Return to the Hoosier National Forest’s Browning Mountain

It’s been two decades since my last hike up the Browning Hill in SoBro – Southern Brown County to non-natives. So, a trek to the top of the state’s 53rd highest point was long past due when I set the GPS on Saturday for what Google Maps calls “Browning Mountain: Indiana’s Stonehenge.”

And while the timing and conditions were near-perfect this time, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar from the last. The 1996 excursion to this Hoosier National Forest ridge top occurred in early spring. The creative medium was black-and-white film. And, let’s just say, love permeated the atmosphere alongside the peak’s spectacular and mysterious nature. The photographic mission then was more memorial than artistic.

This late-fall trip was all mission, marking a return to work on an upcoming coffee-table book called Rewilding Southern Indiana: The Hoosier National Forest. Not to mention a likewise overdue return to the trail. It’s been 2 1/2 months since an actual photo hike appeared in prose or picture on the Natural Bloomington website. The only love this time involved the work.

At 928 feet, Browning is impressive in its relief and ascent. It’s renowned and nicknamed for the many massive stone blocks that lie in various arrangements along the hill’s western edge overlooking the Salt Creek Middle Fork Valley. Some are the size of cars.

The stone slabs’ presence is so unexpected that their origins have been explained through the ages via legends that credit the herculean exploits of early settlers, Native Americans, ancient peoples and extraterrestrials. According to Outdoor Indiana, some still believe that Native Americans gather there for “ceremonial services.”

Browning Hill – the more apt descriptor – is situated directly above and due east of the Middle Fork between Story and Maumee in south-central Brown, just above the Jackson County line. The view includes the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area, which lies across creek to the southwest.

Due to its remote location and proximity to the Deam Wilderness, the U.S. Forest Service manages Browning as a special management area due to the “relatively undisturbed” hardwood forest cover. Trailheads at Maumee and Elkinsville are unmarked.

Saturday’s expedition was the first of at least three Browning hikes dating back to the 1970s to embark from the Elkinsville trailhead. Elkinsville is an underwater “ghost town” that was evacuated and inundated in the 1960s to create Monroe Lake.

This slice of SoBro is so remote that there’s no cell reception of any kind beneath the hill. The GPS lady’s synthetic voice announced “arrived” alongside what appeared to be the house and split-rail fence at whose end the trailhead was supposed to lie – but clearly wasn’t.

Forty-five minutes exploring from behind the wheel via a Hoosier map on the lap included stops at the dead-end bridge on the Middle Fork, the Elkinsville Cemetery and a backtrack along Elkinsville Road to cell reception to reorient.

Elkinsville Road Ts at the foot of Browning Hill at Combs Road. The trailhead lies to the left (east), just past a house and split-rail fence. The only marking is a Forest Service post prohibiting horses and ORVs.

The lost time and steep, obscured-by-late-fall-leaves trail reduced the planned two-hour Browning exploration by half. The result was a quick stop-and-shoot at the first set of boulders encountered. No time to contemplate the sun dropping over a panoramic, smoky-hills view or find the Toyota-sized rocks. Just enough to get out before dark. For now.

A full afternoon return is now on deck.

Natural Bloomington project updates

The last pass on the Guide to Natural Areas of Northern Indiana book began last week. Michael A. Homoya from the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves has reviewed the manuscript to ensure overly sensitive species aren’t subjected to additional pressure as a consequence of the book, and he will do so again. The entire package will be delivered to IU Press this month for publication in Spring 2019.

The Browning Hill hike permanently returns the focus to the Rewilding the Hoosier book, so the vast majority of future work will feature imagery and tales from Indiana’s largest public land holding. Expected publication date is Spring 2020.

Photographs: Hoosier National Forest, Browning Hill.


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