"It's world famous, I swear," deadpans naturalist Barbara Cummings of Turkey Run State Park. "We have the most rugged hiking trails in the state. We're the Yellowstone of Indiana." Trail 3, Cummings's pick, traces hundred-foot cliffs and canyons as it negotiates three vertical drops by way of 15-foot ladders on the 1.7-mile hike through the park's glacially carved Mansfield sandstone gorges. One section requires working your way up a waterfall, and another leads behind a cataract. Trail 3 is one of 11 trails in the park—all of them short, but none easy. They take you through old-growth forests of tulip trees, black gum, and 600-year-old sycamores in full fall glory. Sugar Creek, perhaps the state’s best smallmouth bass fishery, runs through the heart of it all, spanned by red covered bridges. The park has camping and a lodge that serves up fried chicken and fried fish—world famous, we swear ($16 or $70; in.gov).
What happens when a giant cavern loses the roof over its head? Grand Gulf. The collapsed dolomitic cave system in Missouri's Grand Gulf State Park, 140 feet deep, stretches for nearly a mile below dogwood, redbud, and sassafras forests ( mostateparks.com). Two trails skirt it, but the real fun is scrambling down to the would-be cave floor, then looking up at the 250-foot natural bridge that spans it. Keep an eye open for what's known locally as a "losing stream," where water goes underground, flows, and pops up again. A few miles south at Mammoth Spring, just over the border in Arkansas, 9.8 million gallons of water an hour flow in plain sight into the crystalline Spring River, one of the state's best trout streams (arkansasstateparks.com). Nearby Riverside Resort has sites ($8) and cabins ($99; riversideresort.org).
The first thing you notice is a distinct absence of farm fields. Then the climbing routes come into focus. Scads of them—sport, trad, top-rope, all in the 50-to-60-foot range, and mostly 5.7 and up—along the sandstone bluffs and boulders near Jackson Falls, tucked into the deciduous woods of Shawnee National Forest. That means the easy routes can get crowded, but you can always wander off to the many boulder overhangs to practice your Dean Potter moves. The forest canopy is thick and in full color in October, supplying lots of mottled shade from the Indian summer sun. Camp 4 it isn't, but there's a friendly vibe among the many climbers who know the spot and take advantage of the free primitive camping along Glen Street Falls Road near the trailhead. BYO drinking water (fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee).