Pine Hills Nature Preserve is one of the finest in our state, but your initial impression isn’t likely to reflect that. Beginning in Shades State Park, you’ll cross Indiana 234, then climb over a fence stile. The trail heads off to the northeast, meandering along old roads through woods that are nice enough. Eventually you’ll arrive at a small clearing and a sign that says Turkey Backbone. This is where things start to get interesting. Wooden platforms and steps traverse a narrow ledge that features sheer drop-offs to either side, with a creek lying far below.
Continue walking, and you’ll pass through a dense, often dark hemlock grove before arriving at the top of two sets of stairs. The trail tees at the bottom of the second; turn right. You’ll transit a short stretch of flood plain forest, rich with ferns, then emerge along the creek bank. Mill Cut Backbone rises high above, across the creek. Continue along the trail, following the course of the creek, until you arrive at The Slide, a steep rock face that regularly sloughs stone into the stream below.
Further on, you’ll pass through another hemlock grove before emerging at the confluence of two creeks. Honeycomb Rock, named for the thousands of voids in its face, looms overhead. I recommend exploring the creek banks in this area, particularly upstream along the larger creek, where one side of the Devil’s Backbone rises precipitously, and trees cling tenaciously to fissures in the rock.
When you return to the trail, it will climb through hemlocks to the Devil’s Backbone. This is not a good place for small children, or those who fear heights. In places, the backbone is as narrow as six feet, with sheer drops of maybe a hundred feet to either side. One stretch is a relatively smooth slab, doubtless slick after a rain. Others have been here before, as testified by the numerous carvings, some bearing dates from the 1800s. There are even two large bird carvings that some speculate represent passenger pigeons. Stay awhile, but please don’t add to the “artwork”. On reaching the other side of the backbone, the trail descends sharply toward the creek; from there it’s a relatively straightforward return to the entrance. This is one of the most spectacular destinations in Indiana, and certainly one of my favorites.
Directions: Montgomery County. Access to Pine Hills is via Shades State Park (Fee, page 128). Take the first right after passing the Shades gatehouse and follow it all the way to the Trail 10 parking area. Trail 10 heads east, soon crossing IN 234 and entering Pine Hills.
GPS: N 39 55.977 W 87 03.706 (Trail 10)
Facilities: None in the preserve, although Shades State Park has a few.