Trip Report: Deem Wilderness Fall ’12
Just as the leaves began to turn from green to various shades of yellow, red, brown and gold I had the fortunate opportunity to get away for a weekend to the Charles C. Deem Wilderness in Hoosier National Forest.
This has been one of my favorite spots in the state of Indiana ever since my time as an undergrad at Indiana University (just a 30 minute drive from the wilderness area). Back in those days I was more interested in the forest’s fire tower as a scenic overlook of the surrounding landscape, but as I got more serious into camping I quickly discovered the charm of the wilderness’ backpacking opportunities.
On this particular trip we arrived much later than anticipated. We hiked into the forest until we ran out of light, and then we set up a quick camp just off the trail. We built a small fire, and started to relax in our tents when suddenly we heard the ferocious – and frankly rather terrifying – sound of several coyotes fighting somewhere out in the darkness. Even knowing that it was highly unlikely that they would do us any harm, I still didn’t have the soundest sleep of my life that night.
We woke early and I reevaluated our location, as I had never ventured into this part of the forest before. I decided we’d keep following this trail heading east, and eventually bushwhack towards Monroe Reservoir if the trail didn’t run near enough to it (bushwhacking quickly became a theme of this trip).
We followed the trail directly east around an inlet in the reservoir, but the trail never ran down to the water itself. At a sharp southern turn in the trail I checked the compass and the GPS and decided we’d have to hoof it through the underbrush. I had seen what appeared to be a deer trail at the turn, and after closer examination I discovered an ‘X’ with an arrow pointing down the faint trail carved into a tree. We took this as a sign of encouragement and headed down the unmarked and barely distinguishable trail.
We hiked through the woods and down a long ridge until we came to a large opening atop a hill that hosted two beautiful campgrounds overlooking the reservoir. These camps were complete with stone fire circles and elaborate stone benches. We stopped on a large rock overlooking the lake for lunch.
I spotted another steep path down the hill to the water. I needed to refill the bottles anyway, so after lunch I started down the path.
I’ve heard rumors of the near-legendary Patton Cave ever since I first started coming to Hoosier National, and from everything I’d heard I thought that we might be somewhere near it – but I would never have guessed that we’d just eaten lunch on top of it! As I followed the trail down the hill a large gorge opened to my left, I was growing more and more excited as I approached the bottom of the gorge.
Finally it came into view, and it was more impressive than I would have ever imagined. I ran back up the hill to grab my friend and we both knew our plans for the afternoon had just changed dramatically.
The walk up the gorge is a perfect introduction to this beautiful and unique facet of Hoosier National Forest and jewel of the Deem Wilderness. A large cliff of Indiana limestone flanks the trail as you approach the cave, and then suddenly you’re standing right in its entrance.
Patton Cave was bigger than I would have guessed – plenty tall for me to stand up straight in – and looked more like a manmade mine shaft than most of the small excuses for caves I’ve seen before in Indiana.
Caves are incredibly delicate ecosystems, and because of this it’s not advised to publish the exact location of Patton Cave online (though it would be fairly easy to deduce from this post). It’s also probably not a great idea to go inside of them, but I couldn’t resist at least walking down the first passage. It opened up into a large high-ceilinged room and then turned right down another sizable passage. My ecologically friendly mindset (I totally wasn’t scared) prevented me from venturing any further.
After leaving Patton cave we took the trail down the remainder of the hill and followed the waterline through low-lying marshy areas thick with brambles and surrounded by stunning fall foliage. We camped that night on an outcrop overlooking a small rocky beach on one of the beautiful sheltered bays in the reservoir. The cold gave way to the sun and I soaked up some rays on the small beach, enjoying the warmth. There wasn’t another human being in sight.
I slept well that night. The long, hard hike had worn me out, and the absence of yelping coyotes was a welcome change of pace. Temperatures got down to near freezing and I busted out the old under quilt and wrapped up for a cozy night’s sleep.
As we had spent some additional time sightseeing and enjoying a new area of the wilderness, our last day consisted of a fairly substantial hike. We still had to follow the lakeshore all the way to the terminus of the Peninsula Trail at the far north end of the wilderness. Monroe Reservoir has a rocky shoreline, and the uneven footing made the going slow. In the few instances where the shore became impassable we had to scamper our way up some sizable hills – that got old and tiring very quickly. This is why I need a packraft.
Once we reached the level, open section of beach the going was easy and we enjoyed a beautiful day on the lakeshore. We reached the trail in early afternoon and hoofed it back to the car.
This was the first time I’ve done much extensive bushwhacking on a camping trip, and I was very pleased to see some of the amazing areas of the forest that it opened up. There are several campsites and landmarks I discovered on this trip that I plan to revisit soon.
All in all it was another great trip with some beautiful fall weather, it has done nothing but enhance my love for this beautiful gem of Southern Indiana.