Head to Brown County, Indiana, for a Colorful Fall Escape

One hour from downtown Indianapolis, Brown County's fall show continues to captivate visitors more than a century after artists first fell under its spell.

Brown County State Park
Brown County State Park, Indiana. Photo: Bob Stefko

Perhaps a novel isn't always the best read on vacation. Maps, for example, provide a pretty compelling story line of their own. Not convinced? Unfurl a map of Brown County, Indiana, and settle in for a tale.

Great blocks of green color much of the page, speaking of park and forest lands blanketing 85 percent of the county. Only thin lines penetrate most of the woods, tracing hiking and biking trails. Heavier lines squiggle along the routes of backroads and highways weaving through rumpled terrain like irresistible plot lines.

But the best tales seem to wait behind place names almost too colorful for a mere road map. Hesitation Point. Bear Wallow. Gnaw Bone. Even as ink on paper, they evoke a sun-dappled, bourbon-soaked, weathered destination where everyone says y'all and cooks with plenty of butter. And in person, on a weekend fall drive …well, the promise holds pretty true.

Brown County covers 316 square miles 60 miles south of Indianapolis and 18 miles east of the university town of Bloomington. But a curtain of tranquility separates the county from the rest of the state. Nestled here are Brown County State Park (Indiana's largest at nearly 16,000 acres), Yellowwood State Forest and parts of the Hoosier National Forest. The topography prevents looking too far ahead on roads or trails, making the payoff all the sweeter when you round a corner to spot one of the famed covered bridges or top out at a vista transformed by fall's brush.

The county's 15,000 or so residents scatter among a handful of unincorporated communities and the single town-Nashville. Most people come to be alone with the land, punctuating days with visits to Nashville, which can swell from 1,000 to 20,000 when fall color comes to the hills.

The view has changed dramatically since the father of the town's spirit arrived. In 1907, renowned landscape artist T.C. Steele built his home and set up a studio on a Brown County hilltop, surrounded by woods reduced mostly to brush by heavy logging. But in a matter of years, both the forest and Steele's influence rapidly rose.

Today, more than 75 artists' studios and galleries fill the county, spiritual descendants of those who established the Brown County Artists' Colony shortly after Steele settled down above the village of Belmont. At his home and studio, now a historic site offering regular tours, visitors get a sense of what drove Steele's unmistakable sense of place.

On an autumn afternoon, with the breeze stirring the nodding heads of snapdragons and carrying the call of southbound geese, it's easy to see how Steele's wife, Selma, named the place. Sitting on the screen porch, she noticed that "it sounded like the wind was singing us to sleep." So "Singing Winds" it was.

Brown County, Indiana
Brown County State Park. Bob Stefko

Down in the valley, Nashville's Van Buren Street stays busy with travelers strolling narrow, root-rumpled sidewalks at the height of mid-October's leaf season, exploring shops, cafes, theaters and galleries. You can buy antiques, visit galleries, refresh your wardrobe or just meander along snacking on kettle corn or ice cream.

Brown County biking
Walnut Trail, Brown County. Bob Stefko

The surrounding hills provide plenty of ways to channel the energy from the steady supply of comfort food. About 120 miles of hiking trails cover the county. You'll find 150-some miles of mountain bike trails within 30 minutes of Nashville. On the challenging Walnut Trail, access Brown County State Park's rugged backcountry on 2.1 miles of narrow singletrack, from Hesitation Point to Hoosiers Nest.

In Brown County State Park, Ogle Hollow trail (also known as Trail 5) climbs 259 feet over its half-mile course out of a ravine, through a protected stretch of yellowwood forest. The sunlight filters though the trees' coppery foliage, settling into golden pools on the forest floor. The state park's 2.2-mile Fire Tower Trail loop leads into ravines and over hilltops. Unbroken woodland views reward climbing the 90-foot tower.

Those are the kind of moments that makes you stop and reach for the map, eager to find out where the next chapter may lead.

What to Do in Brown County in Fall

Brown County Art Guild

The guild sells work by more than 45 local artists, plus artisans' pottery, jewelry and prints.

Brown County Playhouse and Performing Arts Center

The curtains part on live events (plays, musicals, concerts and comedy acts) and movies in this 426-seat theater founded in 1949.

Brown County State Park

Forest and lakes cover these 16,000 acres, with 25 miles of mountain bike trails designated an Epic Trail System, 18 miles of hiking trails and extensive facilities for horseback riding. The 84 rooms at the Abe Martin Lodge join numerous campgrounds.

Hoosier National Forest

More than 260 miles of trails scatter across nine counties of hills turned red and gold with oaks, hickories, maples and beeches. Picnic at one of the tables overlooking the 200,000 acres.

T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Tours of T.C. Steele's home and painting studio teach about the Hoosier Group impressionist who is largely responsible for turning Brown County into an artists' colony.

Yellowwood State Forest

You'll have to hunt for the specimen yellowwoods in this forest, but plenty of pines, walnuts, locusts and oaks shade the horseback and hiking trails around a lake popular for fishing.

Bear Wallow Distillery
Bear Wallow Distillery. Bob Stefko

Where to Eat and Drink in Brown County in Fall

Bear Wallow Distillery

Indiana-grown grains distill into whiskey moonshine and other craft liquors in Gnaw Bone. Watch the process during tours, then taste the fifths in a room meant to look like a backwoods shack.

Big Woods Pizza Company

Artisan pizzas, such as The Smokehouse (pulled pork, smoked chicken, mozzarella, barbecue sauce) pair with beers like Busted Nuckle from local microbrewery Quaff On.

Hobnob Corner Restaurant

Original oak fixtures from 1873 set a casual tone at this restaurant, but the menu reflects foods both homey (liver and onions) and more upscale (salmon with maple syrup vinaigrette).

Where to Stay in Brown County in Fall

Abe Martin Lodge

In the heart of Brown County State Park, rooms in the stone-and-timber 1932 main lodge have patchwork quilts snd furniture trim resembling branches. Families might want to opt for a two-story cabin.

Robinwood Inn

Cottages in a wooded setting come with kitchens, hot tubs, decks and fresh-brewed coffee in the morning. Weekend prices include breakfast at the inn's Bird's Nest Cafe in downtown Nashville.

Updated by
Danny Lee

Danny Lee is a former Midwest Living contributor who specialized in travel.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles