The older I get, the more I bask in returning to cities time and time again to really deep-dive into their essence. I’m no longer the traveler setting out to simply check places off the list; I adore getting to know a place in a manner that doesn’t require Google Maps to get around (my direction-challenged husband will never be so fortunate, alas). So the fact that we got to go back to Indiana—this time Bloomington in fall—for the second time in six months was a dream.
As I’ve said before, give me a college town or mid-sized city, and I’ll choose that any day over a major metropolis. It’s a further bonus that Bloomington is just a four-hour drive from Nashville, making it an easy trip for a long weekend with an abundance of outdoor activities.
Our spring adventures in Bloomington were glorious—we became BFFs with the city’s booming beer culture—and on this visit, we got more intimately acquainted with Indiana’s nature. The leaves were just beginning to peep, and the foliage was more green than yellow and red, but we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect four days of exploration.
Heading to Bloomington, Indiana soon? Don’t miss these awesome fall activities:
Climb up the Fire Tower
I’ll be honest: I don’t consider myself scared of heights until I face something like the 133 metal stairs leading up the Hickory Ridge Fire Tower. I don’t know if it’s the grates that allow you to see all the way to the ground or the fact that as I get older, heights seem more frightening, but I clung onto the rail for dear life—particularly on the way down. SVV was the first to the top—and later decided to forearm-skate to the bottom—but even he was pumped with adrenaline by the experience of scaling this monster.
The climb up the 110-foot-tower was totally worth it for the 360-degree views of the surrounding Hoosier National Forest, and it’s really insightful to see the vast forests in all directions from the vantage. This country is big! It’s easy to lose sight of that if you only spend time in the urban areas. The fire tower is just 22 miles outside of Bloomington, but the last six miles are on unpaved road, so be prepared for a bit of a bumpy ride. On the way in (or out), there are plenty of hiking trails to stop off and get in your steps.
Hike out to the Peninsula
On our spring visit, we went foraging by boat through the Middlefork Waterfowl area of Monroe Lake, a pristine, sprawling reservoir just outside of Bloomington. This time, on the drive back from the fire tower, we pulled up to the Amy Weingartner Branigin Peninsula Preserve at the Sycamore Land Trust and did a 2.2-mile loop out to the water’s edge and back. This walk took a little bit longer than I anticipated as there were some steep parts, but you’re on a gravel path for most of it, so the terrain is pretty moderate. Keep your eyes peeled for geodes! These little rock pockets look like lumpy potatoes and are often filled with crystal formations, some quite rare. While you’re not supposed to collect them, smashing a few together to gaze with wonder at the hidden treasure inside is a lot of fun.
Once you emerge from the woods, you’ll be on the water’s edge, and what a peaceful place it is indeed! Skipping stones are in short supply, but if you look closely at the pebbles and detritus of the lake you’ll soon spy ancient fossils from a long-gone, 350-million-year-old coral reef. The crinoids—can you tell I’m married to the son of a geologist?—are scattered just about everywhere in Indiana but the lake shoreline is a prime spot to find fresh specimens of their tubular, stem bodies and leaf-like feathers.
Go wine-tasting at Oliver Winery
Did you know that Indiana boasts the largest winery east of the Mississippi? I didn’t either until I found myself at Oliver Winery, the most gorgeous slice of real estate in Monroe County. This employee-owned winery and tasting room has been around since the 1960s, first as a hobby for law professor William Oliver then as a prime supporter of legislation allowing small wineries in the state, which passed in 1971. The lovingly manicured gardens are a great spot to sip on a Chardonnay with a picnic basket (they also sell cheese, deli items and snacks if you didn’t bring your own).
While out that way, you can also make an appointment to tour Creekyard Vineyard, the expansive, 54-acre hilltop vineyard from which Oliver sources its grapes.
Sip your way through the seasonal brews
True, we may have visited all of Bloomington’s breweries in the spring, but there’s a new kid on the block—Switchyard Brewing Company—and they’re cooking up some delicious beer. Started by a pair of former paramedics, Switchyard opens at 8am(!) to accommodate those in professions that have alternate hours, which I love as SVV and I are always looking for a place to have a breakfast beer. Switchyard is also pet-friendly, and Ella is still furious we left her at home for this trip.
We also returned to Function Brewing, as well as Upland, to try out their new roster of fall beers, and of course, no visit to Bloomington is complete without an evening spent at the Wood Shop, Upland’s dedicated sours facility.
Tuck in for a meal at Cardinal Spirits
Yes, we went to Cardinal Spirits on our last trip, and no, we couldn’t resist another feast at this five-year-old distillery with its own upscale restaurant. It was one of the best meals we had in Bloomington on the first go, and on the second, the menu had just changed over, so obviously we had to return—for comparison’s sake. The verdict? The fall menu might have been even better than the spring! Of course, I’m partial to anything that implements squash, mushrooms, cinnamon, apple butter and other seasonal flavors.
Go for a stroll in Leonard Springs Nature Park
This place was peace and quiet at its finest—and it’s a city park, too! We went for a walk in the 95.5-acre Leonard Springs on a sunny Friday morning and were the only people out and about—other than some wildlife, which we could hear traipsing about in the woods.
Scoot along the B-Line
The B-Line is, to me, one of Bloomington’s greatest assets. Yet another example of an old railroad corridor transformed for public use, the 3.1-mile B-Line traverses the city and stretches from one end to the other, cutting right through the heart of downtown and allowing bikes, runners or slow walkers along its length. Development has sprung up along the B-Line, so there are now plenty of places to stop for a snack, a photo or a beer.
Now that Bird and Lime have both arrived in Bloomington, scooters are everywhere, so it’s easier than ever to travel the B-Line as a tourist without needing your own bicycle. Just check out a scooter and go! In fact, we kept our car parked at our downtown hotel most of the trip and used scooters to get everywhere we needed to go. A B-Line bonus? There are murals cropping up everywhere right off this heavily-trafficked path!
I put together this Google Map for reference of how to plan your weekend in Bloomington:
Looking for more travel tips to Indiana? Check out these posts:
We traveled to Indiana as part of a content project with Visit Bloomington. All opinions are our own.
Totally hysterical to see my hometown popping up on your site this year. You know how it’s sometimes difficult to see the place you grew up through the eyes of a visitor? I’ve really tried hard to really appreciate Btown now that I’ve been away for 20 years, but I’ll admit, sometimes I still just spend days on my parents’ couch rather than walk the, literally, 10 minutes to Cardinal Distillery. Yes, they live so close, it’s bonkers. I’ll be home for Christmas this year, and I pledge to really do Btown proud this year. (Side note, many of the outdoor activities you did recently were totally news to me…or else I grew up calling those places other things…next time you gotta go see the house where the movie Breaking Away was filmed. Ok, I’ll stop now!)
I’m so jealous you’re from there! I wish my hometown had seen such growth. But I totally get going home and wanting to just chill, especially living where you guys do. Maybe when you’re there for Christmas, you can take a scooter to Cardinal 🙂
I would definitely not climb up the Fire Tower! That looks scary as hell! I climbed up a rickety tower with a see-through floor in Nazca, Peru to view the lines, even though I thought it was worth it my feet still tingle when I think about it 🙂
Ha, it was a bit frightening coming down, but man, you can see forever from the top!
I’ve been to Bloomington twice and haven’t done *anything* in this post. But I think that speaks to how nice the town itself is! You can bop around bakeries and shops and restaurants downtown and still have a lovely day. (Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself to feel better about missing those parks.) Luckily, Bloomington is a 4-hour drive from Columbus, too, so maybe I’ll make the trip back in 2019 to go out to Leonard Springs the Peninsula 🙂
Ahhh, what all have you done there, Dylan? I believe it as I still have a pretty long list from my first trip that I haven’t checked off! Including Oddball Fermentables, Friendly Beasts and several of the local hikes. You should definitely head back in 2019!