Hamilton County sits just outside of Indianapolis Indiana. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it before, despite Forbes ranking it America’s Best Place to Raise a Family in 2008. Deeply steeped in agricultural roots, the cornfields have now giving way to suburbia, affluence, peace, and charm. My story isn’t about why you should move to Hamilton County, but rather, why you should visit Hamilton County.
Recently, a wave of travel writers descended on Indianapolis for Bloghouse. Katie Williams from The Travelling Spud and I decided to leave the cool, hip confines of downtown Indianapolis and travel 15 miles up the White River (by car of course) looking for a little “Weekend Adventure”. Whitney, from Visit Hamilton County, hosted us on a two-day trip that left us not only a little sore, but smiling from ear to ear.
Strawtown Koteewi Park Picnic
The vast green fields of Strawtown Koteewi Park smelled like summer and just begged for a softball game, a pick up football game, or at least a bunch of cartwheels across the giant expanse. We paid homage to this slice of Americana with a picnic from Joe’s Butcher Shop and Fish Market. The turkey pesto sandwich was solid but I was blown away by a simple BLT.
It was quite simply the best BLT I have ever eaten in my entire life! The thick bacon tasted like it had been slow cooked in maple syrup, giving it the perfect combination of sweet and salty. I still cannot quite put my finger on what the secret was in that bacon, but it was some kind of magic. Stacked with ripe, red tomatoes and crisp lettuce on artisan bread, that bacon created a sandwich masterpiece.
Treetop Adventures at Strawtown Koteewi Park
After eating, we moved on to the Aerial Adventure Park. On the way there, we glimpsed the outdoor activities at Strawtown Koteewi Park. First, we galloped by a giant horse pasture where you can pick up a trail ride through the park’s forest with K-Trails. Then we shot through the Koteewi Archery Range where you can channel your inner Katniss Everdeen to see how your bull’s-eye skills compare. Finally, we arrived at the Koteewi Aerial Park.
I have spent a lot of time on ropes courses over the years, so I thought nothing I would see in Indiana could challenge me. I was wrong, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll start way back at the beginning.
I first tried rope courses when I moved to Lake Tahoe in my early twenties. I helped install the final touches on Northstar’s Adventure Challenge Course and work its inaugural season. That course is now a Ritz Carlton, but it is where I learned the ropes. (just don’t ask how long ago my early twenties were…)
My poor mom… She spent the majority of my teen years grooming me with Cotillion and Debutantes to be the proper little lady. She almost had an aneurysm the first time she saw me dirty with no makeup attached with webbing to a treetop. She may have tried to raise me as a proper society girl, but it turned out I was just a mountain girl at heart.
I spent many more years enjoying zip lines and ropes courses recreationally from that day forward, even doing a little climbing and canyoneering. When my hubby, Ed, and I moved to San Diego, I jumped at the opportunity to do ropes courses professionally again. I spent two seasons with Girl Scouts of America at their high ropes course. I had so much fun that I even talked Ed into working with me the second season. We might still be doing it had we not begun adventure writing.
Being a seasoned ropes pro, I appreciated the quality instruction Koteewi Aerial Park gave about safety and operations. They got us geared up with harnesses, helmets, gloves and ready to go in no time. We practiced on a miniature version of two elements and were deemed ready for tree top adventure.
Time to Fly at Treetops Adventure
The Koteewi course is completely self-contained, with three levels of difficulty designated by color and name. The safety system was brilliant and something I have never seen before. We were always attached by a C shaped device that was attached at the beginning of each course and never detached until the course was completed. It was pretty much idiot proof.
There were other safety elements as well. We carried a detachable trolley with us for the various zip line elements we would encounter. Of course, there were facilitators to get you safely onto the course, as well as facilitators wandering the area in case anyone needs additional help. Otherwise, you are on your own to move through the obstacles high in the treetops.
Everyone starts at the beginner level, which is 30 feet up in the treetops. All three of us did this first course, and it was so fun to see and hear Whitney and Katie trying something new. There is a special glow I have come to recognize in peoples’ faces when they experience a challenge course for the first time.
Whitney had to do some visit Hamilton County work, so she left Katie and me to play on the course after we completed the beginner level. There is the option of skipping the middle level and going straight to the hardest, but we decided we wanted to do it all!
Katie was realizing that rope courses are all about perceived risk and danger. Everything is tied in tightly to you, as well as backed up with a double to triple redundancy, so if you do fall the worst that can happen is a facilitator might have to come and pluck you off the course. That said, it doesn’t always help you step off the platform into the open air.
All went smoothly through the intermediate section with some somewhat challenging elements but I did learn something. My pro tip for this course is to watch for the cable rubbing on your upper arm or shoulder, since the cable is not covered. I ended up drawing first blood with the cable but this can be alleviated by ensuring that you wear a short sleeve shirt when doing this course instead of a tank top like I was sporting. Lesson learned, and it was off onto the hard course.
The Hardest Element at Strawtown Koteewi Ropes Course
The hard course might have been easier if we weren’t already tired from the first two, operative word being might. Waiting for me was the hardest element I have ever encountered on any aerial adventure. It was a series of logs hanging from the cable staggered, with small foot pegs coming out towards the inside that you are supposed to walk on.
The challenge comes from these logs swinging, so it is hard to get your foot on the peg. Once you’re standing on the peg, then the log wants to swing out which makes it tough to then get your foot to the other log and peg.
I felt at several times during this element that I was literally going to pull a groin muscle by falling into the splits. I have to say that that element almost brought me to tears with its difficulty and exertion, as well as drenched me in sweat.
I had the distinction of doing this section first, and as with every section on the hard course, I gave Katie the feedback as to how it was. When I went to completely silent and then collapsed onto the perch, Katie knew. She knew before I was on the other side telling her how much it sucked.
Katie made it across, but she is much younger and more fit than I am so I was oddly excited that she thought it sucked as well. Sucked is a hard word for it. It’s more of a type II fun where you start having fun later as you remember it, while not so much during. Once across, she too was pretty much done at that point.
As much as we wanted to be done, there were a few more elements left to do including the final zip line. All went well for Katie through the continuation of the course. Things almost went well for me until I hit that final zip line…
I wanted to get some speed and excitement but I misjudged how fast I was coming in. I stupidly lifted my leg with my knee bent so that I could land on my feet on the log at the bottom. I didn’t realize how close that was to the stopper and to basically took it full force in the kneecap.
This was the first big blow my titanium knees have had since being replaced, and oddly, though it was extremely sore that day, and point tender for the next two weeks, I never bruised. It just goes to show that you can have type II fun without the bruising.
(photo credit for the Rando in the orange shirt on the hardest element goes to the
Edge Adventure Parks website)
Downtown Carmel Walking Tour
After we finished up at the aerial park, we hurried into downtown Carmel for some wine tasting at Peace Water Winery. Though the wine was a bit grown-up for me, I loved the Grateful Dead inspired names and the overall decor and vibe. They also give 50% of the proceeds from wine bottle purchases to charity.
From wine tasting, we went to a local favorite, Woodys Liberty Restaurant, where we sat on the deck and enjoyed a delicious spread of food. Katie went for Indianapolis’ signature pork tenderloin sandwich. I choose the buffalo chicken wrap and we both shared pretzel bread sticks and bison meatballs. The food was good quality, tasty and really hit the spot after the excitement at Strawtown Koteewi. After our meal, we wandered the streets of downtown Carmel on a perfect summer evening.
Walking through the Carmel Art District, we passed many restaurants and shops, but what really stood out were the extremely lifelike statues about. They were sculpted doing things that you would expect people in town to do such as reading the paper, helping their kids bike, watering flowers, etc. A few of those statues even took us by surprise thinking they were real people!
The thing that really struck me about Carmel was how clean, beautiful, and friendly it was. No wonder Carmel keeps getting ranked as a “Best place to live”. There were tons of people out eating on the patios, running, just hanging out or riding their bikes. The city was incredibly bike friendly. All the streets seem to have bike lanes, they offer pedal perks if you bike to restaurants and have a fully functioning bike share.
The highlight of the evening was meeting a local celebrity – Nala the puppy. Everybody had to stop and love up on the pup and she couldn’t get enough. Nala is so cute she even has her own Instagram profile That’s the kind of place that Hamilton County is, where strangers become friends, everyone is outside and active, and there is nothing wrong with taking a puppy break.
Hotels in Hamilton County
The Staybridge Suites made a great overnight stop and would serve a budget traveler or family traveler well. They offer nightly social hours with an extensive snack menu, barbecue grills and every room featured stove tops, full size refrigerators, and microwaves. In the morning, there was a hot breakfast buffet included in the room rate. The suites had a sofa-sleeper for a car full of folk.
What I enjoyed the most was the hot tub. I knew I was going to have an active day and wanted to work out the Koteewi kinks. Staybridge would make a nice home base for a weekend trip to Hamilton County. We would also look into the Prairie Guesthouse and take advantage of their in house yoga studio to work away the type II fun.
Breakfast and Bikes on the Monon Trail
The Monon Trail runs between Westfield and downtown Indianapolis, passing right through Carmel. We didn’t bike the entire 25-mile trail by any means, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have an adventure.
We picked up bikes at the Bike Share and started out. To be fair, bike share bikes are a little heavy and upright for serious mileage, but there are other options, like on the bike rentals page that offer higher performing options.
After 30 min. or so on flat, well marked, tree lined, freshly paved trail, we pulled into Bubs Cafe. There are two Bub’s in town. Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream is where Man vs Food went to try their 1½ lb burger challenge, but we were at the cafe. They are only open for breakfast and lunch but their menu was extensive and inviting. My gluttony consisted of a breakfast gyro and Bub Holes (extra large donut holes). Yumalishious! Luckily, we had more riding on the Monon Trail to burn some of those calories off.
Wrapping up Hamilton County Weekend Adventure
Heading back towards Indianapolis I was surprised at what a fantastic time I had, and all of the ideas swirling in my head of things I wanted to come back and experience with Ed, especially the kayak trip that we were not able to take due to recent rains and flooding (that was the original plan for day 2). If you asked me a month ago if Hamilton County Indiana would be a vacation destination that I would want to go back to, I probably would have said no. That has changed now, and I cannot wait to go back and do the things I didn’t get to, and to share it with Ed. Underneath the Norman Rockwell exterior, you can find a weekend of adventure if you ever find yourself in Hamilton County.
Read more about my return trip to Hamilton County with Ed here
Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit Hamilton County for hosting me and setting up a fantastic adventure itinerary! As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely my own, regardless of who is picking up the tab.