The length of a documentary about Indiana pedestrian trails in the early 1990s would’ve been about 60 seconds.
The one-running time of Terre Haute filmmaker Mark Gibson’s “The Hoosier Way: Trails of Indiana” epitomizes just how far the state has progressed in developing its hiking and biking paths.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Gibson said Tuesday. “There’s been a lot that’s been developed in the last 20 years.”
Gibson’s film captures Indiana’s trail system, which is evolving into a network of nature paths, walkways through wetlands, elevated trails, converted railroad beds and cardio-building courses for adventurous hikers. “That’s what really makes the [Indiana] trail system unique,” he said.
His documentary premieres at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 on WTIU, a PBS station in Bloomington.
In researching his film, Gibson found a statistic from the Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in a 1993 Bloomington Herald-Times news story. It explained that almost half of the nation’s 6,000 miles of rail-trails — those developed on abandoned train corridors — were in the Midwest. The states’ rail-trail mileage ranged from Michigan’s 712 to Ohio’s 143.
At the bottom of the list was Indiana, with 17 miles of rail-trails.
Twenty-nine years later, Indiana’s boosted that total to 510 miles along 78 rail-trails, lifting the state from last place in the Midwest to, at least, one notch above Missouri.
More trails, those on old railroad beds and elsewhere, are planned. Last March, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the $90-million Round 2 of his Next Level Trails program, which includes 18 projects, adding to the state’s existing 4,200 miles of trails. The largest grant in that second phase of Holcomb’s program was a $5-million award to help develop the 9.87-mile Parke Community Rail Trail, which will stretch from the Rockville Depot to the Vigo County line south of Rosedale.
The trail through southern Parke County’s famed rural countryside “will provide access to some beautiful places,” said Mark Davis, president of the nonprofit group Parke Trails Alliance.
The ability to walk, jog or bicycle through such scenery forms the basis for Gibson’s documentary. It follows two previous Gibson documentaries broadcast on WTIU — “Terre Haute: Rise and Resilience” in 2019 and “A Rural Revolution: Indiana’s Round Barns” in 2020. Gibson, his crew and often his family trekked from the Indiana Dunes national and state parks near Michigan City to the Knobstone Trail near Henryville, just north of Louisville, Ky. Gibson hiked three hours through Clifty Falls State Park to get footage of a canyon.
The Knobstone is “pretty rough and rugged,” he explained. The Cardinal Greenway spans 62 miles from Marion to Muncie, and is the state’s longest trail. The Indiana Dunes trails let pedestrians traverse swamps and bogs. The elevated Parkview Tree Canopy Trail overlooks Fort Wayne’s riverfront area. The state’s rail-trails wander through urban, rural and forested regions. State parks like Turkey Run and Shades boast trails through ravines and canyons around Sugar Creek. And, rail-trails — like the National Road Heritage Trail in Vigo County — wander through urban and rural sectors.
“This is all within our home state,” Gibson said.
Terre Haute’s Heritage Trail is included in the documentary. The local trail got its start as the 21st century arrived as a paved path along a vacated railroad line. It now stretches nearly seven miles from the city’s east side to the Indiana State University campus. Vigo County has more than 30 total miles of trails, with the Heritage and others in the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area, Hawthorn and Fowler and Prairie Creek county parks, Griffin Bike Park and the city parks. Additions to the Heritage Trail and others are planned, energized by last year’s completion of the pedestrian walkway over the Wabash River wetlands, connecting Terre Haute and West Terre Haute.
“Great things are happening in trail development,” said Michael Shaw, president of Wabash Valley Riverscape. “The city of Terre Haute is working on numerous projects including connecting the Heritage Trail to the river bridges. Vigo County Parks and [the] town of West Terre Haute are looking at extending the trail loop around West Terre Haute. The new pedestrian connector will link these projects.”
An eventual connection with the planned Parke Community Rail Trail at the Vigo County line could generate significant foot and bike traffic. The Parke trail is a $6.5-million project, using the state’s $5-million Next Level Trails grant and a matching 20% in local funds through fundraising, corporate grants and volunteer labor, materials and equipment, Mark Davis of the Parke Trails Alliance explained. It will expand Parke County’s tourism, the county’s second-largest industry behind farming, thanks to the Covered Bridge Festival and the historic covered bridges.
“This is one more amenity that can bring in a different set of people,” Davis said.
Touring cyclists could bike the 10-mile trail, eat at Rockville’s restaurants, spend the night and visit some shops before moving on. Such amenities also could coax more young people — now capable of working remotely — to live and raise families in the county.
“Now they can live in the country, have their organic garden and live close to the trail,” said Davis, a 62-year-old Parke County native, who left for college and a career but moved back in retirement.
Davis and Parke County commissioner Jim Meece both acknowledged the trail construction involves some opposition from landowners along the rail line. Meece and Davis both said they respect those opposed and will accommodate those landowners. Portions of the trail will be routed onto county roads, as a result. Once the trail is completed in 2023 and pedestrians begin using it, Meece and Davis believe county residents will be pleased.
Gibson’s film touches on that acclimation process that unfolded in other Hoosier communities as rails-to-trails projects began decades ago.
“Once it takes place and people get their families out there, people go, ‘Oh, this is nice,’” Gibson said. “It’s [a matter of] changing perceptions.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.