As one who’s lived his entire adult life in Southern Indiana, I can say with confidence that we Southerners are pretty smug about our natural heritage — and perhaps a bit condescending about it. Indeed, every conversation I’ve had the past few years regarding Northern Indiana natural areas has pretty much followed the same script — puzzled looks followed by confident conclusions that there are none. At least none that are worthy.
And it’s not like our conceit is without basis. From the Switzerland Hills around Richmond to the Southwestern Lowlands around Mt. Vernon, public and private conservation organizations hold maybe three times as much natural land as their northern counterparts. The Hoosier National Forest’s landholdings alone equal almost as much acreage as all of the wild areas of the North combined. And few places in the entire nation can match our rugged hill country in terms of unique natural beauty.
But just as I relearned from a trip with Gary Morrison to Fall Creek Gorge Preserve and Portland Arch Nature Preserve in June, there’s more to the state north of I-70 than corn. A quick-and-dirty overview last week identified nearly 200,000 acres of protected land on 186 properties between I-70 and the Michigan state line. More than 100 are dedicated state nature preserves, protected from development in perpetuity.
They range from the one-acre Smith Cemetery Nature Preserve in Vermillion County to the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the state’s only national park and one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the entire planet — no exaggeration.
And, as I discovered lifetimes ago at natural gems like the Dunes lakeshore and Turkey Run, Chain O’ Lakes and Pokagon state parks, and more recently at the Portland Arch and Fall Creek Gorge preserves, what is protected in Northern Indiana can be as spectacular as anything we have in the South. And given the amount of urban and rural development in the north, it’s more precious.
For example, take Portland Arch and Fall Creek Gorge, near the Wabash River in a few miles southwest of Lafayette. Both are dedicated state nature preserves, owned and managed respectively by the state’s Division of Nature Preserves and The Nature Conservancy.
I’ve photographed the best sandstone bluffs Southern Indiana has to offer. Portland Arch’s takes a backseat to none of them.
If there are “potholes” in the South similar to Fall Creek Gorge’s — and there may be — I haven’t seen them.
Stay tuned for more from the northland. Here are some images from Portland Arch and Fall Creek Gorge.
Steven Higgs is a partner in Indiana Nature Photography and author of A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana: 119 Places to Explore, published in April 2016 by IU Press. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More.
Portland Arch Nature Preserve
Fall Creek Gorge Preserve