By Phil Bloom

This article originally appeared in our 2019 Visitors Guide.


Leaves. Orange. Red. Yellow. Colorful, brilliant leaves paint autumn’s fall portrait in the rolling hills that surround Bloomington.

Drive any road, stand at any vista overlooking the landscape, and nature’s kaleidoscope is magnificent.

The best vantage point from which to view the show is atop the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area.

Fall Firetower  at Hoosier National in Bloomington, IN

The Hickory Ridge tower was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is the only remaining tower of eight the CCC built in the Hoosier National Forest to help spot fires. It served that purpose for more than 40 years and has remained open to the public since the 1970s, earning a spot on the National Historic Lookout Register in 1990.

There are 133 steps from ground level to the seven-square-foot cab atop the 110-foot-high tower.

It’s a cardio workout, but the panoramic view is the unparalleled payoff.

Mason Ridge Fire Tower in Morgan-Monroe State Forest north of Bloomington is a similar treetop viewpoint for leaf peepers, but access is limited to weekday business hours at the forest office.

Another sign of autumn is the crunch of leaves underfoot on the scenic trails in Bloomington and around the county.

The B-Line Trail is the centerpiece of Bloomington’s urban trail system. Built on a former railroad corridor, it stretches 3.1 miles through downtown and links to the 2-mile Bloomington Rail Trail that in turn links to the 2.4-mile Clear Creek Trail. The combined 7.5 miles are popular with walkers, bikers, joggers, and skaters. A noteworthy feature of the Clear Creek Trail is a 150-foot-long wrought-iron bridge. Built in 1887 to span Big Pine Creek in Warren County, it was renovated and moved here in 2003.

Lower Cascades in Fall In Bloomington, IN

The Bloomington Parks & Recreation Department also manages several natural surface trails of less than a mile at Lower Cascades Park, Latimer Woods, RCA Community Park, and Winslow Woods, plus a 1.1-miler at Leonard Springs Nature Park and a 2.7-mile trail in Cascades Park, the oldest park in the city system.

Griffy Lake Nature Preserve features a network of hiking-only trails that vary in length from 0.4 miles to 3.7 miles.

Arguably one of the prettiest settings is an area tucked into the southwest corner of Indiana University’s campus known as the Old Crescent. Paved paths crisscross a tree-shrouded courtyard surrounded by the oldest buildings on campus, including three built in the 1800s that helped land the site on the National Register of Historic Places.

If you’re up for some truly serious hiking, an overnight backpacking trip to the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area is in order. Hikers and horseback riders share most of the 37 miles of trails in the federal wilderness area, but the Sycamore Loop is for hikers only. The 6.3-mile trail begins near the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower and skirts the Sycamore Branch of Salt Creek and meanders through the forest to Terril Cemetery, the final resting place of several pioneer families from the late 1800s.

Other popular trails in the Deam Wilderness are Grubb Ridge and Cope Hollow, both loop trails, and the linear Peninsula Trail that provides access to designated campsites on the shores of Monroe Lake.

Pate Hollow Trail is another one for hikers only. It’s in the Hoosier National Forest but outside of Deam Wilderness near Paynetown State Recreation Area managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Morgan-Monroe State Forest also offers some lengthy long-distance hikes and is the northern trailhead of the Tecumseh Trail. A 42-mile through-hike trail, Tecumseh starts near the state forest office.

If you want to test your stamina, the Tecumseh challenges runners each October with the Tecumseh Marathon series with races ranging in length from 6.8 miles to a full marathon (26.2 miles).

Person Biking At Old Crescent Fall In Bloomington, IN

Bloomington also is a bicycling town. Indiana University students race each spring in the annual Little 500, which inspired the 1979 award-winning movie Breaking Away.

But if you don’t want to enroll in college, there’s the annual Hilly Hundred. What started in 1968 with 54 riders has grown to attract about 5,000 touring cyclists from 40 states and a few foreign countries for the two-day event in October. The non-competitive ride takes cyclists through the scenic hills of Monroe County and neighboring counties – about 50 miles one day followed by a different 50-mile route the second day.