Hit the road

Coming down with some cabin fever? We've got the cure.

The great American road trip is a treasured national pastime–a rite of passage, even.

Sometimes, you only need a quick day trip to get your kicks. And while it’s great to have at least one destination in mind, sometimes the real fun comes from wandering off the main roads, adopting a come what may attitude and finding hidden gems as you go. Intriguing tours and activities, charming towns and beautiful points of interest abound for those who seek them. Gas up the car, pack a few provisions, create a great playlist and hit the road this summer!

Here are some tips for summer trips, where the lush green of the season will make for gorgeous, scenic drives around the region. A leisurely expedition is the perfect way to discover, appreciate and explore what’s beyond the city limits.

INDIANAPOLIS – Indy, Top to Bottom

While the capital city is a frequent destination for many Indiana residents, there is much to explore beyond the usual haunts. One such destination is Eagle Creek Park, the largest park in the city and one of the largest municipal parks in the country. While the majority of the park is a nature preserve and sanctuary, Eagle Creek offers activities for outdoor lovers and adventurers of all ages. From a 36-hole golf course, hiking trails, picnic areas, a leash-free bark park for dogs and a gorgeous amphitheater to fishing and sailing/boating activities and amenities, a swimming beach and educational discovery centers, you simply cannot be bored at this park. Perhaps the most exciting activity at Eagle Creek is the Go Ape Treetop Adventure. This adventure course, set among the treetops, includes five zip-lines, 30-plus crossings and obstacles, rope ladders and Tarzan swings. Each of the five individual course sections leads higher into the tree canopy, culminating into a breathtaking zip-line overlooking the Eagle Creek reservoir. It’s a fun and exciting challenge for ages 10-plus and takes two to three hours to complete. Visit www.GoApe.com to learn more and to book your adventure. www.eaglecreekpark.org

You’ll have worked up an appetite after the exhilarating zip line experience, so head to nearby Trader’s Point Creamery to replenish. Whether eating lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch, you’ll be delighted by the organic menus of The Loft Restaurant. With fresh and local ingredients, this eatery delivers a true farm-to-table experience. The Dairy Bar, located inside The Loft–and in warmer months, also outdoors at the front entrance–serves up homemade, artisan ice creams and other frozen treats, all crafted from their own organic milk and cream and adorned with organic toppings. Grab goodies to-go in the Farm Store, where you’ll find organic and local products from Trader’s Point and other high-quality artisans. Stock up on raw honey, olives and olive oils, jams and preserves, dried fruits, nuts and nut butters, baked goods, coffee, tea and chocolates as well as natural home and personal care products. The Farm Store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., so if you happen to arrive between meal services, you’ll still be able to grab a snack or two. www.traderspointcreamery.com

If you’d rather venture into the city, go for a tour of the catacombs underneath City Market. The striking brick archways and dirt floors of the catacombs are the last vestiges of Tomlinson Hall, a multi-purpose entertainment space built in the 1880s and used for theater and sporting events. Made of brick and Indiana limestone, the massive building burned to the ground in 1958, leaving only its basement intact. The brick arches, barrel vault ceilings and limestone columns held the weight of the heavy structure, leaving an intriguing and vast underground network to explore today. Catacombs, found all over Europe, were traditionally used to bury the dead. However, in Tomlinson Hall’s case, the catacombs were primarily used for storage before being repurposed as a homeless shelter during a particularly cold winter in the early 1900s. After a 1913 flood, Tomlinson Hall doubled as a distribution center for food and clothing. Tours are offered four times a day, two days a month from May through September and three days during the month of October. They sell out quickly, so be sure to book in advance by calling (317) 639-4534 or emailing reservations@indianalandmarks.org. After your tour, grab a bite to eat from the City Market food hall, featuring delicious food by local restaurants such as Spice Box, 3 Days in Paris, Circle City Soups or dozens more. www.indycm.com

SCENIC ROUTE & MAP + Detours

If you take the scenic route of U.S. 24 to State Road 31 to Indy, you’ll pass right through Lagro, home to the legendary Hanging Rock. This nationally-recognized geological landmark rises approximately 80 feet above the Wabash river, offering visitors an expansive view of the river as well as Wabash County. You’ll find Hanging Rock on Division Road in Lagro, 46941.

In Howard County, detour off State Road 31 into the city of Kokomo for a selfie with a giant praying mantis named Kokomantis. Found at the intersection of Washington and Sycamore, this enormous piece of public art by Scott Pitcher is 17 feet tall and 22 feet long and made from repurposed metal from a variety of sources, including World War II pontoons and stoplight arms. While in Kokomo, don’t miss other notable oddities, including the world’s largest sycamore stump, the taxidermied remains of the world’s largest steer named Old Ben and the historic, bright red Vermont Covered Bridge, open only to foot traffic. All three are located within Kokomo’s Highland Park, which also features a playground for any antsy children tagging along on your road trip. For more information, download the Highland Park History Booklet on www.cityofkokomo.org

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MARION/FAIRMOUNT/GAS CITY – “Where cool was born…”

“p2″>Marion, Fairmount and Gas City are so close, they are often overlooked as destinations for Fort Wayne residents. Pick a beautiful day for a leisurely drive, because the destination of this day trip is the journey. Leave Fort Wayne via Route 24 and stop in Roanoke for coffee to-go at Moose & Mollies on 2nd Street. Before you merge onto State Road 9, you’ll pass the Forks of the Wabash historic park, the geographical spot that led the first white settlers to the area. Learn the Wabash Valley frontier story through this park and its structures, which aim to “preserve, protect and enhance” this significant, living piece of Indiana history. www.forksofthewabash.org

Take State Road 9 into Marion and you’ll see small rolling hills and beautiful trees on both sides. As you arrive in Marion, turn left onto N. Washington Street to be greeted by a boulevard of modern suburban commerce. Turn left onto Fourth Street and you’ll head into the heart of Marion. At 723 W. Fourth St., you’ll pass the gorgeous Wilson-Vaughan home, now known as The Hostess House. This grand home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was built by Samuel M. Plato, a noted African-American architect and builder. The Hostess House is open weekdays only, with a resale shop, gift shop and a restaurant serving lunch, with a buffet on Fridays. During weekends, The Hostess House also hosts private and special events such as weddings. Further down on Fourth Street, at the corner of S. McClure Street, is a monument marking the spot of James Dean’s birthplace. While The Seven Gables Apartment House is long gone, the marble monument stands in the middle of well-kept grounds with benches and a historical plaque detailing Dean’s life and death. Elsewhere in Marion is Matter Park, a spacious and lovely spot for a picnic featuring seasonal plantings, ponds, water features and a butterfly garden, as well as a children’s garden and a Garfield statue, in honor of another native son, Jim Davis. Matter Park also has baseball diamonds, a large playground and a band shell. www.marionindiana.us

Leaving Marion, it’s time for lunch. Continue south on State Road 9 to U.S. 35 through Gas City, passing underneath I-69 and turning left onto South Kay Bee Drive to arrive at Payne’s Restaurant. Inside, the friendly staff will welcome you into the cool and eclectic space with a serving of complementary bean and bacon dip with chips. The menu, tucked into vintage books, features coffee drinks, Indiana craft beer and cider, boutique wines, breakfast options available all day, appetizers, unique soups, fresh sandwiches and salads as well as traditional English entrees including fish & chips and chicken curry (the owner was born in Yorkshire, England). Payne’s food is made with fresh, local ingredients, including pasture raised meats. Be sure to save room for dessert, as Payne’s is known for their homemade custard. Once you’ve been to Payne’s, you’ll plan trips to Indy around when you can pull over at Gas City for a meal or a to-go treat. www.paynescoffeeandcustard.com

After filling up at Payne’s, head west on U.S. 35 to S. 150 E., into Fairmount. As you draw closer to town, you’ll notice a charming, well-kept homestead, with a bright white barn, house and fence. This is the Winslow farm, boyhood home of James Dean, where he lived with his aunt and uncle. Just a bit further south on the same side of the road, at 8008 S. 150 E., is Park Cemetery, the final resting place of James Dean. Enter through the main entrance and a sign will guide you to the headstone for the Hollywood star, where you’ll no doubt spot coins from around the world, lipstick kisses on the headstone and cigarettes left as memorials. It’s a strikingly small grave for this larger-than-life celebrity.

Continuing south along S. 150 E., the road turns into Main Street, where you’ll soon find the James Dean Gallery, run by a welcoming and knowledgable chap named Lenny. The gallery grounds are beautifully maintained and feature a vintage-style peep-through photo board. The large Victorian-style home houses a gift shop as well as a comprehensive, well-curated array of James Dean artifacts and memorabilia. Another room contains general Hollywood-themed merchandise, including an impressive selection of vintage celebrity biographies, home decor accents treasures such as retro dish patterns. The gift shop sells souvenirs that run the gamut from T-shirts to postcards to notions like pins and plastic combs, as well as bricks from the demolished high school, books and even high-quality James Dean style eyewear. Take advantage of Lenny’s depth of knowledge of, and affection for, James Dean, as well as his insights into what’s cool and noteworthy in town, to get the most out of your time in Fairmount. www.jamesdeangallery.com

“p3″>Further in town, you’ll find an antique store, The Branch coffee shop, and the bank seen in the background of one of Dean’s most famous Indiana images, which is also seen, among other notable Fairmount markers, in the official music video for Morrissey’s song, Suedehead (required viewing before this day trip). Stop by the Fairmount Historical Museum to view Fairmount artifacts in addition to even more authentic James Dean family heirlooms, including awards, clothing, motorcycles and more. “Garfield” fans will also find a tribute to creator and Fairmount’s other famous son, Jim Davis. Both notable natives (both born in Marion but with Fairmount roots) have been honored with paintings on the Fairmount water tower, best seen from Playacres Park. The museum is the main sponsor of the annual Museum Days festival, held each September, which features activities honoring and centering around Dean as well as Davis’ fat cat “Garfield.” Once you’ve experienced a summer day in Fairmount, you’ll no doubt want to come back in the fall to take part in James Dean movie screenings, look-a-like contests, live music, dance contests, a car show and more, as part of the infamous three-day festival. www.jamesdeanartifacts.com

Before heading back to the Fort, grab dinner at the new and acclaimed restaurant Grains & Grill, which draws crowds from Indianapolis with their menu of elevated pub food, as well as craft beer from Bad Dad Brewery next door. www.grainsandgrill.com

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WEST LIBERTY, OHIO – Amazing Underground Discoveries and More

Head southeast into Ohio and you’ll find a dazzling natural wonder discovered by a farmhand in the late 1800s. Hidden from humans until just before the turn of the century, the Ohio Caverns were formed “when an underground river cut through ancient limestone and created vast rooms and passageways that later filled with countless crystal stalactites, stalagmites and other amazing formations,” according to the official Ohio Caverns website. The fascinating caves are always a comfy 54 degrees, making them a great escape from the oppressive summer heat. Various available tours and options will allow you to get up close and personal with the history and terrain of the caves with more than 2 miles of passageways that descend to 103 feet below the surface. Walking through the caves, visitors of every age will be astounded by just how marvelous nature is and give thanks for the farmhand who mistakenly revealed this stunning and colorful natural attraction. Keep your eyes peeled for the Crystal King, the largest calcite crystal which is already an estimated 400 pounds, and older than 200,000 years!

“p3″>While each of the cave tours lasts an hour or less, there’s plenty more to do on the 35-acre site. The Ohio Caverns gift shop, located within the Visitor Center, impresses with fun souvenirs like enormous rocks and minerals, pretty but inexpensive jewelry and agate slices, which make for stylish beverage coasters. This is fantastic shop to grab gifts for loved ones, especially those with an affinity for natural beauty. Pick up a bag of “mining rough” that includes fun discoveries such as real gems and fossils. Children and adults alike will have fun mining for these authentic treasures in the cool, outdoor mining sluice. The grounds are lovely, with views of grassy, rolling hills and make for a charming picnic spot. The property is also home to over 20 different species of trees, such as Sassafras, Ginkgo, London Planetree and Tulip Poplar, and can be discovered by taking the free, self-guided Tree Tour, with a provided map to help you along the way. www.ohiocaverns.com

Nearby, the two Piatt Castles are interesting must-see homes. Named Mac-A-Cheek–built by Abrahm Piatt–and Mac-O-Chee–built later by brother Donn Piatt–both distinct, intriguing castles have been home to Piatt families for seven generations. These house museums have been meticulously maintained to give visitors an authentic snapshot of over 100 years of family and farm life. Both homes feature three stories, imposing towers, charming painted ceilings and sophisticated woodwork from the Piatt family’s sawmill. The two homes are less than a mile apart and can be toured in a short amount of time. Because Mac-A-Cheek began hosting museum tours in 1912, the family has been collecting and cataloging an impressive array of artifacts for decades. Still family-owned, the Piatt Castles are popular tourist spots and can be rented for events such as weddings and receptions. www.piattcastles.org

If you’ve worked up an appetite, swing by Six Hundred Downtown in Bellefontaine, less than 10 miles north of the caves and castles. This indie pizza place is known for old-fashioned pizzas, made the old-fashioned way, in old-fashioned brick ovens. Owned and operated by four-time World and three-time United States Pizza Champion Michael Shepherd, Six Hundred Downtown has been featured on the Food Network and Discovery Channel and performs internationally with an acrobatic pizza team, the World Pizza Champions. Shepherd is certified in both Classic Italian Pizza and Neapolitan Pizza by the legendary Scuola Italiana Pizzaiolo. Choose from the restaurant’s signature combinations, such as the award winning New Orleans or The Mad Hatter, or build your own in your choice of crust style: classic Italian, Detroit or Chicago thin. Not a pizza lover? The menu also offers plenty of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, pasta and dessert. Need an adult beverage? Choose from a curated list of craft beer and wine. www.600downtown.com

For even more ideas about what to do, see, eat or buy in the area, check out Ohio’s Ramblin’ Road Trip. The website and map spans three counties, highlighting all the great spots and attractions that dot Western Ohio–from Marie’s Candies in West Liberty with over 80 varieties of treats to Freshwater Farms, a fish hatchery where you can interact with fish in their petting zoo or buy some to take home for dinner. www.ohiosramblinroadtrip.com, www.mariescandies.com, www.fwfarms.com.

ROUTE OPTIONS Take U.S. 27 to U.S. 33 on the way there and I-75 to U.S. 30 on the way home for a glimpse into a variety of Ohio’s towns and views.

Safe travels!

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