Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Hoosier National Forest: Fork Ridge Trail, north section (Blog Hike #525)

Trail: Fork Ridge Trail, north section
Hike Location: Hoosier National Forest
Geographic Location: northwest of Brownstown, IN
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2015
Overview: A ridgetop out-and-back on old logging roads.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 50 and SR 135 west of Brownstown, take SR 135 north 5.6 miles to SR 58.  Turn left on SR 58.  Drive SR 58 west 4.2 miles to Cleveland Street in the town of Kurtz.  Turn right on Cleveland St., which becomes Pike Road after leaving town.  Drive Pike Rd. 1.7 miles to CR 975W and turn right on CR 975W.  Drive CR 975W 0.3 miles to CR 750N and turn right on CR 750N.  CR 750N turns to gravel when you enter Hoosier National Forest.  Drive CR 750N a total of 1.1 miles to the unsigned roadside trailhead parking area on the left.  You arrive at the parking area just as the gravel road reaches the ridge crest and curves sharply right.  There is room for 3 or 4 cars here; take care not to block the gate when you park.

The hike: Several of my friends in South Carolina remarked that I was heading out to do some “flat hiking” when I told them about my forthcoming June 2015 hiking trip to Indiana.  Obviously they have never been to the Hoosier Hills region south of Indianapolis, for the low but steep ridges here feature some of the highest relief in the entire Midwest.  At over 200,000 acres, Hoosier National Forest is the largest landholder in the Hoosier Hills.
            The national forest has many hiking trails, and the 3.5 mile end-to-end Fork Ridge Trail is one of them.  The trail’s only road access lies near its midpoint, so you have to decide whether you want to hike the 1.7 mile one-way north section or the 1.8-mile one-way south section or both.  The trail overview posted on the forest’s website for the north section sounded better to me than the one for the south section, so I chose to hike the north section.  Neither section goes anywhere in particular at present, though there are long-term plans to connect the south section with the famous Knobstone Trail, Indiana’s best long-distance backpacking trail.
            I can only recommend the Fork Ridge Trail as a fall or winter hike.  The large number of mature oak trees that live on this ridge would make for nice fall leaf-peeping, while the leafless months would provide nice views off of the ridge.  In the summer, the leaves will block any views, and much of the trail becomes quite overgrown.  Thus, almost any hike in this area would be better than this one during the summer.
Vehicle gate at trailhead
            Start by walking around the vehicle gate and picking up the two-track dirt trail that heads into the forest.  I was unable to find any specific history about this land, but this two-track ridge-running trail has all the earmarks of an old logging road.  The trail heads north with the summit of a low knob on your left.
            Just past 0.1 miles, you reach the first of two gas pipeline clearings.  The trail in the clearing was indistinguishable from its surroundings on my visit, but it crosses the clearing diagonally and reenters the forest on the other side.  A pair of metal signs marks where the trail reenters the woods.
"Trail" through pipeline clearing
            0.3 miles into the hike, you cross the second gas pipeline, where the trail becomes equally difficult to find as at the first pipeline.  Although the forest has been cut through to bury the pipelines, the lay of the land ensures that the pipeline clearings offer no significant views.  The trail crosses the second pipeline clearing on a shorter more direct line and again reenters the forest.  The forest will surround the trail for the remainder of its distance.
Orange butterfly
            At 0.5 miles, the trail curves left to take a more westerly course and dip to a low point in the ridge.  This point marks the lowest elevation on this hike, and a steep 80 foot climb is required on the other side to stay atop the ridge.  Although the difference in elevation between the highest and lowest points on this trail is only a little over 100 feet, the trail’s many ups and downs and poor condition make the going more difficult than you might think.
Trail through ridgetop forest
            Ignore a side trail that exits right just past 1.1 miles and stay with the main ridgeline.  The Fork Ridge Trail is not marked, and some blazes would be helpful at intersections such as this one.  Now heading almost due west, the final knob is reached at 1.7 miles where some blue paint splotches on trees mark the national forest boundary.
National forest boundary
            The official Fork Ridge Trail ends at this knob, which is known as Hominy Mortar.  Two unofficial trails (also old logging roads) head right and left.  The trail going left leads downhill to a privately-owned farm field, while the one going right leads directly onto private property.  The forest brochure tells of some unusual pockmark rock formations up here, but I was unable to find them even after exploring the knob off trail a little.  The only way out is the trail you hiked in, so after exploring the knob you will need to retrace your steps along the ridge to the trailhead to complete the hike.

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