The Brown County Delight
69 Mi.(111 KM)
% Rideable (time)
- 3Climbing Scale Fair53 FT/MI (10 M/KM)
- -Technical Difficulty
- -Physical Demand
- -Resupply & Logistics
Will spent his childhood in Ohio dreaming of places to explore and ended up riding freight trains, hitching, and touring with punk bands to see the world. He has called Bloomington, Indiana, home for the last 16 years. The bike became his favorite means of travel, and he ultimately traded kitty litter panniers for bikepacking bags. He and his wife will soon be relocating to Australia, and he’ll miss the Midwest dearly. Catch him on the ‘gram @williamandersonstaler.
Folks don’t think much of Indiana, beyond it being a place with lots of corn that you fly over or drive through. Its reputation as being flat is well deserved, but only for its northern half. Bloomington is about an hour’s drive south of Indianapolis and is conveniently located close to a number of state parks and a large national forest, all within a day’s bike from Bloomington and nestled in—surprise—some very scenic and hilly terrain.
The Brown County Delight connects many cycling highlights in the area. Just out of town, McGowan Road offers some beautiful views of Lake Monroe (a man-made lake that is not only the source of Bloomington’s drinking water, but also where people go to paddle and swim) and one of the toughest climbs in Indiana, which is notorious among gravel cyclists! Riders are rewarded with a screaming descent down TC Steele Road, named after a beloved landscape artist who lived in the area and captured its beauty on countless canvases. He often hosted other artists at his home, not far off the route, to be inspired by the local beauty. The pavement doesn’t last for long, and riders will find themselves on the chunky doubletrack of Miller Ridge, which is resplendent with views of the sweeping hills, sweating up steep climbs in a backcountry trail system that local mountain bikers cherish. The 10 O’Clock Line mountain bike trail takes you directly into Brown County State Park.
Here is where the route really delivers! Brown County State Park is a silver-level mountain bike park, so on a nice day, you’ll see license plates from all over the Midwest. The trails are a blast (note: the MTB trails are not incorporated into the route itself), and they are certainly worth your time, so take your bags off, leave them at camp, and hit the trails for a day. Grab a beer and some food in nearby Nashville for lunch or dinner, and then head back to camp to get rested up for your return trip.
Even on pavement, the ride out of the park is beautiful, and it also has some epic climbs and descents. Pack up some food and water in Nashville on your way, for it won’t be long until you’re back on rustic gravel roads that take you up to Lake Lemon, where South Shore Road goes across the lake itself—it’s a particularly magical and fulfilling segment of the route. Turning off of the lake, the ride takes you down some more backcountry doubletrack through Yellowwood State Forest, where the ride hugs the Tecumseh Trail for a bit before emptying out onto a mixed-terrain return to Bloomington: pavement, lots of gravel, and even a bit of singletrack take you back into the outlying neighborhoods.
The route back into town uses the Polly Grimshaw Bike Trail to take riders on a quick cruise through the campus of Indiana University. Fans of the movie “Breaking Away” might recognize quite a few locations, and for the true heads, Bill Armstrong stadium, where the Little 500 bike race is held every April, is only a few minutes off course. While not required, a viewing of “Breaking Away” before tackling this route will only enhance the experience.
Hopefully, the Brown County Delight will challenge your preconceptions of Midwestern cycling. Out-of-towners will certainly be surprised at the progressive vibe of Bloomington. Nashville, the artist’s colony town, is a hoot as well, with its leather shops, fudge, and ample kettle corn, it won’t let you down as your resupply point. There’s more than corn in Indiana!
I would classify this route as a 4 out of 10. A few sections of McGowan, Miller Ridge, and the 10 O’Clock Line Trail are challenging, and the hill climbing on this route, in general, is demanding. Resupply is not an issue at all, as there are plenty of chances to get anything you might have forgotten on the way out of town, and Nashville is right at the halfway point, thus, as long as the rider is prepared to ride 40 miles with everything they need on their rig, they should be fine.
Route Development: This route is the culmination of the past three years of training rides and adventure rides. Jesse Todd, a mechanic at Bikesmith’s here in Bloomington, was instrumental in the development of this route. Over the past few years a small group of slow-riding, stop-taking, tea-brewing, hammock-resting riders have been meeting up to go on overnighters and rides in the area, so I sat down one night and tried to connect all of our favorite roads into a route that was convenient and accessible, all the while offering a challenge. I wanted to create a route that started and ended in Bloomington to make it easy for locals and out-of-towners alike, and I wanted to highlight Brown County Park, not only for its camping convenience but also to show off the trail system. I would be remiss to not mention that my training in the area was, I feel, crucial to my success in completing the Tour Divide (aka the Great Divide Classic) in 2021.
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- I love the connection to “Breaking Away.” It’s such a fun movie for anyone, but for a cyclist I think that movie is particularly enjoyable, and it also captures the spirit of Bloomington.
- McGowan Rd. is such a challenge, and offers a close look at Lake Monroe.
- Miller Ridge and the 10 O’Clock Line Trail are backcountry cycling at its best.
- The mountain bike trail system in Brown County is famous in the area. It’s so cool to ride your bike out to the trails and ride them without your bags—always the best feeling after a long day pedaling weighed down.
- Nashville is a cute little town, and the Bird’s Nest Café is a great spot for breakfast!
- The ride on South Shore Drive on Lake Lemon stands alone—it’s really fun to be in such a different environment, feeling as though you’re riding on the lake after being in the hills for so long.
- Yellowwood State Forest is very remote and beautiful, and it’s nice to be so close to the Tecumseh Trail. This section also ends in a really funky rural neighborhood that I always enjoy pedaling through.
- Riding through Indiana University is scenic in a very different way than the rest of the ride—the limestone buildings are beautiful and a testament to the history of the area—the limestone for almost all 50 capitol buildings and the Empire State Building are all from a three-county region in southern Indiana. You’d know this if you watched Breaking Away! Excellent food, coffee, etc. in Bloomington as well.
- This route is accessible almost year round. If it’s wet, the backcountry sections will be muddy (so plan accordingly) but rideable.
- The trail system in Brown County State Park, however, is subject to usual trail etiquette. Don’t ride them if it’s wet. Again, these trails are not part of the route, they are an added bonus.
- Winter is actually a great time of year for this route. Winters here tend to be mild (only January and February have nights that get below 20 degrees) and with the leaves off the trees, you really get a sense of the landscape—craggy, knobby, and hilly. In the winter months, you will likely have the park largely to yourself. Fall is spectacular here.
- It shouldn’t be a problem to park your car in the Bryan Park parking lot for a night or two, or to find a spot in the neighborhoods nearby. Just be on the lookout for street signage about parking: if a sign says not to park there you will get a ticket.
- This is a very safe route. While dogs can always be an issue, in stark contrast to much of the surrounding area, I have never had a canine encounter on these roads. In times of intense and prolonged rain, McGowan Road is known to flood, and I have had to carry my bike over water well past my knees.
- Pre-ride watch “Breaking Away” and get stoked!
- The route is planned with Brown County in mind as the destination campsite.
- All other campsites would be unsanctioned, and except for on Miller Ridge, the 10 O’Clock Line Trail, and the Yellowwood Forest section, you would be on private property. Indiana is a gun-totin’ state, so I would not press the private property issue.
- The campsites in Brown County State Park are usually easy to get. Racoon Ridge is the primitive camp area at $16 a night, other campsites with electricity go up to $30. In the late summer, and also in the fall when the leaves begin to change color, the park gets very busy and you will likely need to make a reservation.
- It costs $2 to enter the park on a bike.
- When leaving Bloomington, I would suggest having enough food and water to make it to Brown County. For me, that means a substantial meal before I leave town plus ample snacks for the ride, dinner, and breakfast.
- The water at the campgrounds in Brown County is turned off for the winter season, sometime in November-April, however, the water spigot in Buffalo Ridge Campground appears to stay on year-round, and there are other water sources (such as the Abe Martin Lodge) to take advantage of all year.
- I would bring at least two liters of water if anticipating to fill up in the park, 3-4L if you think you’ll be making dinner and breakfast at camp. That being said, just slightly off route on the way into the park is Crooked Creek Lake, a very reliable source of water (if you have a filter) and other such surface water is intermittently available.
- For the second half of the loop, from Nashville back to Bloomington, water resupply is less available, so carry enough for the 40 miles home.
- There is a Kroger that you pass by on your way out of Bloomington, as well as the Bloomington Bagel Co. and a few Chinese and Thai restaurants.
- Nashville has an IGA grocery store as well as several restaurants (fast food and local haunts), and the gas station in town has personal pizzas and biscuit sandwiches, fried chicken, and all kinds of sugary snacks. Nashville is about a two-hour round trip out of the park on a bike, for time reference, and it isn’t a particularly easy ride.
- If you get a chance and the timing is right, the Porthole Inn just off route near Lake Lemon has great pizzas and beer.
I would say it’s best to try to leave Bloomington with enough time to get to Brown County and set up camp in the daylight. I like to shoot for an 11 a.m. departure, especially in the winter months when sunlight is scarce. Pay attention to the bike routes on the way out of town and follow the signage. Stock up on some calories at the Bloomington Bagel Company and grab whatever trail food you need from Kroger! Keep following the bike trail signs until you get to 446, a busy road with a huge shoulder that roadies take advantage of to do interval training. You are only on it for about a quarter of a mile. Lampkins Road is your gateway to Hoosier gravel and is a nice slow descent that turns into a pretty fast one at the very end. Friendship Road will put you on State Route 46 for a very brief time, maybe a quarter of a mile, but be careful and turn on your blinky light. The route is all pretty remote from there. When on Miller Ridge looking for the 10 O’clock Line Trail, just be aware and on the lookout for the trailhead, it’s singletrack at the very beginning and blends in, particularly in the summer. This trail takes you directly into the campground area, so if you’re tired you can pull off and camp wherever you see fit.
Hopefully, you’ve planned a day off to ride the trail system in Brown County! Lime Kiln Trailhead is on route, and that’s a great trail to start on! Take that to Weedpatch and you’ll be smiling, I guarantee it. Keep on the trails from there or take the state park roads out to Nashville to grab a bite, a beer, and some supplies for the rest of the night, then get back to your campsite either on the trails or on the park roads.
I like to have a bit of oatmeal and a hot drink to start with, then pack up my things and head through the park to Nashville. I like to get breakfast at the Bird’s Nest Café, some trail snacks at the Shell Station (maybe one egg & cheese biscuit for the road), and swing by Brown County Bikes to say hi or get any bike-related things taken care of. Owl’s Creek has a nice big climb, and look forward to South Shore Dr—get the cameras ready for some great pictures! You’ll hang a left under a bridge to get back on some gravel, then will spend a brief time on State Route 45 (an eighth of a mile, maybe, but still worth it to turn on your blinky) and follow the route through the doubletrack through Yellowwood Forest. You’ll climb over a gate into a charming country neighborhood, then you’ll be on some beautiful mixed terrain back to Bloomington. You will be on 46 again, but only for two very brief stretches, barely a quarter of a mile in total, but worth exercising some caution nonetheless—turn on that blinky!
You will make a right turn off of Kerr Road at the end, and it will feel very much like you are entering a neighborhood. You’ll go up one last tough climb and take a left on what appears to be a driveway, but don’t fear, this is a well-known stretch of singletrack known as “the Mellencamp singletrack” that is perfectly customary to ride on. It’s a bit of a labyrinth, but so long as you take a right at the first fork in the trail, all trails will lead you back to the neighborhood. Presto! Back to civilization.
- Browncountystatepark.net – info on camping and prices for Brown County State Park
- Browncountystatepark.net – info about all the mountain bike trails in Brown County State Park
- Indianamuseum.org – some information about the TC Steele historic site, located just off route, and a little bit of info about the man himself
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