Backpacking Trip Report
November 6-7, 2002
Location : Adventure Hiking Trail, Harrison County Indiana
Author : Gene Snider
Earlier this year while surfing the net, I stumbled upon an article written by a woman who had hiked the AHT in Indiana a few years back. Her description intrigued me, as I had never even heard of the Adventure Hiking Trail and I live in Oldham County just outside of Louisville. I emailed the Harrison-Crawford County State Forest people and within a couple of weeks I received a nice map. The map is like the "Trails Illustrated" maps in that it is made of a plastic based material that is impervious to water and virtually indestructible. It is a topo map with the AHT superimposed upon it. The AHT is basically a loop trail of about 24-26 miles depending on starting and stopping points.
I studied the map for months, planning starting and stopping points. I have one of those little distance measuring devices that you roll along the map, and it indicates distance. I pretty much knew how far I could backpack each day, so I tried to find good spots to start and stop each night. I prefer loop trails to "out and back" types. In loops, I don't have to retrace my steps. One thing I noticed in comparison with other areas that I had backpacked, was the starting and stopping points didn't seem to be laid out with backpackers in mind. I thought this odd, as the AHT is pretty much a backpacking trail. I guess one could dayhike sections of it, but the big portions could only be backpacked. Another oddity, I knew of no one who had hiked this trail and it is only 30 miles from Louisville. I had a few other concerns. First, the distances (on the trail description) on the Harrison Crawford map were obviously wrong. They didn't agree with the map and neither agreed with my measurements. Second, the description mentioned a scarcity of water along the entire loop. This puzzled me, as the topo showed numerous "blue" water sources. I thought that dayhikers might have trouble finding water, but surely there would be some water source every 5 miles or so along the trail. Third, the trail appeared to go up and down a lot of steep hills. Sometimes the overlay of a trail on a topo isn't exact and the actual ups and downs are not as severe as the map would lead you to believe.
I chose my starting and stopping points, packed all my gear for a three-day trip (pack weighed 43 lbs) and started off for the AHT. The forest entrance road is about 6 miles west of Corydon, Indiana. As I entered the State Forest, I was impressed by all the tree plantings. There were numerous signs indicating when stands of trees had been planted. The dates went back over many decades. I arrived at the Ranger station to sign in, as required. It was 9:30 am on a Wednesday and the office was closed. The sign on the door said " Office hours 8 am to 4 pm". As I started to leave a Ranger approached me from a car in the parking lot. It seems all the folks were in a meeting at Indianapolis and he was the only one there. Apparently he didn't have a key to get in. I explained to him my plans, and left him my name and car description. I wanted to make sure my car didn't get towed while I was gone. I left him to find a spot to park my car. The roads, campgrounds and parking areas didn't seem to "jive" with my topo map of the area. I drove around for 15 minutes trying to coordinate my actual location. I parked in the area near the Sleepy Hollow Trail. The campground was closed for the season, so finding a spot to park was easy. Mine was the only car in the parking area and most likely I was the only person in the entire 26,000 acre forest. Naturally, after I parked my car, I could find no signs of the Sleepy Hollow trailhead. I had previously decided to hike out the Sleepy Hollow Loop trail until it merged with the AHT. At that point, I would continue on the AHT in a clockwise direction around the loop. I took a compass reading and headed out, dead reckoning, hoping to find a trail, which I did within about 5 minutes.
After hiking a few minutes on the Sleepy Hollow Trail loop, I reached the junction with the AHT. Another 30 minutes hiking on the AHT and I was forced to stop because I had already lost the trail and I was out of breath. I couldn't believe how steep the hills were and how poorly blazed the trail was. Guess what color the blazes for the AHT are? Light Green and white. Can you say camouflage? What dumb head chose these colors to blaze a trail? Some of the blazes were dark green and white on 4x4 posts, some were Kawasaki (neon) green, some were brown Carsonite posts with the image of a hiker but most were just a circle of green paint on the side of a tree. They all tended to blend in with the scenery. There were many times that I was less than 10 feet from a blaze and had trouble seeing it. This area had just seen its first hard freeze of the season a few days earlier and the previous day it had rained almost an inch. This resulted in the ground being covered with new fallen leaves. It really was beautiful. The ground almost seemed to glow yellow and orange. However, much like new snow, the fallen leaves tended to hide the trail even more.
Two and a half hours later, after stopping a half dozen times to rest and an equal number from losing the trail, I started to realize that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. I had just crossed State road #462. I had passed this spot while entering the forest earlier in my car. I made mental note of the location in case I needed to return to this point at another time. I also saw some water jugs back in the woods. They were tagged and dated by a family in August of 2002. For some reason, they had never been used. After three hours, I had already used all my water, was soaked with perspiration and had not seen a single water source. As long as I kept hiking I was comfortable. The temperature was in the mid 40's, and every time I stopped, I got chilled because of the constant 10-20 mph wind, which wouldn't let up. I was also starting to run behind. I knew I was going to have to really gut it out to get to my stopping point before it got dark. In spots, I was only averaging 1.25 miles per hour because of the steep grades. After three and a half hours, I found the very first source of water that I had seen. I decided to fill up all my water containers in case I didn't find any other sources before I stopped for the night. I now had three quarts of water in my pack. That would hold me for the remainder of the day, dinner, breakfast and into the second day. This also added another 6 lbs to my pack at a time when I was really starting to get tired. After four hours, I finally crossed over an old forest road. This road was paved, so I pretty much knew where I was.
The next two hours I must have lost the trail more times than all my other backpacking trips put together. The blazing is pathetic. In spots there would be blazes every 30 to 50 feet on a perfectly straight stretch of trail. At other times, I could go almost a quarter of a mile and never see any blazes. There were numerous spots where some "kind soul" had tied red and white surveyors' tape on a tree branch to mark the correct trail. Without these "hints" I would have been in trouble.
The woods were absolutely beautiful, but I had a hard time enjoying the view while trying desperately to stay on the trail. As I hiked, I couldn't help think, "And miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep." As it got later in the day, it started to get dark in the valleys and the sky was still very overcast. Finally, I was hiking on a very steep ridge overlooking Indian Creek. The view was spectacular. The trail description and map didn't do it justice. I was hiking on a very narrow ledge with Indian Creek about 400 feet directly below me on my left. As I looked out over the Indian Creek valley, I would bet that I could see for over 10 miles. I now felt relieved, as I knew I was getting close to the Indian Creek Shelter, my stop for the first night. Within 30 minutes I arrived. This seemed to be the hardest 10.5 miles I had ever backpacked in one day. It had taken me over six hours to get to this spot. The shelter, as it turned out, was better than I expected. It was a small log cabin that sleeps perhaps 3-4 people on a wood floor. It has no windows and just an opening for a door on the side that looks out over Indian Creek. It is very well constructed and should last for many years. It was however pretty well trashed, as the most recent occupants had hung all their garbage from the ceiling in bags, and then just left it there. Plus, the "Blair Witch" had left graffiti and decorations for me to find. The view from the shelter was unbelievable. I had no idea that there was any geography in southern Indiana that was this scenic. I was 400-500 feet above Indian Creek on a sheer bluff. I was also so tired I could hardly enjoy the view. After sweeping the floor of the shelter with some leaves and cleaning up the garbage, I set up my sleeping bag and other items that I would need for the night. I then proceeded to find some dry firewood. As I collected the wood, I noticed a small sinkhole about 25 feet from the shelter. I tossed a few rocks down the opening and determined that it was possibly an opening for a cave as I could hear the rocks falling for a considerable time. The opening was big enough to fall into accidentally. This entire area is a Karst region with caves galore.
I fixed dinner, started a fire and sat back to rest my aching legs and feet. I didn't have much firewood, so after an hour or so the fire started to die out. I was pretty much whipped, so I decided to call it a night. It was about 8pm. I slept for about an hour, when I awoke to some animals moving in the woods behind the shelter. I got up to relieve myself (yes, Baptist do go in the woods). As I was standing outside in the dark doing my thing, suddenly an animal of started growling back in the woods. Not your typical nighttime animal sound, but a genuine "growl". Whatever it was, it wasn't happy that I was there. I decided to go back inside the shelter. It was at this point that I starting doing some deep reflecting. This was about as remote an area that I had ever backpacked in. There are no people or roads for many miles. If you get in trouble back here, you are screwed. By now my fire had completely died out. When I turned my light off, it was really dark. Just maybe this wasn't the smartest thing I had ever done in my life. What if, the growl was from a "Sasquatch" or what if..
When you are totally alone in the dark, in a very remote area, you start to think weird things. As long as the sun is out, I never seem to have these thoughts. I turned on my light, and started searching through my pack. I had carried my cell phone just in case of an emergency. I turned it on and was amazed that it worked. I decided to "phone home". My wife answered and I explained that I was just checking to see if I had cell phone coverage, nothing more. The conversation lasted only a few minutes. I placed the phone next to my sleeping bag in case I needed it again. I also carry a small AM/FM radio. I turned on WHAS and listened to the UofL basketball game. I eventually feel asleep with the radio on.
There were lots of strange noises that night. There was more of the growling (like a really mad animal) in the woods numerous times. Two owls hooted in trees directly outside the shelter and about 2 am, some type of animal started crawling on the metal roof. Nothing like waking up to the sounds of something crawling overhead. Between the noises and weird dreams, I don't think I slept very much.
I awoke the next morning to a stunning view. The creek valley had filled with fog, and I was about 200 ft above the fog. It was beautiful. My feet and legs were stiff and sore. I ran out of water just about the time I finished eating breakfast. I thought that was good timing. I left almost no trace and started out again a little after 8 am. The trail blazes on the first part of the second day were better than the previous day. However, the ups and downs were worse. It took me three hours to go 3.5 miles and I was wringing wet and very thirsty. I got to the Homestead Shelter about 11:30. This shelter is very similar to the Indian Creek Shelter. It is located in a clearing on the top of a ridge. You can see out over the Ohio River valley, but I couldn't actually see the Ohio River. The remains of an old home are adjacent to the shelter with the old stone chimney still standing. After leaving the Homestead Shelter, I passed the remains of another old home site. Nearby was a small spring with very little water running in it. I decided not to get water at this point as it was early in the day and I just didn't want to carry water up and down the hills. I felt sure that there would be other opportunities later in the day. This turned out to be a big mistake.
I got to Cold Friday Creek a little after noon. This is one of the largest creeks indicated on the topo map. I was stunned when I found it bone dry. In just a short time, I had started to get very thirsty. I decided to stop and rest in the creek bed. I couldn't help but notice the flint chips around me. As I walked up and down the creek, looking for any signs of water, I found the most abundant amount of flint nuggets that I had ever seen in my life. This creek is loaded with flint. I found dozens of nuggets the size of grapefruits and larger. I saw thousands of broken pieces of flint, but was disappointed that I saw no artifacts, just raw flint. The trail crosses Cold Friday Road at this point. There is a small parking area for 3 or 4 cars. This is a good starting and stopping point. The road is gravel, and it is probably over 5 miles back to the campgrounds and civilization.
Continuing on, up and down more hills, I passed a small creek with a small pool of stagnant smelly water. There was a horse trail that crossed upstream near this area, so I decided to wait until further down the trail to collect water for the second night. At this point, I was starting to get really thirsty, and a bit worried. My map showed no more water re-supply opportunities that day. I was a long way from my car. If there had been a road nearby, I would have hiked out to the road and then tried to get back to my car. The going was so steep in spots that I could not follow directly on the trail; I had to create my own switchbacks.
I finally got to the Ohio River Overlook shelter about 2 pm. This was the spot that I had decided to spend the second night. I got there earlier than expected, as I had stopped very little during the first 5+ hours of hiking. This is a beautiful spot. It was at this point that I really regretted not bringing my camera. This shelter is like the Homestead and Indian Creek Shelters except that it has a barricade type wall in front of the door opening. Someone had managed to cut a small 6-inch square window through one of the logs in the back of the shelter. I could see up and down the river for about 5 miles. I dropped my pack and decided to scout for water. Even though I could see out over the Ohio River, this location is hundreds of feet above the river on a ridge. Hiking down to the river and back up didn't look like a smart option. After 30 minutes, I came to the conclusion that there was no water to be found anywhere. I knew I couldn't stop for the night with no water and I was dying of thirst. I looked at the map and made the decision to continue on to see if I could find water at the next creek crossing; Potato Creek. This was the largest creek crossing of the entire loop and would surely have water. I thought once I found water, I would just stop for the night at that spot. An hour and a half later I got to Potato Creek. This is one huge creek, but bone dry. Huge cliffs surrounded the creek and there looked to be some large rock shelters. I stopped for about 15 minutes to rest. When I started up again, my legs and feet cramped up so much, I could hardly walk. I guessed that I had covered about 12 miles since I broke camp earlier in the morning. As I started out, again, I slipped on some wet leaves and tumbled down a small incline. Fortunately, my pack broke my fall, but I was covered with mud.
As I hiked out of the Potato Creek area, I passed the Pioneer Shelter. There was no water, so I continued on for another hour until I knew I was getting close to my original starting point from the previous day. At this point, I got out my GPS, left the trail and decided to follow the GPS back to the beginning. It was overcast again and starting to get kind of dark in the valley. It wasn't too long before I could see a campground above me on a ridge. I figured it must be close to the parking area, so I headed directly up hill. When I got there, I had no idea where I was. My car was nowhere in sight. I got the GPS out again and it showed my car still about 0.8 miles away. I followed the GPS until I could see my car. I finally crossed the campground and got back to my car. I had hoped that I could use one of the restrooms to clean up a bit and to get some water. Unfortunately, all the water in the campground had been turned off for the winter and all the restrooms were locked. I had completed the 24+-mile loop in two days, but I was sure I looked a wreck. I felt pretty good except for my feet and legs. I loaded my pack into my car and then sat down on a nearby picnic table. I must have crashed there for 15 minutes. I got back in my car and headed home.
I opted not to take my camera on this trip, so as to lighten the load a bit. As a result, I have no pictures to show. I do have my complete GPS records. If anyone would like a copy of the GPS route map, just let me know and I will email it to you. I now know why the AHT doesn't get more backpacking PR; it is too hard. Inexperienced backpackers would be in big trouble on this trail. After studying the GPS data and the topo, I have determined that there are other access points (though some are unofficial) that I may use in the future. There are a few areas to cache water but few good parking spots. I am going back to explore some of the old forest roads. Once I do that, I will be able to set out some new starting and stopping points and revisit this area.