If you’re looking for an interesting ramble through the world of caves and springs without venturing too far from good restaurants and a major limestone-clad university, it’s hard to beat Leonard Springs Nature Park in Bloomington.
The 95-acre park is wrapped around a 100-foot deep canyon that sinks into the swiss-cheese-like bedrock of the southern Indiana stone belt. There, in the forested land below the water table, several major springs and a few minor caves provide a fascinating glimpse at the subterranean plumbing of the area.
From the turn of the 19th-century into the 1940’s, the bottom lands of the canyon were impounded behind a dam to serve as the growing city’s water supply. Unfortunately, the caves that funnel water towards the area also provide an equally easy outlet so the lake proved inadequate for the water demands of Bloomington. After the dam finally washed out in 1943, the area sat fallow until 1998 the areas was transferred to the Bloomington Parks Department.
Leonard Springs Nature Park features a one-mile trail that passes two caves then descends a major set of steel stairs to visit Shirley Springs. The trail then follows the water past several waterfalls until it eventually reaches the former lake bed. That area is now a wetland impounded courtesy of local beavers.
The trail continues to the old dam and then returns back to the rim of the canyon via an old gravel service road. Along the way are seasonal pit toilets and a few picnic tables.
Overall, the area offers great opportunities for nature study, photography and a short hike. Even in the heat of summer, the springs provide a steady flow of 52-degree water that provides a nice cool microclimate under the thick forest canopy.
Visitors to the area should keep a couple of things in mind.
First, the parking area will only accommodate approximately 8 or 10 vehicles so visits on weekends are not guaranteed.
The trail down to the springs involves a series of metal stairs that could prove challenging for those with physical problems. The alternative is a mile-long hike that more-gradually climbs the rim of the canyon.
Finally, the trail sees considerable use and tends to be muddy in wet weather. Dogs and their owners are common visitors and seeing a filthy, friendly canine returning from the wetland often involves a muddy shower as the dog stops to say hello. Though this park is located inside one of our state’s best-known cities, it’s not a typical jaunt across the manicured lawn. Hiking boots and not kites are the rule in this park.
Visit the Leonard Springs website