Bloomington, Indiana, and higher education have been woven together for the past two centuries. Founded around the State Seminary of Indiana in the 1800s, Bloomington is the present-day home of Indiana University. When students arrive at the start of the school year, this town of 83,000 swells by 60 percent.
As a Midwestern college town, Bloomington is a melting pot of cultures, attracting students from around the globe. A mix of rural charm and urban opportunities, the town is the gateway to the rolling hills and wooded landscape of southern Indiana, and stepping through its doorway, one leaves the flat farmland of the north behind.
From hikes and bikes to history and food, these are the best things to do outdoors in beautiful Bloomington.
1. Hike The Trails
From relaxed strolls in nature preserves to heart-pumping treks through the wilderness, Bloomington offers miles of trails for exploring the great outdoors. The most popular easy hikes include the 1.1-mile loop through the Leonard Springs Nature Park and the trails at the Porter West Preserve.
If it’s a longer, more challenging hike you’re after, the Hoosier National Forest offers more than 260 miles of trails to explore. The 3-mile Pate Hollow Short Loop and the 6.1-mile Pate Hollow Trail full loop are two popular choices.
Pro Tip: Check out these additional hikes in southern Indiana and throughout the Hoosier State.
2. Experience History One Step At A Time
Bloomington sprouted in 1818 when the earliest residents converted a wheat field into a public square. Soon a log courthouse and library followed, with modest homes lining the wide streets. Pair a sunny day with two centuries of history on one of these walking tours. You’ll admire architecturally diverse neighborhoods, explore one of the state’s most intact historic squares, learn about Bloomington’s involvement with the Underground Railroad, and more.
3. Tour The Town On Two Wheels
Whether you are seeking a slow, scenic excursion or are drawn to the rush of a race, Bloomington is a very bike-friendly city. Urban bike lanes and scenic trails criss-cross the town. See the sights of downtown Bloomington via the candy cane-shaped, 3.1-mile, paved B-Line Trail that begins on North Adams Street and arcs south to West Country Club Drive. Or pedal past wildflowers and creeks under a canopy of trees on the Bloomington Rail Trail and Clear Creek Trail that have converted abandoned rail lines into recreational paths.
Tour downtown Bloomington, Indiana University, or Amish Country with a local by taking a bike tour with Indiana Jim.
While Indiana’s capital city hosts the Indy 500 auto race in May, Bloomington organizes the Little 500 bike race in April. If you’re visiting during the third weekend in April, don’t miss the largest collegiate bike race in the country. Or see the fall colors by spending two days on two wheels with the Hilly Hundred in October.
4. Hire A Horse
For a change of pace from hiking and biking, hop on a horse! Schooner Valley Stables in nearby Nashville, Indiana, offers trail rides that allow you to take in the thick woods and scenic trails of Yellowwood State Forest from 5 feet above the ground. No prior experience maneuvering a mare? No worries! The hour-long walk/trot is perfect for beginners!
5. Pack A Picnic
Whether your wicker basket is filled with basics like peanut butter and jelly and chips and dip or gourmet goodies like cucumber sandwiches and tabbouleh, food always tastes a little better when enjoyed outside on a beautiful day.
You can grab quality, locally sourced goodies for your picnic at Bloomingfoods Co-Op Market. Or support your local farmer by grabbing farm-fresh ingredients from the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market on Saturdays and Tuesdays from spring through September.
There are many picturesque places to picnic in and around Bloomington. Spread out a blanket on the Indiana University campus, or head to Brown County State Park. Encompassing more than 15,700 acres and featuring two lakes, it’s the Hoosier State’s largest park, and ample picnic tables and waterfront views await.
6. Forage For The Freshest Foods
For those who seek the freshest, most natural of foods, foraging is a popular activity in southern Indiana. In spring, search for the bright yellow heads of dandelions in open fields and brew the flower tops into a tea to aid digestion.
As spring becomes summer, the delicate flowers on mulberry bushes turn into juicy black mulberries. While they look and taste a bit like blackberries, these beauties grow on friendlier, thornless bushes. Cook them in sweet dishes like pies, cobblers, and jams, or simmer them in steak sauce.
In the fall, battle Bloomington’s squirrels to forage for black walnuts. Encased in a green husk that looks like a tennis ball, these walnuts have a more earthy flavor than the English walnuts you commonly find in stores.
7. Unwind On The Water
Several magnificent lakes in and around Bloomington let you row, paddle, and float to your heart’s content. Less than 2 miles from Indiana University, Griffy Lake Nature Preserve rents watercraft like canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards in 2-hour increments. And just a few miles southeast of Bloomington, the 10.7-acre Monroe Lake spans two Hoosier counties with nine boat launch ramps and multiple fishing piers.
8. Drop A Line
Whether floating in a boat in the summer or dropping a line through the ice in the winter, there are many opportunities to fish in and around Bloomington.
As one of the largest lakes in the region, Monroe Lake is always a popular fishing destination. Nearby lakes like Lake Lemon, Yellowwood Lake, and the Ogle and Strahl Lakes at Brown County State Park are great places to fish for largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, and crappie.
Pro Tip: It’s easy to purchase a fishing license online from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources before you hit the water.
9. Go For The Gold
In Yellowwood State Forest, visitors with a permit can pan for gold. While digging for gold with a pick or shovel is not allowed, you can scoop up a pan of gravel, add water, and shake and swirl until you strike it rich.
There is no charge to obtain a permit. Simply call the Forest Office at (812) 988-7945.
10. Watch For Wildlife
Wildlife lovers will be delighted by the wide range of waterfowl on the lakes, wading birds in the streams, and mammals scurrying about the woods in Bloomington.
In the wetlands, get a glimpse of wading birds like snowy white egrets, steel-blue herons, and red-masked sandhill cranes. On the lakes, you’re likely to spot ducks, geese, mergansers, and more.
When exploring the woodlands in and around Bloomington, keep an eye out for cautious white-tailed deer, clever foxes, and industrious squirrels. In the trees and along the trails, bird-watchers are likely to spot squawking blue jays, hammering woodpeckers, and mournful-sounding doves. And, of course, there is the beloved northern cardinal, the bright red state bird with his black mask and jaunty crest.
Pro Tip: While I prefer to shoot wildlife with a Canon rather than a rifle, hunters will find this interactive tool helpful in identifying where to hunt in Indiana.
11. Sleep Under The Stars
To me, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as falling asleep under the summer stars and waking up to the light of dawn. Whether you’re into tent camping or cabin glamping, Bloomington has you covered.
Just 6 miles from the Indiana University campus, the Paynetown State Recreation Area, located on the north bank of Monroe Lake, is the perfect place to pitch a tent. If your camping accommodation of choice is an RV with air conditioning, Netflix, and other modern comforts, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Monroe Lake includes more than 100 level sites with hookups and Wi-Fi access.
And glampers will love The Lake House. While this two-bedroom, two-bathroom accommodation is a far cry from tent camping, its wrap-around porch is surrounded by 7.5 acres of wooded beauty.
From sipping craft beer to experiencing Tibetan culture, here are several other things to do in Bloomington.