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On the Road Indiana

From canal boats to race cars, America’s transportation heritage runs through the heart of Indiana.

The Hoosier State may be famous for its signature auto race, but its history of transportation innovation goes far beyond IndyCars. Indiana is home to a portion of the country’s longest canal, as well as a scenic railroad, a historic automaker and the country’s RV capital. During a trip through the state, groups can experience Indiana’s legacy of ingenuity in various cities and towns.

This itinerary begins in Jasper, a small town in southwestern Indiana, then goes to French Lick before turning northward to Indianapolis. From there, it stops in Delphi, a town outside Lafayette, then continues north to South Bend before concluding in Amish Country. From there, groups can continue on to other destinations or return southward to depart for home. Plan at least five days and four nights to explore the best of Indiana’s transportation heritage and other experiences the state has to offer.

The Spirit of Jasper in Jasper and French Lick

This trip through Indiana’s transportation history begins in Jasper, a tiny town about 80 miles west of Louisville, Kentucky, in the southwestern part of the state, where the Spirit of Jasper is a sightseeing train that uses historic equipment and traverses tracks that served passenger rail companies from the 1870s through the 1930s.

Spirit of Jasper excursions start at a charming railroad depot built to replicate the 1905 depot that served the town. The railroad offers several different routes, but the most popular is the Jasper-to-French Lick Express. This 25-mile journey takes two hours and crosses several tunnels, trestles and bridges, all while showcasing the scenery of Hoosier National Forest.

The train arrives in French Lick around lunchtime. Groups can take some time to explore French Lick before returning to Jasper by train in the afternoon, or stay in French Lick longer before continuing on to Indianapolis by motorcoach. 

While you’re there: After arriving in French Lick by train, take some time to visit the area’s twin historic hotels, the French Lick Resort Hotel and the West Baden Springs Hotel. These properties showcase the splendor of their 19th-century origins and offer plenty of amenities and activities for groups to enjoy, even if they don’t stay overnight.

Indy Car Factory in Indianapolis

In the center of the state, Indiana’s capital city is also at the center of its automobile heritage. The renown of the Indianapolis 500 led to the creation of a new kind of race car, commonly called the IndyCar, and groups can learn all about Indianapolis auto racing at the Dallara IndyCar Factory.

Just outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the factory is a joint venture between race car manufacturer Dallara Automobili and the Indy Racing Experience. The factory features 23,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits that detail the history and technology of this high-speed sport. Historical displays feature blueprints of IndyCars and concept drawings that were eventually developed into racing vehicles by Dallara Automobili.

The attraction also features numerous racing simulators to help guests feel the sensation of driving in the Indy 500. Visitors can also look through display windows at the adjacent Dallara factories to see race cars being built.

While you’re there: No auto enthusiast’s trip to Indianapolis would be complete without a visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Groups can tour the on-site museum to learn about the history of the famed Indianapolis 500 and even take a lap around the racetrack in a special tour vehicle.

Historic Canal in Delphi

In Delphi, a small town about 75 miles northwest of Indianapolis, groups can learn about a different kind of transportation history at the Wabash and Erie Canal Park.

Built in the 1830s and 1840s, the Wabash and Erie Canal was an artificial waterway that connected the Great Lakes with the Ohio River to allow for shipping between northern states and the Gulf of Mexico. At 480 miles, it was the longest canal ever built in North America and ran through northwest Indiana.

At the Wabash and Erie Canal Interpretive Center, visitors learn about the important role the canal played in the commercial development of the United States. From mid-May to mid-October, groups can take a 40-minute canal boat ride. There is also a nearby historic home to explore. And at the Historic Pioneer village, interpreters demonstrate 19th-century trades and crafts such as blacksmithing, basket weaving and paper-making.

While you’re there: Explore Carrol County’s system of scenic driving routes and historic bridges. Sightseeing drives highlight areas around Wildcat Creek and the Wabash River, and feature a series of covered bridges and other memorable structures.

The Studebaker Museum in South Bend

About 90 miles north of Delphi on Indiana’s border with Michigan, South Bend is a quiet college town — except on Notre Dame football game days. It’s also home to an automobile museum that honors one of America’s historic car manufacturers.

At the Studebaker National Museum, guests learn about the history of South Bend’s Studebaker Company, which began making wagons in the 1850s and went on to design and build beautiful automobiles until it went out of business in the 1960s. The museum features more than 70 Studebaker vehicles, ranging from early wagons to concept cars, as well as other company memorabilia.

Known for their distinctive front ends that resemble aircraft noses, Studebakers are among some of America’s most beautiful classic cars. The collection also includes notable historic vehicles, such as the carriage that carried Abraham Lincoln on the night of his assassination.

While you’re there: Take some time to tour the scenic campus of the University of Notre Dame. Church groups will especially enjoy a visit to the school’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a Gothic Revival cathedral, as well as its accompanying museum.

RV Factory Tours in Amish Country

In the northern reaches of the state, Elkhart County is known as Amish Country for its large population of Amish inhabitants. But in in the transportation world, Elkhart County is known as America’s RV Capital.

Eighty percent of the nation’s recreational vehicles are manufactured in Elkhart County in more than a dozen factories. There are more RV manufacturers here than in any other part of the country, and some employ residents of the area’s Amish communities. The Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau can help groups arrange tours of RV factories and workshops in Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury and other nearby towns.

Groups interested in learning more about Elkhart County’s transportation heritage should also plan a visit to the RV/VM Hall of Fame, where a museum displays unique and historic recreational vehicles and other interesting exhibits.

While you’re there: From the end of May through mid-September, Amish Country and Elkhart County come alive with the colors of more than 1 million flowers during the Quilt Garden season. Inspired by heritage quilts, this multicity celebration features 17 massive flower gardens and 21 hand-painted murals.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.