Discover the Largest Forest in Indiana (And What Lives Within It)

Written by Lev Baker
Updated: May 25, 2023
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When many people think of Indiana, they might picture fields of corn or bustling urban centers like Indianapolis. However, this Midwestern state is also home to a surprising abundance of forests covering around 20% of the land area. These woodlands provide essential habitats for many species of wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation and tourism.

But what is the largest forest in Indiana, and what kind of wildlife can be found within its borders? Let’s find it all out.

The Largest Forest In Indiana: Hoosier National Forest

The largest forest in Indiana is Hoosier National Forest. The southern hills of Indiana are home to the Hoosier National Forest, an expanse of land spanning over 202,800 acres, managed by the United States Forest Service. However, the forest is divided into four distinct sections, each with its unique features and characteristics. Bedford serves as the headquarters for Hoosier National Forest, while a regional office is located in Tell City.

Indiana’s biggest forest presents an array of recreational and sightseeing options for visitors. It has plenty of rolling hills, backcountry trails, and quaint rural crossroad communities, therefore, making it a stunning place to explore.

Hoosier National Forest is a diverse habitat for wildlife. The forest includes several designated Wildlife Viewing Areas for visitors to observe the creatures that call this region home. 

Among the wildlife found here are five federally listed threatened and endangered species, such as the fan shell mussel, bald eagle, gray bat, rough pigtoe, and the Indiana bat.

Due to its distinctive characteristics as a cave environment, the national forest offers a distinct ecological system. Indiana is recognized as having one of the most prominent karst areas in the United States. The region’s forested landscape is riddled with karst features, with well over 100 studies published on this topic in the state.

Hoosier National Forest boasts numerous Scenic Drives that visitors can embark on to explore the beauty of the area. Driving through the forest is particularly favored in the fall when the colors are at their most vibrant, as well as during the spring when the woods are alive with dogwood, redbud, and spring wildflowers.

Sundance Lake, a 5.3-acre body of water, is also nestled within the boundaries of Hoosier National Forest.

Hoosier National Park with view of the lake
Hoosier National Forest is the largest forest in the entire state of Indiana.

© Bube

History Of Hoosier National Forest

Human presence in Hoosier National Forest dates back 12,000 years when Native Americans hunted within the area. In the late 17th century, Europeans arrived in the forest and began constructing villages there.

After 1865, lumbering gained momentum, and the cutting of challenging terrains started. By 1910, almost all of the area had been cleared of trees. Therefore, in the 1930s, the governor of Indiana pressed the federal government to address the erosion of the land, which led to residents leaving. Eventually, on February 6, 1935, the government took action to address this issue by passing an act, and Forest Service started to purchase the land in portions. 

In an effort to restore the damaged land and contain wildfires, the Forest Service had set immediate objectives. Therefore, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Program of the 1930s was launched, which aimed to offer employment opportunities to the jobless and provide manpower for reforestation efforts in the hills and prevent widespread erosion issues.

Throughout history, people lived and thrived on this vast piece of land. Their natural resource extraction, erosion, soil depletion, repeated acts of clearing, and burning have had a significant impact, and this has been demonstrated by the traces they left behind. Nonetheless, due to the Forest Service’s unwavering efforts, the land was finally acquired and later transformed into Hoosier National Forest.

Hiking And Camping In Hoosier National Forest

This national forest offers an abundance of outdoor activities for nature enthusiasts, adventure seekers, and anyone seeking a rejuvenating escape from the city. From thrilling hikes to serene camping spots, fishing in tranquil streams, to breathtaking vistas, Hoosier National Forest has something for everyone, therefore, you won’t be disappointed. Let’s dive in and explore the exciting outdoor activities this remarkable national forest offers. 


There is no shortage of hiking trails in Hoosier National Forest, with almost 50 of them located in Monroe County. These trails provide many options for both day hikes and extended backpacking trips. The landscape varies greatly, ranging from level and dry to steep and muddy, requiring suitable footwear and a walking stick. 

The forest’s trails also offer a chance to observe local flora and fauna, such as wildflowers, bald eagles, caves, waterfalls, historic sites, and panoramic vistas. Additionally, keep an eye out for horses along the way as well. Some of the best areas for hiking are as follows:

Trail NameLengthElevation
Nebo Ridge Trail16 miles 1,476 ft 
Pate Hollow Trail6.1 miles 898 ft 
Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail1.2 miles 147 ft 
The best hiking areas in the largest forest in Indiana.


If you’re looking for an overnight camping experience that doesn’t rely on developed facilities, dispersed camping – also known as backcountry camping – may be for you. This style of camping is available along many of the hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails within Hoosier National Forest. It’s a great way to get off the beaten path and fully immerse yourself in the area’s natural beauty.

For those looking for both community and amenities in a natural setting, developed campgrounds can provide a unique escape. There are several noteworthy campgrounds to consider within Hoosier National Forest.

  • Hardin Ridge Recreation Area
  • Blackwell Horsecamp
  • German Ridge Recreation Area
  • Saddle Lake Recreation Area
  • Indian-Celina Recreation Area

Each of these campgrounds offers its distinct atmosphere and features, making them all worth considering for your next outdoor excursion.

Cabin rentals are also available near the Monroe Lake shoreline. The Hardin Ridge Recreation Area has two rustic options available for rent. These cabins have convenient amenities such as electricity, centralized water, and a shared vault toilet. However, remember that these cabins can only be reserved in advance – walk-ins are not accepted.

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking enthusiasts can explore numerous trails across Hoosier that offer diverse terrains. From gentle slopes and flat ridgetops to daunting hills and steep slopes, the trails are open to multiple users, including hikers and horseback riders. It’s crucial to prioritize safety by wearing a helmet and exercising caution while biking.

However, it’s worth noting that e-bikes, categorized as motorized vehicles, are not permitted on the trails. Although the trails remain accessible throughout the year, it’s advisable to avoid the rainy season and plan your biking adventure from June through October.

Water Activities

The Hoosier National Forest is a picturesque landscape that surrounds Monroe Lake, providing ample opportunities for water activities. Visitors can bring their paddleboards or kayaks, or rent them from Lake Monroe Boat Rental or Two Herons Marina, to experience paddling on the serene water. In addition, Charles C. Deam Wilderness can be reached by boat, where one can hike for hours or camp overnight amidst nature. 

The Hardin Ridge Recreation Area features a pristine beach for swimming, while others may prefer to relax by dipping their toes in the water and indulging in the therapeutic practice of forest bathing. 

Anglers can test their skills by launching an electric-trolling fishing boat at a designated ramp to catch a variety of fish species residing in the lake.

Hoosier National Forest with a sunset view over the lake
The largest forest in Indiana borders a lake, making for beautiful sunsets.


Tourist Attractions At Hoosier National Forest

Hoosier National Forest offers a variety of popular and intriguing sites for visitors to explore. The forest manages and preserves unique ecosystems such as the Clover Lick Barrens, where rock outcrops and shallow soils are home to many rare species. 

Visitors can also explore the historic Buffalo Trace, a pathway used by migrating buffalos, or hike along the Ohio River and take in scenic views at Buzzard Roost. The forest is rich with karst features and caves, though access to caves is prohibited from September to April to protect endangered bat species. 

Visitors seeking solitude and a remote experience can venture into Indiana’s only Congressionally designated wilderness area, known as Charles C. Deam Wilderness. Hemlock Cliffs, a box-shaped canyon with seasonal waterfalls, rock shelters, and sandstone formations, offer a unique experience for hikers. 

Those who are fond of history may find the Hickory Ridge Lookout Tower appealing. It was built in 1939 and is included in the National Historic Lookout Register. Another interesting site is the Pioneer Mother’s Memorial Forest, an 88-acre ancient woodland and archaeological location that holds the distinction of being the forest’s sole Research Natural Area.

Explorers can also take a look at the National Natural Landmark known as Wesley Chapel Gulf. This 8-acre sinkhole has collapsed, providing a glimpse into the underground river network.

Additionally, there are several other sites to explore in Hoosier National Forest, including the Rickenbaugh House, the Lick Creek African American Settlement, Sundance Lake, and an Orienteering Area. The forest also has five Watchable Wildlife Sites where visitors can observe diverse populations of wildlife species.

trees in a national forest
Trees make for a beautiful sight in the largest forest in Indiana.


Wildlife In Hoosier National Forest

Hoosier National Forest boasts an impressive range of wildlife, including 36 reptilian species, 142 bird species, 28 amphibian species, 125 fish species, and 50 mammal species – and new species are being discovered all the time. Spotting these animals while visiting the forest is undoubtedly an exciting adventure. Let’s explore some of the wildlife in detail.


Groundhogs or Woodchucks are a familiar sight in Hoosier National Forest. They tend to prefer areas like meadows, pastures, crop fields, and yards that are near the edge of wooded areas. These animals are commonly found in brushy or weedy areas.

Woodchucks have a heavy body structure and short legs. They typically grow to be between 16 and 20 inches in length, with a tail that ranges from four to seven inches in length. These animals have yellowish-brown to brown fur, which appears slightly frosted, and white fur around their nose.

Pileated Woodpecker

The forest is home to the impressive pileated woodpecker, which is one of the largest and most visually striking forest birds. These birds are almost as big as crows and are primarily black, with eye-catching white stripes on the neck and under the wings and a striking flaming red crest. These birds are usually heard before they are seen due to their distinctive call.

If you’re interested in observing pileated woodpeckers, it’s best to keep an eye on heavily wooded parks and mature forests. 

Indiana Bat

The Indiana bat is a small, insect-eating bat that migrates and hibernates in colonies in caves and mines during the winter. This species is currently considered endangered, with declining populations making it increasingly difficult to spot.

Indiana bats typically require forested areas for both foraging and roosting and can be found in forested regions. During the winter months, they hibernate in caves and mines. Unless given close scrutiny, distinguishing these bats from other species, especially the common little brown bat, can be a challenging task.

Redear Sunfish

In the water bodies of the forest, including small ponds and midsize streams, redear sunfish can be easily spotted. These fish have been compared to black sea bass, crab meat, and lobster because of their distinct taste. One can identify a redear sunfish by its red trim on the opercular flap. Their physical attributes, such as body shape, mouth, and fins, are quite similar to the bluegill.

During spring, when redear sunfish move up to the spawning beds, it is the optimal time to catch them. These fish are known to be bottom feeders, and fishermen usually catch them by placing live nymphs, garden worms, or red wigglers close to the shore on the bed of the water body.

Where Is Hoosier National Forest Located on a Map?

The Hoosier National Forest is southwest of Indianapolis, Indiana. It is also northeast of Patoka Lake, an 8,800-acre lake, operated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, that hosts freshwater jellyfish, bald eagle nesting sites, river otters, and osprey. Nearby are the historic towns of French Lick. West Baden, and Jasper.

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The Featured Image

Hoosier National Park in autumn
Fall is upon scenic Brown County State Park. The Hoosier National Forest boasts its bright colors amid a hilly, limestone chisled landscape.

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About the Author

I have been a freelance writer for the past 2 years. I have a huge love of animals and I love building my knowledge of animals through research. I love sea creatures in particular, my favorite being the octopus because of their intelligence, and I mean, come on, what's not to love! I have a rescue boxer named Dante who is the friendliest pup a man could ask for.

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