Fall in the Midwest is the most beautiful time of year for campers. At least, early fall is the most beautiful time of the year for campers. After a hot, sticky summer making most camping weekends uncomfortable at best, the warm days and increasingly cooler nights bring the best of both worlds: perfect daytime temperatures for outdoor activity and the comfort of an outdoor fire, a cozy hoodie, and perfectly toasted s’mores as the sun sets at night.
Long before my husband and I had kids, we spent as much time as we could tent camping, and our early marriage move from Michigan to Indiana introduced us to an Indiana that we never knew existed. For my entire life I had believed that Indiana was nothing more than flat land, with occasional hilly interruptions, and lots of cornfields. And yes, there are a lot of cornfields, there is a lot of open land, and there are occasional hills. But the hills and cornfields in southern Indiana begin to take a different shape. The hills get higher, rockier, and steeper. The forests get thicker and less sporadic. And eventually one feels like they have escaped into another world.
The first time we discovered this was on a church camping trip to Turkey Run State Park. Hiking the ravines and waterfalls and stepping over creek beds demonstrated that there was a lot more to Indiana that we didn’t know about.
But Brown County changed everything we believed about our adopted home state.
Somehow Jeff convinced me during the course of a fall play production (as a young teacher I was in charge of the high school theatre program which sucked nearly all of my “free time”) that I could take a weekend off in October and travel down to Brown County for a fall camping trip. It was peak season for fall colors and we had been told that one of the best places to see fall colors in Indiana was in that particular state park.
We drove down to the hills of southern Indiana, driving past dried up cornfields and into a canvas of fall colors. We set up camp and watched the temperatures dip as the fire pit right outside our tent roared to life. Our first dog, Sierra, settled into the dirt, fallen leaves and sticks clinging to her thick fur. She snapped at us every time we tried to grab at one of the sticks, clumps of her summer coat coming with them.
The next day we headed out for a hike, the fall temperatures climbing into the 70s, making for appropriate shorts weather paired with our hiking boots. Sierra pranced on the end of her leash, sniffing at everything and anything that came across her path, pulling when she saw other people and dogs out exploring. We headed on the hiking trails, climbing stairs, stepping over tree roots, and stopping at overlooks to take in the fall foliage. Then we committed the ultimate hiking trail faux pas: we found ourselves on a hiking trail with our dog at the same time as a group of horseback riders were traversing the same trail.
We were always good at following trail signs and made sure that we stayed off of trails that weren’t marked for people and pets, but somehow the trails crossed and while we believed we were perfectly in our rights to be on the trail that we were on, it quickly became clear to us why there were warnings to avoid horse trails with pets. The trail guide told us we needed to get off the path. We asked, “Where do we go?” The trail quickly dropped off to a ravine. We got off of the trail a couple of feet but the trail guide told us that it wasn’t good enough. Apparently, our furball with her wolf-like appearance was spooking the horses and we needed to get out of sight and out of mind so that the group could continue on the trail. We continued to head into the ravine, trying to get to a safe place away from the group while not being so far off the path that we wouldn’t be able to climb back out, helplessly watching as horses got spooked and slightly scattered.
And Sierra, oblivious of the mess that she had just created, continued on her happy way at the end of the leash.
The incident got us so turned around that we walked for miles, finally finding the road and eventually getting back to our campsite, tired and ready to put our feet up. But we fell in love with the trails and the views. We repeated that particular fall camping trip once more during our tent years, but then it would be several more years before we returned to the park. However, we never forgot the beauty there and the time that we shared as a couple with our first fur baby.
Years later, when we had caved and purchased our first camper, we decided it was time for our kids to discover the joys of fall camping.
Jeff started looking for fall camping trips. He scoured the websites of all of our favorite Indiana state parks and discovered that many of them did Halloween celebrations in the last weekends of October. He learned that Brown County State Park had a full-fledged fall festival, including trick-or-treating through the trail by the nature center and trick-or-treating in the campground. We didn’t care that it would be a three to four-hour drive or that we would have to set up in the dark or that we were risking camping in freezing temperatures, we were sold and we quickly made reservations.
That first family trip to Brown County, we got one of the last available spots in the second of the three campgrounds, tucked away on a wooded site in a loop that was significantly more secluded than the busier first loop in the state park. Fall camping is a popular activity, especially for committed campers, but we were shocked by the number of people who were willing to commit to a camping trip in late October in unpredictable Indiana five to six months beforehand. But commit they did, and we drove into a full state park for the latest camping trip we had ever attempted.
We arrived at Brown County State Park around 7 o’clock on Friday night; the sun was already down, the temperatures were quickly dropping, and we still needed to eat dinner. Our son and daughter busied themselves by settling into the dirt and leaves on our campsite, our daughter still stubbornly wearing the skirt that she wore to school that day. Before long she was shivering from the cold, finally convinced to come inside to put on pants, gloves, and to sit inside the heated camper for awhile before she went back out into the leaves piled next to our site, waiting for me to finish cooking dinner.
While the weekend was dry, it was certainly cold, but it wasn’t enough to keep us from exploring everything the state park had to offer families. The last time we had been in the park we had been a young married couple, childless and uninterested in the nature center and the playgrounds. Now we were watching our bundled up children playing in the dirt and leaves, climbing on slides, swinging on the swings, and learning in the nature center. Together our family enjoyed time completely unplugged from everything at home.
When it was time for the real festivities, we gawked at the incredible displays around the two main loops. Orange and purple lights, fake cobwebs stretching across tree branches, inflatables of every size and kind set up round campers and tents, and adults without small children dressed up in costumes: the entire state park was alive with spooky scenes and goofy goulishness. While some of our second loop neighbors were giving away candy and decorated their sites, the bulk of the Halloween celebration was happening in the first, much busier loop. We didn’t have to discuss it. We knew that we would return and that when we made our return, that is where we would reserve a spot.
That Saturday evening, bundled up in coats, hats, and mittens, our little Rapunzel and pirate took their candy buckets around the nature center trail and then from campsite to campsite to collect more candy than they had ever gathered trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. But it wasn’t just the ridiculous amount of candy that came home with us after that weekend. Jeff and I were returning home with a pile of parenting memories and our kids had us all to themselves.
The following year, we once again decided to celebrate the Halloween weekend by making the three-hour trek from northern to southern Indiana. While we didn’t know that this would be our last northern fall camping trip (we moved to Texas the following summer), we acted like it was. We hiked on nature trails through forests of red and orange and gold. We shed sweatshirts and jackets as the unseasonably warm temperatures climbed to 80 degrees and we wondered why we hadn’t brought shorts for our end of October camping trip. This time we planned ahead and reserved our camping spot in the first loop nearly six months before our trip was to take place. We were determined to be in the thick of the weekend activity. That night we put out an unsupervised bowl of candy so we could contribute to the campground trick-or-treating festivities and then we took our little Ariel and Darth Vader around to fill up their own buckets.
While we’re thankful that life in Texas has offered us the opportunity for Thanksgiving camping and longer Christmas vacation camping trips, we’ve missed the September start to fall and the unique opportunities that Midwest fall offered our family in the early years of our return to camping. I guess we’ve had to trade fall camping perfection for the ability to camp year-round.
But we’ll always have those early memories look back on.