By Phil Bloom

This article originally appeared in our 2019 Visitors Guide.


Winter is no time to quit going outdoors, especially around Bloomington and Monroe County.

Sure, sure, it’s tempting to curl up by the fireplace with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate, but you’d miss the outdoor delights that make winter an invigorating time of year.

Besides, winter days in Bloomington can be downright balmy…or bitterly cold.

January is historically the coldest month of the year. The average low temperature is 29 degrees, but the all-time record was a bone-chilling minus-21 on January 21, 1985.

But relax, the highest temperature recorded in January was 78 on Jan. 25, 1950.

Freeze or thaw, snow or not, it’s a wonderful time to be outdoors.

The best chance for snow is January with a monthly average of 7 inches, almost double the December average.

And when it does snow, cross-country skiers and sledders swoop in to enjoy it while it lasts.

Hills near the Indiana University Sailing Club on Lake Lemon is generally acknowledged as a popular snow-sledding destination, but you’ve got to bring your own sled.

Karst Farm Park, and the Cascades Golf Course have the sort of rolling terrain coveted by cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

Snowy Rail Trail

The Bloomington Rail Trail and Clear Creek Trail in Bloomington offer a combined 4.4 miles of cross-country skiing possibilities, but for real adventure strap on your skis and hit the trails at Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area or Morgan-Monroe State Forest.

Your chances of seeing wildlife increase significantly in winter since trees have shed their leaves and opened sightlines even in the densest forest. Add the thinnest layer of snow and deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and other woodland wildlife stand out against the white backdrop.

Don’t forget to look up. Perhaps you’ll see owls, hawks, or even a bald eagle roosting on a tree limb.

When it comes to bald eagles, there’s no better place than Monroe Lake south of Bloomington, where the majestic birds have staked out a winter home. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources launched its bald eagle restoration efforts at Monroe in 1985 and the species has become the poster child of the DNR’s Nongame & Endangered Wildlife Program.

Seventy-three eaglets were released at Monroe over a five-year period in the late 1980s with a goal of 50 nesting pairs. That threshold was crossed in 2008, prompting the removal of bald eagles from the state’s endangered species list. Today, more than 300 nesting sites are scattered across Indiana, with Monroe as their main hub. Golden eagles, rare in Indiana, are occasional visitors.

The bald eagle restoration program’s success is celebrated annually in late January at Fourwinds Lakeside Inn and Marina in the Fairfax State Recreation Area. Experts lead a variety of raptor-focused education programs for children and adults and guide visitors on tours of the lake in search of bald eagles.

Private birding trips can be arranged through IndiGo Birding Nature Trips, including owl prowl night hikes to places like Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve.

Improve your chances of seeing bald eagles by heading to some of the more remote areas around Monroe Lake. The Peninsula Trail in the Deam Wilderness Area extends into the lake and is accessed from the Grubb Ridge Trail. Another option is the Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve, a relatively new property owned by the Sycamore Land Trust, a local conservation group. It’s located near the Paynetown State Recreation Area, which has a year-round activity center that offers guided hikes, stargazing, and other nature-oriented programming.

Paynetown Winter Hike

Monroe Lake is the site of two unique events designed to usher in the New Year on January 1. One is the annual Polar Day Plunge at Paynetown SRA that benefits the Bloomington Boys & Girls Club, and the other is the First Day Trail Run and Walk on the other side of the lake at Fairfax State Recreation Area.

DNR State Parks across Indiana have had First Day hikes for several years – rain, shine, cold, or warm. The one at Fairfax has the added twist of running or walking a 3.7- or 1.3-mile trail. The untimed, non-competitive events include a post-race appetizer buffet and prize drawings at Fourwinds Lakeside Inn and Marina.

But if you simply can’t stand cold weather, there are a few indoor options to consider. The Frank Southern Ice Arena has public skating hours daily through the end of February, and Kirkwood Observatory is a window to the stars on Wednesday nights.

RELATED CONTENT: 5 Indoor Activities Activities to Experience This Winter