Fall is my favorite season to drive the two-lane highway that cuts through southern Indiana's limestone cliffs — their crests topped with trees ablaze in hues of russet, saffron and tangerine — that leads to Spring Mill State Park's Pioneer Village.
Nearly two centuries ago, two enterprising brothers built a gristmill near Mill Creek, encouraging settlers to erect homes and businesses on its banks. Within 10 years, the village, known then as Spring Mill, housed a distillery where corn was fermented into whiskey, making it a favored stop of the stagecoaches that rumbled into town. A self-taught doctor, Jacob Lemon, operated out of the village's apothecary — his patients most likely downed the liquor to dull the pain of his surgical procedures. Stables held oxen. A summer kitchen kept food cold. And a clapboard-sided merchant sold homemade wares.
All this industry is gone. Restored in the 1920s, Pioneer Village, as it is now called, tells the story of a time and place lost to history. I've visited when costumed park rangers perform centuries' old chores, but on this weekday afternoon I am one of few people who wander through the village's open buildings.
This is the way I like it: a solitary walk studded with the sounds of the gristmill's wheel churning, with views of log homes held together by whitewashed chinking. The trails run alongside the narrow Mill Creek, and an eerie peace along its banks convinces me that if I look hard enough, I might catch a glimpse of the ghostly spirits who paved these paths.
But alas, I find no haunts — not even in the large garden, separated from a row of homes by a stone archway and fence. The colors of autumn are on display here, too, with patches of yellow gourds, orange pumpkins, fresh herbs and cornstalks popping up from the ground.
Another footpath leads me to the Twin Caves, one of several caverns inside the state park but the only one open to visitors. Here, I board a flat-bottomed boat for a slow-moving trip on a stream that courses inside the caves.
A guide points a spotlight into the waters so we can search for the endangered blind cavefish that live here, but my eyes are on the cavern's walls — limestone boulders etched in brown, cream and red that lead deeper and deeper until you can no longer see.
I stay overnight at the Spring Mill Inn, just a mile from the village on one of the park's many winding roads. Built in the 1930s, the vintage building's entrance is lined with rocking chairs and pots brimming with flowers. Inside, I sit at a dining table covered in a classic checkered tablecloth and delight in a fried chicken dinner, returning to the buffet table to sample the many desserts on display.
I choose persimmon pudding and cornmeal pies — research, I tell myself — and just as I turn back toward the dining table, I spot slices of Granny White cake, decadent white loaf glazed in brown sugar and sprinkled with nuts.
Hours before, I walked through the two-story home that once belonged to Sally Cummings, also known as Granny White. Her large home bore a plaque that told her story: At 35 years old, on a trek to Indiana with her family, Cummings' husband died, leaving her and their six children to continue the journey alone. She remarried, had more children and died at 94.
No matter that I've eaten two desserts, I say to myself. How better to honor her, and this pioneering spirit, than with a slice of her cake?
» Go Local. Visit Most High Adventure Outfitters, where you can rent a canoe or tube, and spend a lazy afternoon floating along the White River as it meanders through colorful woods of maples, oaks, willows and sycamore. 6640 N. Old State Road 37, Bloomington, Ind., 812-340-0700, soilandwater.com/mosthigh
» Embrace Fall. Ripening persimmons, a southern Indiana delicacy, will be celebrated at the 67th annual weeklong Mitchell Persimmon Festival (Sept. 21-28). Downtown Mitchell, Ind., 800-798-0769, persimmonfestival.org
» Eat. For a true country breakfast, order the fresh cracked egg, smoked bacon and cheddar on a buttermilk biscuit covered with country gravy at Stone Cutters Cafe & Roastery, on the olden downtown square. 919 15th St., Bedford, Ind., 812-675-8491, stonecutterscafebedford.com
» Play. At Bluespring Caverns, check out the snack shop and gemstone sluice, and hike the half-mile Bolton Nature Trail that runs past one of the state's largest sinkholes. 1459 Blue Springs Cavern Road, Bedford, Ind., 812-279-9471, bluespringcaverns.com
» Stay. Built in 1913, Candlelight Inn is decorated with period antiques, has the perfect porch for reading and sipping coffee, an outdoor hot tub and 20 acres of woods. 875 Church Camp Road, Bedford, Ind., 812-797-3937, candlelightinnbedford.com