the nice stone picnic area and restroom structures to your right.
Crossing a paved road
            The next segment of trail follows a sewer line.  Despite the mature forest, modern sights and sounds such as the sewer caps, interstate noise, and airplanes from nearby Indianapolis International Airport ensure that you never feel you are anywhere other than a suburban park.  Just shy of 1 mile, you cross paved Lillylake Drive just before descending to Lilly Lake itself.  Some benches present the opportunity to observe the aquatic activity, which included a family of Canada geese on my visit.
Canada geese in Lilly Lake
Some basswood trees, easily identified by their heart-shaped leaves and deeply furrowed bark, enter the forest mix in the lowland area near Lilly Lake.  At 1.3 miles, the trail crosses Eagle Creek Parkway, the park’s main road.  A small parking area offers an alternate point from which to begin this hike.  A moderate climb to a narrow ridge that overlooks Eagle Creek Reservoir follows.  Numerous trails criss-cross in this area, so watch for the metal Blue Trail signs.  A nice breeze from the reservoir welcomes you to the hilltop.
After descending the west side of the ridge, the Red Trail reenters from the left.  The next segment of trail follows a semi-circular causeway that is only a few feet wide and extends way out into Eagle Creek Reservoir.  The hike now dramatically changes character.  What has thus far been a shady walk through mature forest becomes a sunny hike with water on either side.  Eagle Creek’s main channel lies to your left, while the area to your right is managed as an Audubon bird sanctuary.
Crossing the causeway
Many people consider the trail over the causeway to offer the best hike in Indianapolis.  There is no limit to the number of birds you might see.  On my visit, I saw many red-winged blackbirds, nuthatches, woodpeckers, sparrows, goldfinches, and more Canada geese.  One secret to this area’s bird attraction is the large number of privet and honeysuckle shrubs beside the trail.  These shrubs produce berries that form an essential part of many birds’ diets.  Asters and other wildflowers are abundant here also.
At the north end of the causeway, the trail curves right and starts following a wide gravel path formerly known as 69th Street as it climbs gradually away from the reservoir.  As pretty as the causeway was, this segment is just as ugly, and it has all the charm of a maintenance area.  At 2.8 miles, the Red Trail exits left for the last time.  More gradual uphill climbing on the wide gravel road brings you to a vehicle gate near Eagle Creek Parkway just inside the north entrance gate.  Angle right to reach the perpendicular parking area that contains your car and complete the hike.

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