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Volunteers Work To Extend Indiana’s Longest Hiking Trail

Volunteers meet once a month to repair and build sustainable paths (Zach Herndon, WFIU/WTIU News).

The Knobstone Trail is Indiana’s longest hiking trail, and one hiking association is leading an effort that would more than its double the length.

On one of their monthly trail work days, Knobstone Hiking Trail Association members work to extend the original trailhead at Deam Lake State Recreation area in Clark County. Volunteers are clearing brush and pushing away dirt to clear a path. Leading them is Suzanne Mittenthal.

“You try to refine a path where you can be sustainable, where you can not go straight up and down which would just be creating an erosion gully,” she says.

Mittenthal is a trail designer and founding member of the trail association.  She started the organization about five years ago in an effort to extend the length of the Knobstone Trail.

“I heard about this long-distance trail that it was started in the ’70s, the Knobstone Trail, and I always heard about the the thought you might be able to extend it all the way up to Morgan County and the State Forest up there some day,” she says.

The Knobstone Trail is named for the Knobstone Escarpment, a slope formed through erosion separating areas of different elevation. That’s what caused the trails rugged terrain which is characterized by steep hills or “knobs.”

Jerry Pagac was a streams and trails specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources in the 1970s. Part of his job  was to find a location for a long-distance trail in the state.

“I started  looking at deed ownership maps that DNR has … and the most extensive ownership was the state forests, and when you start looking, you could see a real pattern,” he says.

The original Knobstone Trail was built by another DNR employee, Joe Payne, and opened in 1980.  It runs about sixty miles starting in Clark State Forest near Louisville.

To extend the trail to the proposed 150 miles, the plan is to link it to the 42-mile Tecumseh Trail in Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests.

The KHTA is attempted to connect the Tecumseh Trail with the Knobstone Trail with a proposed Pioneer Trail in between.

The KHTA is attempting to connect the Tecumseh Trail with the Knobstone Trail. The middle section would be called the Pioneer Trail (Scott Carmichael, Indiana Public Media).

The big issue is there’s about 50 miles between the two trails. The KHTA is proposing calling that middle section the Pioneer Trail. It’s a collection of already-completed trails on state property and space on private land where trails could be built.

While the association has acquired some of that land through easements, there are still about 20 miles not yet part of the trail.

“What it takes to get landowners to take the public-spirited decision to allow strangers pass on their private acres for nothing is like going to a door and asking, ‘Will you let us walk through your tomato patch, forever, for nothing?’ Not easy,” Mittenthal says.

Knobstone Hiking Trail Association volunteers walk to their build site (Zach Herndon, WFIU/WTIU News).

Knobstone Hiking Trail Association volunteers walk to their work site (Zach Herndon, WFIU/WTIU News).

There’s no word yet on when those easements will be acquired, but talks are happening. KHTA members are hopeful. And in the meantime, they have plenty of work to do in both the top and bottom thirds of the trail.

“We have ongoing repair, restoration and rehab on the original Knobstone,” Mittenthal says. “We are also working on the other end and hope to be working soon on some of the new miles at top end connected to Morgan County.”

Indiana University Student Morgan Scherer is a volunteer for the KHTA. He’s been hiking on the Knobstone Trail for years, and those experiences made him want to give back and help build the trail.

“You can walk from Martinsville to Louisville basically, so you have all these communities connected … and they all have this opportunity to get out on this trail and enjoy the benefits of nature,” he says.

person shovelling dirt

Volunteers work to create sustainable trails to prevent erosion (Zach Herndon, WFIU/WTIU News).

Having young people like Scherer involved in the trail and the extension efforts is something Pagac and other early trail supporters never imagined.

“I’d say Joe Payne and my dream way back when, back in the 70s, and I know we both are excited that people have taken up the mantle and actually want to do it,” he says.

The DNR currently manages the completed the sections of the Knobstone and Tecumseh Trails.

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