Versailles State Park Dam

Versailles State Park: Second Place is Nice, Too.

It’s often said that nobody knows the name of whoever captures second place. Whether you’re talking the Indy 500 or the runner-up in the Miss America pageant, not too many people could tell you who almost won the contest only a year later. This effect even carries over to the outdoors.

Most outdoors enthusiasts and regular visitors can recite the fact that Brown County State Park near Nashville is the state’s largest state park. However, a room full of blank stares would be the result if you asked “What is Indiana’s second-largest park?”

The correct answer is “Versailles State Park.”

Located adjacent to the town of Versailles, the park encompasses nearly 6000 acres of valley and ridges in historic southeastern Indiana. The land was actually intended to be a National Park in the 1930’s when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) began working at Versailles but the CCC was eventually pulled away and the National Park Service deeded the land to Indiana in 1943.

Though certainly well-visited, Versailles definitely sits in the shadow of her bigger western sister. While Brown County State Park is a veritable zoo nearly year-around, even weekend days in Versailles aren’t exceptionally crowded. During our recent visit on a Thursday with gorgeous weather, there were probably less than 50 people in the park not counting overnight campers.

Versailles State Park has the typical state park amenities and huge tracts of forest land but it is unusual because there are only three hiking trails of less than six miles. Meanwhile, there are six mountain bike trails that total over 16 miles and 25 miles of horse trails.

We hiked two of the three hiking trails and found they lived up to their “easy” rating, except for the connector trail from the lake up the bluffs to Trail 2. This quarter-mile trail would be more at home in the Smoky Mountains than Indiana but once we reached the top and eventually decided that cardiac arrest wasn’t immediately imminent, we found Trail 2 mostly level and highly scenic while skirting the bluffs of Fallen Timber creek.

Even better, we found “Bat Cave,” an unmarked but formerly-famous cave where a confederate soldier supposedly lived for a few years after deserting the famous raid of Colonel John Hunt Morgan. In 1863 “Morgan’s Raiders” held the newly-built Ripley County courthouse in Versailles hostage using two cannon until the town fathers turned over the county treasury to Commander Morgan.

If, like us, you manage to find the tiny cave using internet sleuthing and dead reckoning, you’ll probably be disappointed but it did provide a nice goal for the hike.

The Ripley County Courthouse

The bike trails range from easy one-mile loops to six-mile-long gut-busters. Hiking is allowed on bike trails but you would have to be exceptionally naive to believe it’s a good idea. Walking on narrow, twisting single-track with numerous hidden curves as bikers’ pound their way up and down hills is a sure-fire recipe for ending up with a derailleur stuck in your thorax. Leave the bike trails to mountain bikers. It looks fun.

We didn’t sample the horse trails since we don’t own one of the expensive four-legged manure factories but we highly commend the DNR for keeping horses and hikers separate. From a hiker’s standpoint, horse trails are a rotten place to walk so it’s great that horse fans have an extensive dedicated network of trails in the park that is completely separate from the other areas.

Lake Versailles forms the picturesque centerpiece of the park and offers boating and fishing. There is plenty of shoreline access for anglers while boats are limited to electric motors only. According to locals, the lake rises quickly after a rain and gets very muddy, as it was during our visit even though there had been no recent rainfall. Rumor has it that the DNR has quietly given up on the lake fishery due to the ongoing water problems.

Lake Versailles

However, 30-pound channel catfish and seven-pound bass are pulled from the waters nearly every year so anglers shouldn’t discount it completely. Crappie fishing is considered decent with most fish averaging around ten inches while the bluegills are abundant, hungry and small.

The three campgrounds, located on flat ridge tops, are comparable with other DNR properties. Overall, most of the sites are somewhat lacking in trees so if overhead canopy is important to you, investigate what is available before committing.

Overall the park is quiet, well-maintained and scenic if not especially hiker-friendly, though mountain bikers and horse riders should be in Heaven. Yet, even if you don’t spend the day astride a seat or steed, Versailles State Park serves well as either a stopover or a base of operations for exploring the lovely and historic countryside between here and the Ohio River.

That’s not too bad for being in second place.

Photos: Brent T. Wheat

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