It takes about 45 minutes to reach Indiana from most of the Miami Valley. Yet, many of us spend very little time in the Hoosier State.
Just a bit further down the road, or down the Ohio River, is southern Illinois. This is another region that many people don’t think about when planning their next vacation.
It turns out that both of these areas have a surprising number of things to see and do. From an amusement park, shopping sprees and historical landmarks and towns to camping, train rides, cave exploring and underground ziplining, southern Indiana and Illinois is a place to find new adventures and experiences, all without traveling too far from home, or spending a fortune.
A great way to get acquainted with this region is to take a road trip to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in southern Illinois. While it could take weeks, if not months to truly experience this part of the country, a shorter scouting trip through the area can help determine future road trips and vacation destinations, and also be a lot of fun!
The following road trip stair-steps down toward the confluence of the rivers and then walks back up the Ohio River toward Cincinnati. It then veers north through the Whitewater canal region of Indiana and returns home. The entire trip is about 1,000 miles and lined with one fascinating destination after another.
For instance, travelers will be surprised by the tall mountainous cliffs that line the Ohio River just before it reaches the Mississippi River. At a place called Cave-In-Rock in Illinois, visitors can climb on the tall cliffs and visit caves where it is said pirates and robbers once hid out. Hikers in the region can explore places with names such as “Lusk Creek Canyon,” “Garden of the Gods,” “Draper’s Bluff” and “Little Grand Canyon.”
At Buzzard’s Roost Campground in Indiana, campers set up their tents on secluded hills and ridges that overlook the Ohio River from equally impressive heights. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails fan out in all directions.
In Nashville (Brown County, Indiana) and Madison, Indiana, shoppers can browse through hundreds of unique specialty shops and stores and dine at many one-of-a-kind restaurants and pubs. There are more than 200 shops in Nashville alone, while Madison holds the distinction of being the longest contiguous National Historic Landmark in the United States, most of which is lined with shops and eateries. The town stretches along the Ohio River and is located less than 2-and-a-half hours from most of the Miami Valley.
Even closer to home is another shopping and sightseeing destination—Metamora. Known as “Indiana’s Canal Town,” Metamora features a canal-era village filled with specialty shops, restaurants, inns and historical buildings. There’s a grist mill, a canal boat and the nation’s only surviving wooden covered aqueduct. It’s a fun, eclectic small town that’s filled with friendly people and great shops.
Along with a bike trail that follows the old canal towpath, visitors come to Metamora for a variety of special events throughout the year. This includes Canal Days in October, plus a music festival in September, the “Haunted Village” in October and many others.
An equally eclectic and fun town is Santa Claus, Indiana.
It is home to various resorts, shops and attractions that play on the Santa Claus and Christmas theme, but the town’s biggest attraction is Holiday World, which is a fairly large amusement park with roller coasters, a water park and plenty of family fun. For those who remember it, Holiday World is a lot like Kings Island was in the 1980s and 1990s, which was pretty fun!
Very close to Santa Claus is Lincoln State Park, which is also the site of the Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home & National Museum, both of which were being upgraded in 2021.
With Kentucky to the south, this region is known as the Land of Lincoln. In fact, the Lincoln Heritage Trail—a designated tourist route that travels through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky—connects all of Lincoln’s historical sites. Driving this trail would be another great way to explore this intriguing and lesser-known part of the Midwest.
Those interested in Native American history can visit numerous mounds and earthworks, including Angel Mounds in Evansville, Indiana. The museum on the site is one of the best of its kind. It explores the Mississippian Culture that once thrived along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. This area would have been their heartland and their relics are everywhere.
Caves are another theme on this trip. Because of the vast limestone deposits in this region, it contains the most caves of any area in the world. Its most famous is Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
On this route, travelers will pass Bluesprings Caverns, Wyandotte Caves and Squire Boone Caverns, among others.
The list of interesting things to see and do on this road trip is nearly endless.
Whether visiting over one long trip, or many short ones, the following route leads through an often forgotten part of the United States that, once you’ve been there, will call you back again.
The Miami Valley is located between the highest point in Ohio (in Bellefontaine) and the highest point in Indiana. In fact, the highest point in Indiana, Hoosier Hill, is only a few miles from Ohio’s border, and not far from Greenville.
Far from being a hill, Hoosier Hill is located in what appears to be flat farmland. Beneath the surface, however, is a geological story that dates back to the formation of the continents and that involves the formation and crumbling of mountains, the splitting apart of tectonic plates and the appearance and disappearance of vast oceans, seas and miles of thick ice.
Hoosier Hill doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but visitors can reach inside of a mailbox on the property and sign a guest book, stand next to a stone monument that marks the location of the highest point, and take a very short stroll through the wooded property.
HOW TO GET THERE: Using U.S. Route 36, Hoosier Hill can be found by turning left (south) on Route 227. (This will be a half-mile into Indiana on your left). Next, turn right on E. Randolph Couty Line Road/1100 Road. Watch for a blue sign and turn left on Elliot Road. Hoosier Hill is on your right.
Just a few miles south of Hoosier Hill is Fountain City, Indiana.
With a population of less than 800 people, the town probably attracts more visitors each day than it has residents. This is because of three great attractions!
The first is Fountain Acres Foods, known affectionately as “the Amish Wal-mart.” This Amish-operated super store features a huge deli, bulk items, jams and jellies, outdoor furniture and decorations, breads, meats, produce and so much more.
In the heart of Fountain City is the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site, which is a museum and historic building that commemorates this Quaker couple’s efforts to assist African American slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Along with visiting the museum, a third attraction in Fountain City is a mural that depicts the town’s historic roots.
To the east of New Castle, Indiana is the birthplace of Wilbur Wright, co-inventor with his brother, Orville, of the airplane. What is pretty unusual about visiting this historic site and museum is its location. It’s really far from anything. Which is why it is surprising to see a jet aircraft, a miniature air traffic control tower and several historic markers on the property, not to mention an air strip.
The property contains Wilbur’s home, a full-size replica of the famous 1903 Wright Flyer, a print and bike shop, various exhibits, a gift shop and more.
The historic site is located at 1525 N. 750 E. Hagerstown Rd. and open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through April 1-Nov. 1.
After passing through the vast wind farms and agricultural region of eastern Indiana, (with a highlight being the Victorian town of Shelbyville) travelers will enter the Hoosier National Forest region, and reach Nashville and Brown County State Park.
Along with 200 shops that includes antiques, clothing boutiques, jewelry, home décor, art galleries and specialty shops, Brown County is known for its wineries, outdoor recreation and, maybe most of all, its abundant selection of bed and breakfasts and cabins. Travelers can find themed cabins of all kinds, most of which come equipped with hot tubs, some with swimming pools, and many with hiking trails and fire pits. Campers can find many state parks, nature preserves and campgrounds around nearby Monroe Lake.
While historic sites related to Abraham Lincoln can be visited year-round, including Lincoln State Park, Santa Claus, despite its name, is mostly a summer and fall destination.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is open daily in June and July and then goes to weekends in August, September and October. Just like Kings Island, the amusement park hosts special Halloween-themed weekends in October. Admission prices range from $30 for one day, all the way up to season passes for $189, which come with a ton of freebies and benefits. A number of resorts, go-kart tracks, putt-putt courses, shopping and fun can found in town.
Lincoln Boyhood National Monument, located within Lincoln State Park, preserves the farm site where Lincoln lived with his family from 1816 to 1830. Its highlight is a monument building made of limestone that features five sculpted panels that portray different phases of Lincoln’s life. Other highlights are a museum and the Lincoln Living Historical Farm.
Located on the banks of the Ohio River in southwest Indiana, Angel Mounds is one of the best-preserved, pre-contact Native American sites in North America. It was built sometime between 1000 and 1450 A.D. by the Mississippian culture. It contained earthen mounds that elevated important buildings (and people), and a stockade around the perimeter of this large city.
Today, guests can explore the site of the city and tour the Indiana State Museum (shaped like the mounds), which is one of the best of its kind. Between both attractions, hours can be spent at this very special place. There is a small fee to enter the museum and mound area.
After Evansville, it is just a short drive into Illinois and to Shawnee National Forest, which is probably one of the most under-rated national forests in the country.
As already mentioned, Shawnee National Forest and southern Illinois is home to numerous state parks, nature preserves and other recreational areas that take advantage of the unusual geology of the Ohio River Valley. Cave-In-Rock is probably the biggest surprise. When picturing the Ohio River, one doesn’t often think of caves, cliffs and summits. But here in Shawnee State Forest, plenty of all three exist.
Camping, hiking and fishing are the most popular recreational activities in this region. Another noteworthy stop is the Illinois Iron Furnace National Historic Site, located in a very quiet and secluded part of the forest.
You would think that the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers would be one of the most important places in the United States. And, for a long time, so did the people of Cairo, Illinois.
While there are many wonderful places to see on this trip, Cairo isn’t one of them. In fact, it’s outright shocking to see.
At one time, Cairo had a population of more than 15,000 people and was home to a thriving river ferrying and shipping industry, as well as many other businesses. Things started going down hill in 1909 when the townspeople lynched two inmates at the local jail, one black man and one white man. This scarred the town’s reputation and divided the community. Racial tension grew so bad that those who could leave did. Today, the population is about 2,000 people, and the town looks like a war zone. There are no grocery stores or drug stores, no sit-down restaurants, and barely any businesses. Most homes and commercial properties have fallen over, burned to the ground or are leaning sideways. Every couple of houses is inhabited by someone, but most are unlivable. Even the billboards are growing over with vines and dirt, as there’s nothing and no one to advertise to. (A documentary examines the town and its many problems. Watch it HERE).
In terms of tourism, the only real attractions in Cairo are the Magnolia Manor (an 1872 mansion open for tours) and Ft. Defiance Park, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. A special deck at the park allows visitors to stand slightly above the confluence of these two giant rivers.
Another nearby attraction worth a visit is Mound City National Cemetery. Like all National Cemeteries in the United States, this one is very beautiful.
Also, just across the river from Cairo is Wickliffe, Kentucky, which contains the Wickliffe Indian Mounds.
On the left, the Ohio River, on the right, the Mississippi River. Same in the video below. Note: There had been recent flooding when the video was taken. Normally, the metal statue seen in the middle of the video is above the water.
After exploring all that southern Illinois has to offer, use a series of highways and byways to get back toward Santa Claus, Indiana. However, instead of stopping in the town, this time continue east on scenic Indiana Route 62 and then south on scenic Indiana Route 66. These two roads pass through the rolling hills of Hoosier National Forest and next to the Ohio River. Stops include Buzzards Overlook, Wyandotte Caves and Harrison-Crawford State Forest, followed by Battle of Corydon Memorial Park, Squire Boone Caverns and the Corydon Historic District.
A dining highlight of this trip is The Overlook restaurant, located in Leavenworth, Indiana on the Ohio River. Guests can dine on home-cooked food while seated on outdoor decks that overlook the river and rolling hills that surround it.
The most unusual attraction on this trip is also nearby—the world’s only underground zipline course at Louisville Mega Cavern!
The second-to-last leg of this trip visits Hanover, Madison and a nature preserve that seems straight out of a scary movie.
Hanover is home to Hanover College and the famous Rainbow Flea Market. Another major attraction is the Clifty Falls recreational area. The Clifty Falls Hiking Trail is considered one of, if not the best hiking trail in Indiana and is popular with local college students and travelers.
As mentioned, Madison’s historic district is the longest in the United States. It is unique because it displays every period of the town’s development from 1817 to 1939. This includes Federal style buildings, Greek Revival mansions, vernacular shotgun houses, institutional and industrial buildings and the bustling downtown filled with historic three-story buildings.
North of Madison is the Big Oaks Wildlife Refuge. It was once a bombing range for the U.S. Army and today is surrounded by miles of barbed wire fence. Drivers follow this fence line while driving north on U.S. Rt. 421. Signs on the fence warn that trespassers will be prosecuted. This is because there are apparently still un-exploded bombs lying in the wait.
A small fishing area in the park is the only area open to the public and provides a small glimpse into what the property used to be.
Located just west of Oxford, Ohio, the Brookville Lake and Whitewater canal region of Indiana makes for an excellent day trip or weekend getaway.
Metamora, as well as Oldenburg and Brookville, are filled with antique shops, beautiful churches and diners. However, Metamora has the most of all of these things.
Whitewater Memorial State Park and the towns that surround Brookville Lake are filled with family attractions, such as go-cart parks, fun centers, canoe and boat rentals, biking and walking trails, excellent fishing and so much more. Another highlight in the area is the Whitewater Valley Railroad, which offers numerous themed trips throughout the year. Plan your visit to Metamora HERE.