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Visiting Parke County, Indiana
"The Covered Bridge Capital of the World"

Story & Photos by Matt Bayman

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   With 31 covered bridges, Parke County, Indiana proudly refers to itself as “The Covered Bridge Capital of the World.” They even host a 10-day Covered Bridge Festival each October. This year, it’s Oct. 11-20, 2024. 


   However, there’s much more going on here than just covered bridges. 


   Visiting Parke County is a chance to travel way off the beaten path to discover a sparsely populated, largely Amish community filled with friendly people and beautiful scenery. 


   Within 450 square miles, the county contains two state parks, one state recreation area, Covered Bridge State Forest, miles of rivers that welcome kayakers, canoeists and anglers, a haunted sanitarium that’s open for ghost hunts and photography tours, miles of bike trails (both paved and on local roads), 30 specialty shops and antique stores, a variety of farmers markets and nurseries (mostly owned by Amish families), plus 12 campgrounds, 29 unique lodging options, great small towns and a host of special events. 


   Best of all, all of this can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, except maybe for the ghost hunt part. 

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ABOVE: Shades State Park. BELOW: Indiana State Sanatorium (photo provided)

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 Located about three hours from most of the Miami Valley, Parke County is a mix of farmland (including huge tracts dedicated to organic farming) and deep wooded areas that are reminiscent of southern Ohio. In fact, parts of Shades State Park, located in the northeast corner of the county, look very much like Hocking Hills.

 

   The covered bridges are often located in very remote areas, either in the middle of the peaceful farmland, or in a wooded ravine, far from anything else, and usually with little to no traffic on the roads. This changes, of course, during the Covered Bridge Festival, when more than a million people show up, including a large number of motorcyclists. It is known as “Indiana’s Largest Festival.”


   This is where travelers can make a choice about when to visit Parke County.


   The added bonus to visiting during the Covered Bridge Festival, or the Strawberry Festival in June, is that several of the most popular towns in the area, including Mansfield and Bridgeton, offer a significant number of pop-up shops and restaurants that are not open during the rest of the year. The downside is that you have to deal with the crowds that come with the festivals. 


   The other option is to visit during the off-season (which is any time a festival is not taking place) and simply take advantage of fewer shops, restaurants and entertainment, but enjoy the added benefit of having many bridges and towns to yourself. Even in the off-season, dozens of shops and restaurants in the area are open year-round, so it’s not a complete loss. Also, during these times, many of the bed and breakfasts and cabins are offered at much lower rates.   


   Regardless of which option you choose, the main activity you’ll likely want to enjoy in Parke County is touring the various covered bridges. Thankfully, this is something the local visitor’s bureau and county makes very easy.

 
    There are five official Covered Bridge Routes in Parke County, all of which begin and end in Rockville. 


   Rockville is the county seat of Parke County and, with about 2,500 residents, the largest community in the area. It is where most travelers choose to stay the night, or, at the very least, come to eat and shop. It’s a very charming town that contains a historic courthouse square lined with antique shops, vintage stores and restaurants. At night, strings of colorful lights softly illuminate the square and courthouse.   


   On the outskirts of town is Billie Creek Village, a tourist attraction that contains a historic general store, 1913 schoolhouse, an authentic log cabin, historic buildings and barns, and three of the county’s covered bridges. In 2022, the village was purchased by new owners who plan to host Civil War and medieval reenactments and other special events on the property.   


   Rockville is also home to the Old Jail Inn (located on the square) and the Bubble Gum Bed & Breakfast, both of which receive high marks from customers. There are plenty of traditional hotels and guesthouses as well.

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   The first place travelers will want to stop when reaching Rockville is the Visitor Center at 401 E. Ohio St. It is here that a free copy of the Covered Bridge Map (seen above-right) and other brochures and information about visiting the area can be picked up. They are available even if the center is closed at an outdoor kiosk.  


   The map will be your best friend during your trip, as it contains the location of each covered bridge and a comprehensive list of every place to eat, shop, sleep, hike, tour and explore while in Parke County. An accompanying Parke County Guide, from the Visitor Center, provides even more information on things to see and do. 


   The five driving tours fan out in all directions from Rockville and are color-coded Red, Blue, Yellow, Brown and Black. They range between 24 and 34 miles long and sometimes intersect. Additionally, there are designated routes for bicyclists and motorcyclists. 


   Many of the routes pass picturesque Amish farms and communities and numerous Amish markets that offer everything from fresh produce, sandwiches and ice cream to straw hats, honey and jarring equipment.


   Along with the detailed map from the Visitor Center, the county has done a fantastic job of marking the different routes on the roads and highways with signs. Simply look for the appropriately colored arrow (see below) that matches you’re route, and follow it. Eventually, you’ll end up back in Rockville. 


   With that said, it is probably a good idea to bring an old-fashioned road map along. Cell phone reception is not always available, and the visitor bureau map doesn’t contain every single road in the area. If you get turned around or want to visit an attraction not on the routes, such as Shades State Park, the sanitarium, or the little village of Lyford and its orchards, you’ll need a backup option. It’s also a good idea to keep your gas tank full. There are parts of Parke County where there are no gas stations for many miles in any direction, especially in the northwest section.

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  Another important thing to remember is that about six miles of the five routes are on dirt and gravel roads, which can be tough on vehicles and their paint! If you don’t want your car getting dirty, or possibly scratched, make sure to avoid these areas. Otherwise, it’s usually smooth sailing. Of course, be prepared to share the road with the Amish horse and buggies and don’t forget to bring cash, as most Amish businesses only accept cash or check.


   Other than that, visitors are free to spend several days or longer seeing everything possible in the area, or just popping in for a long day to catch the highlights. Either way, it’s a great place to explore. 

The Top 10 Covered Bridges to See

   Not all covered bridges (or driving routes) in Parke County are equal. In fact, if you visit all 31 bridges, you’ll notice that many of them look very similar.


   Likewise, most people would probably agree that the Red and Black routes are the best—largely because they pass the most colorful towns and bridges. The Yellow route would probably be the least interesting, and it’s certainly the most remote and rugged, with a lot of dirt and gravel roads. The Blue route would be the next most rugged, but it should not be missed because of how much there is to see and do, especially at Turkey Run State Park, which has an awesome suspension bridge.  


   With this in mind, here are 10 covered bridges that really stand out, not only for their unique and beautiful designs, but for the attractions that many of them are located next to and near. 

Jackson Bridge

 The Jackson Covered Bridge was built in 1861 and stands out for its white paint with red trim. It is located next to Covered Bridge State Forest and Mossy Point Nature Preserve, both of which offer extremely primitive hiking. For an even more unusual experience, stop by the Jungle Park Speedway. Featured on Atlas Obscura, Jungle Park is the “overgrown remains of one of the premier auto-racing speedways in the Midwest—and also one of most deadly.” Built in the 1920s and decommissioned in the 1960s, the property has an old wooden grandstand, what appears to be the old race track, and a historic marker that tells the story of this nearly forgotten place.  

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Thorpe Ford & Roseville

   The southernmost bridge in Parke County, Thorpe Ford Covered Bridge, is located outside of the small village of Rosedale—known for hosting the Rosedale Strawberry Festival on the first weekend of June. At 181 feet, it is one of the longer bridges in the county and is closed to vehicle traffic. Parking areas on each side of the bridge allow visitors to access to the structure and to walk through and around it. 
   While in Rosedale (a town of 725 people), take time to visit Comar’s Café for sandwiches, country cooking and all-day breakfast, or the Little Bear Coffee Co. for a quick pick-me-up and pastry.  (Food photos from Comar's Facebook page)
   Just up the road from Thorpe Ford is an even longer bridge named Roseville. At an impressive 281 feet long, during the daytime, cars passing through the “tunnel” without their headlights on disappear into the darkness of the middle before reappearing on the other side!  
   Both of these covered bridges are found on the Red route. 

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Bridgeton

   By far, one of the most memorable covered bridges in Indiana, and probably one of the best in the world, is Bridgeton. Although not original (it was rebuilt after an arsonist destroyed the 1868 structure in 2005), Bridgeton’s location over a dam and next to a historic mill and town of the same name make it most peoples’ favorite stop. 
   During major festivals, Bridgeton springs to life with pop-up shops and food vendors, including being the place to find world-famous Bridgeton Mills Pumpkin Rolls. The mill, which is the oldest continually operating mill in the Midwest, serves ice cream and other snacks year-round during daytime hours. Popular year-round shops in Bridgeton include the Bridgeton 1878 House gift shop, the 1822 Case Log Cabin gift shop and The Stables antique store. 
   There are several campgrounds in town, as well as few fun lodging options. 
   Just north of Bridgeton is the Cross at A Walk Britton Winery, which hosts special events and offers tours and tastings during regular business hours.
   Bridgeton is located on the Black route. 

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State Sanatorium Bridge

   The State Sanatorium Covered Bridge was built in 1913 to transport coal across Little Raccoon Creek at the nearby State Sanatorium facility (more on this in a moment). It was later moved to its current location on a gravel road in the heart of Amish country. It is not on a designated driving route, but it’s definitely worth the detour, especially to visit Sunset View Groceries. Located within view of the bridge, the Amish grocery features fresh produce straight from the owner’s garden, plus canned soups and snacks, straw hats and more. It’s a very pretty part of the county. 

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Mecca

    The Red and Brown routes intersect in the little village of Mecca and next to the Mecca Bridge. The bridge itself is nice because it’s easy to see the entire thing in one view. (Others are sometimes blocked by tall trees or shrubs.) It’s also next to the Mecca Tavern, a popular hangout that’s open from 11 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. daily!

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Phillips 

   Also known as the Arabian Bridge, the Phillips Bridge is the only non-truss bridge in Parke County. It is located outside of Montezuma on the Red route and very close to the Twilight Dairy, which is an Amish dairy that produces cheeses, milk and other dairy products from cows that are grass fed and live out in nature. 

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Mansfield

   When special events are taking place in Parke County (especially during the Covered Bridge Festival), Mansfield is a major attraction. During these times, special vendors set up next to the bridge and river, selling famous chicken noodles and soup and other homemade food and offering a festival-size display of arts and crafts. When festivals are not taking place, much of the village is empty, yet still very fun to explore. 
  The highlight of the town, both in and out of season, is the Mansfield Roller Mill. Built in 1875, most of the original water-powered equipment still operates. It is owned by the state and offers occasional tours and milling demonstrations. 
   Next to the mill is the Mansfield Village Bar & Grille—one of the larger restaurants in the area and a very popular place with motorcyclists in the summer and fall.  
   Bridgeton is located on the Black route.

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Narrows Bridge & Cox Ford

   Located next to Turkey Run State Park, Narrows Bridge (pictured below top) crosses a deep gorge that attracts anglers and kayakers. It used to attract swimmers, but the area was deemed too dangerous because of its strong currents. 
   The state park is one of the most popular in the state. It is known for its suspension bridge, unique limestone formations and hiking and camping. It also contains an excellent nature center and several cabins located right on the lake for rent. 
   Just down the road from Narrows Bridge (both are located on the Blue route) is Cox Ford (pictured below, bottom), which, like Narrows Bridge, is situated high above the water. It’s also next to a canoe livery and canoe camping area.

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Other Places to Visit

Indiana State Sanatorium

  The Indiana State Sanatorium, also known as the “Indiana Tuberculosis Hospital,” was a state-run institution built in 1909 and designated for the treatment of tuberculosis. To this degree, it was successful. After the disease was mostly eradicated, the facility was shuttered in 1968, only to be reopened as an assisted living facility in 1978. This is where things went wrong. 


   According to the Terra Haute Tribune Star, the assisted living facility did not have enough patients to fill its beds. To make up for this, the state began to transfer patients from several state mental institutions to the assisted living facility, thus mixing patients deemed “mentally ill” with patients in need of assisted living care. According to newspaper accounts, the mixing of these patients garnered a lot of negative attention and the facility became the site of numerous accidents and tragedies, mostly due to mistreatment and ill-conduct by staff. In 2006, for instance, a patient reportedly went missing from the facility, only to be found deceased in the woods. In 2009, a disgruntled employee shot a fellow co-worker on the grounds and then turned the gun on himself. In 2011, things became so bad that the hospital lost its license. It then closed for good in 2012. 


   After sitting vacant for nearly 9 years, the property was purchased in 2020 and it is now open for tours and ghost hunts, as well as private outings and events. It even has its own hotel rooms on the property. 


   There are six ways to experience the Sanatorium. The first is free and simple. During the day, when the gates are open, anyone is allowed to drive up to see the property. However, you are not allowed to get out of your vehicle or to enter any buildings. 


   A second way is to pay for a Day Tour. This requires a minimum of five people and the cost is $40 per person. It can be scheduled most days from noon to 4 p.m. It is a guided tour of the buildings and property and lasts about an hour and a half. 


   There is also a Day Roaming/Photography Session option offered from noon to 4 p.m. for $25 per person. This is a self-guided experience, and may or may not include other visitors on the property at the same time. 


   The final two options are the most elaborate. First, Flashlight Tours are offered on Friday and Saturday nights at a cost of $40 per person. This is a guided tour. The most serious option is the Public Hunts experience, which has different pricing throughout the year, but ranges between $400 and $900 per night for 10 guests. Extra guests cost an additional fee. 


   The facility uses its Facebook page to schedule tours and hunts. It can be found at facebook.com/indianastatesanatorium(Bottom right photograph provided)

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Turkey Run State Park

   Indiana’s second state park, Turkey Run is filled with and surrounded by things to do. It is especially friendly to kayakers, canoeists and tubers and is home to the Sugar Valley Canoe Camp. Canoe and tube outfitters are abundant. 
   Very similar to Hocking Hills, the park features miles of hiking trails that pass through sandstone cliffs and gorges and other rock formations. Trails often include a series of ladders that take hikers deep into the gorge below. Even on the hottest of days, it’s relatively cool in the gorge.  
   The suspension bridge at the park is a must-see, as is the Lusk Home and Mill Site and adjoining Rocky Hollow Falls Canyon Nature Preserve. A lodge, cabins and a variety of campgrounds are available at and around the park. 
   Outside of Rockville, Turkey Run State Park has the most restaurants to choose from at one location. This includes the Narrows Restaurant and the Gobbler’s Knob Sweet Shop.

Racoon Lake State Recreation Area

   Boat, swim, water ski, fish, rent a cabin or house on the lake, pictured at left, go tent or canoe camping, hike over 7 miles of trails and so much more. 

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Shades State Park

   Hiking and canoe camping are two popular activities at Shades State Park, pictured on the opposite page.
   If you are able, get up early on a summer morning and hike the vast trail system at Shades State Park, and specifically the Devil’s Punchbowl Trail. The trail follows a deep, cool siltstone gorge. When the warm morning sun shines down through the trees, it can create a beautiful, sometimes haunting mist that engulfs everything. 
   If more time allows, hike the Devil’s Backbone into adjoining Pine Hills Nature Preserve and stop by Honeycomb Rock. 
   A word of warning though, in the summer, the bugs can get pretty bad, so bring bug spray and be prepared. 
   Those planning a canoe trip on beautiful Sugar Creek can camp at Canoe Island, which can be seen from above at Inspiration Point in Shades State Park.

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