RachaelRachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

Every summer for several years now, my family has converged on Turkey Run State Park in western Indiana to have a reunion. Some of us camp and some stay in the park’s inn. While Turkey Run is a great place, with unique hiking trails along a creek bed and access to canoeing and an inflatable boat nearby, our family decided to go somewhere new this year. We stayed in Indiana but ended up a little farther south at Spring Mill State Park.

Spring Mill State Park

We soon discovered Spring Mill State Park has more to do than perhaps any other state park in the region, and it’s so good we may return another summer. The big draws for us were Spring Mill State Park ’s working pioneer village and its cave tours via boat, but there are plenty of other things to do.

What to Do:

We visited the pioneer village during our first full day at the park, and we returned on two separate days. The centerpiece is a three-story working grist mill built in 1817, and cornmeal ground on site is available for purchase. The mill runs for only a minute or two every hour on the hour on days when the miller is there. It’s worth going to the mill two times: once to view its operation inside the building where the miller talks about how everything works, and the second time outside where your kids will enjoy getting splashed near the large wooden wheel.

The village, founded in 1814, is home to 20 buildings, including a leather shop, weaver, blacksmith, tavern and inn (my daughters’ favorite), distillery, apothecary, school, meeting house, and the homes of several former residents. You’ll find costumed interpreters around the village, and we saw both the blacksmith and the leather worker in action. There’s a large garden with plants and herbs of the era, and a brief walk along a trail offers a view of a cave and the source of the spring that feeds the stream that powers the mill. Each day we visited was a little different, with different interpreters and demonstrations.

Our 3- and 7-year-old daughters enjoyed browsing in the village mercantile, where they tried on sunbonnets and viewed merchandise made by hand in the village like corn husk dolls, woven rugs, ceramic ware, leather work, and garden decor. We purchased some old fashioned candy drops, a small bookmark that looked like a doll and was made of fabric scraps, and a pioneer game involving a hoop and sticks called Game of Graces that was great fun back at our campsite. (A word of warning: Don’t play the game near trees where the hoop can get stuck.)

The cave tour was another highlight of our time at Spring Mill State Park. For $3 per person, we rode a narrow boat with a park guide through part of Twin Caves. The tour lasts approximately 20 minutes and features many classic cave formations like stalactites, and we saw a crayfish sitting on a rock. Sometimes visitors catch a glimpse of fish in the cave, but the water was too muddy due to recent heavy rains during our visit. Children must be at least 3 years old to go on the tour.

We spent part of one morning exploring the Grissom Memorial, dedicated to local astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom, America’s second man in space. Exhibits include Grissom’s space suit and the Gemini 3 Molly Brown spacecraft. The museum is not large, but several interactive exhibits kept my daughters occupied, and we spent a longer time there than I anticipated. Admission is free.

We can’t visit any state park without dropping in to the nature center, and Spring Mill’s two-story nature center is a nice place to hang out especially if you need to get out of the rain. There are a few live native snakes and turtles to view, along with craft tables with multiple projects for all ages. The lower level has an elaborate puppet theatre where kids can play. Turkey Run State Park still has the best bird- and wildlife-viewing area in its nature center, though.

Spring Mill also has numerous hiking trails ranging from easy to rugged, and our family barely touched on these during our few days at the park. My husband and oldest daughter hiked to the mouth of Donaldson Cave one morning, and another day my husband hiked around Spring Mill Lake near the nature center. An old cemetery with graves that are as old as 200 years is another interesting place to walk around.

Where to Stay:

Spring Mill State Park has a large campground and a quaint inn. My husband, daughters, and I camped, as did my brother and his preschool-aged son. The campground has a nice mix of shady and sunny sites, and some sites back up to a thin brush line bordered by a creek. Campground amenities include bathhouses with showers, two playgrounds, a large outdoor pool (with a fee of $3 per person, with younger children free), and a camp store that sells supplies and trinkets. Campsites with electricity run around $23 a night.

It had been extremely rainy the week before our visit, so the full-shade campsites were slightly muddy and were so saturated they couldn’t absorb brief rainstorms without puddling. On our first evening there, it rained heavily for about 20 minutes and we were surprised at how badly our shady site flooded during that time. Pools of water formed around our tent and fire pit, and we knew we couldn’t stay there. We opted to move to a more open, less waterlogged part of the campground that had grass rather than packed dirt/mud and still offered some shade trees, and we had no more problems with standing water. The park employee at the campground gate was helpful and had no problem with us changing sites. It helped that we had our pick of much of the campground because so many people had cancelled reservations because of the rain.

Meanwhile, my parents and sister stayed in the Spring Mill Inn. The inn’s lobby has a rustic feel with lodge-type furniture, a large fireplace, and wooded views. Guest rooms run around $91 to $110 dollars a night and look a little more basic than something you’d find at the Holiday Inn, but they’re clean and functional and I’d be content staying there. Be advised: WiFi is unreliable all over the park, including at the inn, where my dad tried to do some work in the lobby and watched his connection continually come and go.

 

We enjoyed swimming with my mom and sister in the inn’s unique pool. Half of the pool is indoors and half is outdoors, and guests swim under a wall to access both parts of the pool. One day, we found a toad stuck inside the indoor pool room. We guessed it hopped in through the sliding glass doors that access the outdoor pool area. I handed the toad to my 7-year-old daughter who gladly escorted him back outside. Just off the pool room is a large game room with plenty of comfortable seating, arcade games, ping pong, air hockey, crafts, puppets, and other activities for kids.

Where to eat:

Whether you stay in the inn or at the campground, be sure to eat at the inn’s picturesque Millstone Dining Room that’s open to all park guests. The restaurant serves breakfast and features daily lunch and dinner buffets. We enjoyed dinner there on our first evening after setting up our campsite (and before it rained and our first site flooded). The buffet included a full salad bar, ham, ribs, fried chicken, fried fish, mashed potatoes and gravy, bean soup, cornbread made from cornmeal produced at the local mill, and more. The dessert table had cobblers, brownies, Reese’s Pieces cookies, granny cake, and half a dozen different pies including old-fashioned classics like sugar cream pie. The cost was around $13 per adult.

Our family stayed at Spring Mill State Park for five nights, and we felt like we had not run out of things to do. There were miles of trails and an old cemetery yet to explore, and the pools, pioneer village, and campground playgrounds were still keeping our daughters entertained. We easily could have spent a few more days there. That’s the mark of a good park.

What are your favorite state parks?

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While you’re here, you may enjoy these posts:

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