Indiana's state parks and recreation areas are some of the best outdoor places to visit this time of year. The Hoosier state boasts an impressive twenty-four state parks, twenty-two fish and wildlife areas, fourteen state forests, and dozens of nature preserves. Just outside of Bluffton, along the mighty Wabash River, lies Ouabache State Park. It’s a delightful park if you’ve never been and definitely one that should make your bucket list this year. Ouabache offers visitors an assortment of activities, trails, and amenities to suit even the most fastidious of park visitors.
The park offers five hiking trails, ranging from 1-6 miles in length and with a difficulty scale ranging between easy and moderate. Visitors may also ride along the 2.73 mile Ouabache Bike Trail or spend a night in the campgrounds. The park also features tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts; picnic tables and shelters; and a nature center. Beautiful Kunkel Lake sits in the middle of the park offering excellent fishing opportunities and, during the warmer months, a beach for those looking to escape the summer heat. Visitors may also rent boats or canoes on the weekends.
More adventurous visitors may also climb a 100 foot fire tower, one of thirteen still standing in the Hoosier state. Built in the 1930s, the recently restored tower offers commanding views of the park and the Wabash River valley around Bluffton. For decades, fire watchers would climb daily to the top to watch the horizon for forest fires. At one time, thirty-three such fire towers existed across Indiana.
Arguably the most exciting feature about the park is the Bison Exhibit, a twenty-acre expanse of space that is home to the nation’s official mammal. A gravel trail surrounds the exhibit, just in case the bison aren’t quite where you need them to be for photos.
Ouabache State Park actually began as the Wells County State Forest and Game Preserve in the 1930s. During the Great Depression, New Deal workers in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the space. To honor their efforts, the Friends of Ouabache State Park raised funding to commission and install a statue at the picnic grounds in 2014.
At one time, according to the Indiana DNR, Ouabache was the "greatest wildlife laboratory in the United States for raising pheasant, quail, raccoon, and rabbit." The Wells County State Forest and Game Preserve became the Ouabache State Recreation Area in 1962 and then a state park in 1983.
As to the name? Locals (and the DNR) pronounce it 'O-bah-chee,' but Ouabache (or Ouabaché) is really just a French spelling of Wabash, as in the Wabash River. ‘Wabash’ itself is derived from the Myaamia Native American name for the river, Waapaahshiiki Siipiiwi (meaning, White Shining River). For a full explanation of the spellings and pronunciations, go here.
As always, bring plenty of water, sunscreen and bug spray. But do also plan on spending several hours in the park at least, if not the entire day (or a weekend). There’s so much to do and see, you won’t want to miss a thing.