An Indiana resort town contains incredible year-round events and attractions
By Kevin Michell
The towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs are nestled in southern Indiana’s Orange County, set in a 25-square-mile square cut out of the Hoosier National Forest’s northern arm. There, visitors can find a plethora of natural, historic and modern entertainment in and around the French Lick Resort.
The resort contains, among many other tourist attractions, the landmark French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels. Both are over 100 years old and the former has an interesting connection to the Dayton area—the French Lick Springs Hotel was sold in 1901 to Thomas Taggart of Xenia, whose family oversaw the property’s early 20th century heyday until late 1946.
Befitting an institution and tourism destination that has been around for well over a century, the French Lick area has seen its share of ups and downs. After a group led by the Cook family bought the resort in 2005 and began a new set of renovations it and the surrounding community are on the upswing once again.
“With the resurgence at the resort and guests coming in to check out both French Lick and West Baden Springs hotels,” says Kristal Painter, executive director for Visit French Lick/West Baden, “it just gave the opportunity for additional tourism-related businesses to pop up in the area. It’s more of a thriving community now.”
After West Baden Springs Hotel was brought back to life—it hadn’t operated in more than 70 years prior to its May 2007 reopening and was recognized as the best mid-sized historic hotel in the country just 10 years later—to pair with the renewed French Lick Springs Hotel, the area has flourished. The resort employs almost 1,700 people and the community around it has added more jobs as new businesses emerge to serve the increased influx of tourists to the area. The area’s busy season now stretches from early spring all the way through Christmas.
But the French Lick Resort is at the center of it all, with its two historic hotels, a world-class spa at each of them, the 51,000-square-foot French Lick Casino, three golf courses, horse stables, heated outdoor pools and seven restaurants and lounges. A 50,000-square-foot addition to the resort should be completed by the end of the year and will add 56 luxury rooms, a sports bar and additional meeting spaces.
When summertime is in full swing, the resort is the site of many events and attractions for visitors to enjoy.
The French Lick Scenic Railway is a crowd favorite. Scenic train rides happen every weekend in the summer as well as on most Tuesdays and some Thursdays. The route runs 10 miles south into the Hoosier National Forest before returning to French Lick on the same tracks in reverse.
The railway also offers themed trips. One of the newest offerings, the Dinosaur Adventure Train on June 22, 23, 29 and 30, takes families to a fossil dig led by members of Indiana University. There, kids and parents can learn about paleontology while also enjoying live reptile encounters, bounce houses and more.
For families looking for a more recent historical thrill look no further than the Wild West Hold-up train rides on the first and last week of July. This two-hour, all-ages trip follows the same path as the scenic rides but will occasionally encounter a roving gang of bandits on horseback looking to steal the train’s payroll strongbox.
November and December may be a ways off, but Painter advises visitors to buy their tickets for the train’s Polar Express ride as soon as possible. The wintertime journey runs during the last two months of each year and seats fill up quickly, with some riders buying their tickets for the following season as soon as they get off the train.
But summertime is the focus for now and with it comes Father’s Day in June. French Lick offers a lot for dads and their families to enjoy, not least of which are the resort’s legendary golf courses.
The Valley Links Course is the oldest, commissioned in 1907 by Taggart and designed by Tom Bendelow. It has since been converted into a family friendly, nine-hole course great for beginners and young ones.
The Donald Ross Course, originally known as The Hill Course, is the elder statesman of the two 18-hole golfing spots. Over its 102-year history it has hosted multiple professional championship events and was restored in 2005, winning Golf Magazine’s best restoration award in 2007. The new Pete Dye Course opened in 2009 and is known for its iconic and challenging design.
For non-golfers and their families Wilstem Ranch and Patoka Lake offer incredible relaxation and unique attractions. The 1,100-acre Wilstem Ranch features cabins, horseback riding, ATV tours and more, but its main draw is the animal encounters that began in 2016. Families can get up close and personal with an elephant or giraffe, meet Jeff Watson’s famous grizzly bears Bob and Screech, or encounter kangaroos, reptiles and other animals that were given a habitat there after the Ringling Bros. Circus was shuttered.
Painter’s personal favorite is the giraffe encounter, which allows for interaction from high and low. “You’ll see it from the ground to appreciate the height of the giraffe,” she says, “and then you’ll go upstairs for the educational encounter where you’re kind of face-to-face with it so you can get those up close pictures.”
About a half-hour south of French Lick and Wilstem Ranch is Patoka Lake, where visitors can enjoy the sprawling 9,000-acre body of water while staying in one of the floating cabins on the waterfront.
“Lots of hiking opportunities surround this entire area,” says Painter. The pristine nature around the lake allows for wildlife viewing, cruises and plenty more outdoor fun.
Fans of potent potables and dining will love the options in the French Lick area. Patoka Lake Winery, French Lick Winery and Spirits of French Lick all offer locally crafted libations, including some unique liquor such as absinthe and aquavit.
Food lovers have a cornucopia of dining options, particularly those on the Indiana Tenderloin Lovers culinary trail that stops at 33 Brick Street, German Café and Hagen’s Club House Restaurant in French Lick.
“You can’t come to Indiana and not have a tenderloin,” Painter says with a laugh.