If searching for a beautiful, historic and un-crowded place for hiking on those occasional good-weather days in late winter, consider Pine Hills Nature Preserve.
Located in Montgomery County on state road 234, this DNR property is next door to its bigger and more famous sister, Shades State Park.
This 470 acre tract was the first dedicated state nature preserve and is steeped in local history and spectacular scenery. If you enjoy the rush that comes from standing on the edge of a tall cliff, Pine Hills will not disappoint.
Being a nature preserve, this property does not have the amenities of a state park. There are no special facilities aside from a gravel parking lot located inside Shades and the only trail is a 1.3 loop starting at the entrance. The trail winds leisurely through upland forest for several hundred yards until an impressive vista suddenly opens for the hiker. The ground continues to fall away until you are standing on Turkey Backbone, a very narrow ridge characteristic of this area.
Carved by looping creeks, the area’s razor-thin ridges offer unmatched views of the surrounding forest and the Sugar Creek valley. Hiking the trail is almost like a trip to the mountains in miniature among the flat agrarian Hoosier landscape.
The trail crosses Turkey backbone and then descends through a quiet hemlock grove until reaching level ground in a natural amphitheater surrounded on all sides by cliffs. This flat spot was once the home to several woolen and grist mills from 1832 until 1870. All that remains of these enterprises is the huge notch cut through the side of a backbone to supply water from a pond behind the ridge.
Leaving the valley floor, the trail scrambles upward to the most notable feature of the area, Devils backbone. A six-foot wide, 100-foot tall ridge, it initially appears to be a smooth, man-made stone walkway on the ridge top. The backbone divides the Clifty and Indian creek valleys and the treadway features stone carvings from the 19th century. Careful observation will find names, old dates, passenger pigeons and a life-size relief carving of the Devil. Walking down the ridge, the trail winds up the creek and then rejoins the trail to retrace steps to the parking area.
Safety is an issue to consider when hiking Pine Hills, especially in winter. As the trail maneuvers over the ridges, there are no safety ropes or guide rails. Hiking across the tops of the narrow ridges is vertigo inducing and young children should be held firmly or left home. Visiting this area during icy or even rainy conditions is not really advisable. There is no rock climbing and rappelling allowed in the preserve.