The Indiana Insider Blog

Into the Wild: Exploring Indiana’s Only Designated Wilderness Area


Believe it or not, lasagna in a bag actually tastes pretty good — especially after a long hike in the middle of nowhere. Eating dehydrated food cooked with sterilized lake water is just one of several new experiences I had on a recent weekend hike in the Hoosier National Forest. I’ve spent lots of time exploring Indiana’s great outdoors, from climbing the dunes along Lake Michigan to canoeing on the Wabash River, to mountain biking in Brown County State Park, but this was my first overnight backpacking trip.

Three friends and I met in Bloomington then traveled south towards Lake Monroe and away from civilization. We were headed to the state’s only designated wilderness. In 1982, Congress set aside 13,000 acres in the Hoosier National Forest and named it the Charles C. Deam Wilderness area after Indiana’s first state forester.

Today, approximately 37 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails traverse the rugged landscape. Access is available at one of three trailheads along Tower Ridge Road, a winding stretch of gravel that heads east from highway 446. We started our adventure at the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower, named for the former fire tower found there. The breathtaking views from atop the 110 foot tall historic structure are worth the climb.

There is no fee to explore the Charles C. Deam Wilderness area and camping options are nearly limitless. Camping within 100 feet of a body of water or a marked trail and within 300 feet of a trailhead or horse area is restricted to designated spots. All other areas are available for walk-in camping. It doesn’t get much rougher.

After loading our backpacks, waterproof map in hand, we embarked on the nearly seven-mile journey. We hiked along the Axsom Branch, Grubb Ridge and Peninsula trails to an official camping area next to Lake Monroe (also accessible via boat). Lack of space to carry wood and a fire ban made a campfire impossible, but that added to the sense of adventure. Dinner was dehydrated meals cooked on a tiny stove. We used lake water purified with iodine tablets to make hot chocolate. We slept under a full moon, the rising sun our alarm clock. The hike out Sunday morning took just over three hours, about 45 minutes quicker than the day prior but no less beautiful.

While adventurous, an overnight backpacking trip in the Hoosier National Forest is also accessible. You don’t have to be an outdoor expert to enjoy the experience, but you must be prepared. It’s critical to have necessary supplies and proper equipment. Places like Rusted Moon Outfitters in Indianapolis are a good resource.

The trip was simultaneously challenging and relaxing; not too far from home, yet a world away. It was an opportunity to slow down, explore nature and discover new things … like the thrill of camping with no tent and lasagna in a bag.

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Written by : Brian has worked for the Indiana Office of Tourism since 2005 and currently serves as the Communications and Outreach director. He grew up in rural Indiana and attended Ball State University. Interests include: running, biking, kayaking, frequenting local restaurants and traveling.