If you follow many travel publications, you probably already know that Madison, Indiana is highly regarded as one of the best small towns to visit. But, if you’re like me, you probably didn’t realize how family friendly this historic river town could be. We recently embarked on a long weekend trip to Madison and I have to say that it was one of the most enjoyable vacations we’ve taken as a family.
This small town enjoyed its heyday in the mid 1800s and at the time was the wealthiest city in the state. This is evident by the large homes and grand architecture that is still preserved today. In fact, more than 133 downtown blocks are on the National Historic Register, with buildings dating back to 1817.
While visiting, we enjoyed a stay at the Clifty Inn, just down the road from historic Madison. Not only was our hotel conveniently located within the state park, but it provided a stunning view of the Ohio River.
We were also delighted to see that due to the size of the town, it was super easy to travel between points of interest.
Parking was plentiful and each destination took about 10 minutes drive time.
A few highlights from our visit:
Dr. Hutchings Hospital and Office – From the books on the shelves to the rugs on the floor, almost everything we saw was original to Dr. Hutchings’s late 19th century medical practice. In fact, when Dr. Hutchings died in 1903, his family packed up his belongings and closed up the house. It sat that way until the late 1960s when his granddaughter donated the house and its contents to Historic Madison, Inc. I was particularly interested in browsing his medicinal supplies but the boys got a kick out of the wooden crutches and the skeleton (real, but not original).
The office is open from mid April – mid October and admission is $4 for adults. Children are free. Due to the size of the building and the narrow, steep stairs to the second floor, strollers would not be advisable. Plan about 20-30 minutes for the informal guided tour.
Madison Railroad Station – This quick stop is a must see for any parent of boys. I know mine can never get enough of trains. The benefit of these small town excursions is that you almost always encounter what’s known as Hoosier Hospitality. That was certainly the case with this stop. The fellow who greeted us at the railroad station was like everybody’s favorite grandfather. He filled my husband’s ears with all kinds of interesting information and welcomed the boys to see, touch and explore everything the small museum had to offer. My boys enjoyed shining each other’s shoes, trying the telegraph and of course exploring the restored early 20th century caboose. It was neat stepping back in time and imagining what the transpiration hub was like 120 years ago. The Caboose really was like a tiny home on wheels with a stove, bunks and even an icebox.
The railroad station is open March 9 – Dec 18 Tues-Fri 10 a.m. – 4: 30pm and May 1-Oct. 31 also open Sat 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults. Children are free. Strollers would be suitable in the main waiting area of the depot, but due to the varying levels of the building and the narrowness of the Caboose, they would not be ideal. Allow for about 20 minutes or more if visiting the neighboring Heritage Center, which I’d recommend for adults. (We dragged our kids along to the Heritage center and were glad to check it out, but they were bored.)
Rockin’ Thunder Jet Boat Rides – Oh my, this was so much fun. Being a plus size mamma, I was a little nervous that the ride might be a bit tight for me. I was pleased that wasn’t the case. The life jacket fit well and the seats were plenty spacious for all of us to fit comfortably. However, I was a little surprised to learn that we would be getting wet on this ride. Somehow I missed that on the website and regrettably had dressed in khaki shorts. Don’t make that mistake.
The 20-mile ride traveled up and down the Ohio River providing picturesque views. At times I could have sworn we were traveling at 90 miles an hour and our captain was deliberately making sure each fishtail provided enough spray to get us all. Rest assured, we weren’t really going that fast, and if you don’t want to get wet, they also offer a 40-mile scenic trip. But for the kids, suck it up and prepare to get soaked. It’s well worth it for the squeals of delight and the smiles on their faces.
Weather and river conditions permitting, Rockin’ Thunder Jet Boat Rides operates daily except Tuesdays from Memorial Day weekend into October. The 30 minute ride is $34 a person and coupons are available on the website. To reserve your seat, call 812-701-1155. Children must be at least 40 inches tall to ride.
River Front – We found a small playground under the pillars of the Madison-Milton Bridge. It was a nice quiet place for the boys to have some free play while hubby and I looked around. Of course, we had to trek up to the bridge. We tried to talk the boys into walking across the river into Kentucky, but they weren’t really up to the task. My husband and youngest got about halfway before turning around. However, they did get an amazing view. (Have I mentioned how pretty it is down there?)
Crystal Beach Pool is also along the riverfront and while we didn’t stop there, it would definitely be a nice retreat on a hot day. There are three small slides including a kiddie slide that go into the 3-foot deep water. So it’s perfect for both little and big kids. The pool is also home to an historic 1938 bathhouse. Admission is $4.00 before 5:00 P.M., $3.00 after 5:00 P.M. Kids 3 and under get in FREE.
Clifty State Park – We visited the nature center on Saturday for a program about snakes (I’m still traumatized, but my 7-year-old loved it). But we didn’t really delve into the park until our last day. Our mission was to explore Bough’s Tunnel, an abandoned mid 19th century attempt to take the railroad through the cliff. It’s widely known as Bough’s Folly, but the locals often call it the bat cave… for obvious reasons. It had been closed for several years due to white-nose bat syndrome, but reopened this year. My 7-year-old was really excited to go through it, but I was terrified. I made it about 10 feet inside the cave opening before leaving my husband to take the boys by himself. His report: it took about 10 minutes to get through. The terrain was slippery and rugged, but they didn’t see any bats, salamanders or other creepy crawlers. My 7-year-old’s report: It was awesome!
*Tip* the trail to Bough’s Tunnel was not terribly difficult. However, it did have a rather steep drop-off that caused us a bit of stress when it came to my 4-year-old. He didn’t quite understand the importance of going slowly and walking on the inside of the path. When we were done with the tunnel, we headed back to the car to find an easier trail.
Madison Incline – We finished our trip by checking out a portion of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad incline. If you’ve been to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, you’ll remember they have a model of the Madison Incline in the train exhibit on the bottom floor. I had to do a bit of research to remember its importance.
This is what I found:
“Completed in 1841, the Madison incline of 7,012 feet was – and remains today – the steepest grade of any line-haul railroad in the country….Hundreds of Irish laborers were imported into Madison to build the incline….Master mechanic, Reuben Wells, then designed and built in his Jeffersonville shops the famous locomotive that bears his name and is now on permanent display at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.” (Source)
Lanier Mansion – We would love to go back and check this one out. James Lanier was a businessman, entrepreneur, and banker. He played a prominent roll in the railroad, but is best known for lending the state of Indiana more than $1m to support its involvement in the civil war. The mansion is considered the crown jewel of Madison
Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum – According to VisitMadison.org, tours, demonstrations, and exhibits show how the Schroeder family made saddle frames, clothespins and other products at America’s only restored 19th century saddletree factory.
St. Michael the Archangel – Although it is no longer an active parish, St. Michael the Archangel is the second oldest Catholic church in Indiana. Built between c. 1836-1839, it was primarily used by Irish immigrants who came to Madison to work on the railroad and was one of two Catholic churches in Madison. After the second Vatican counsel, it was decided to merge both perishes and discontinue use of St. Michael.
Broadway Hotel & Tavern – The food is decent, but the historical value is the draw. Located in downtown historic Madison, the Broadway Hotel and Tavern serves as Indian’s oldest tavern. It still houses a sitting parlor and the original wood bar from 1834.
Franco’s Family Restaurant – We enjoyed a delicious meat with amazing service. They were very thorough in making sure my food allergic child was safe. Don’t miss the house salad, homemade pizza and cannoli
*Tip* While Madison hosts an array of eateries, it was a little difficult finding allergy friendly options. Each establishment did their best to accommodate our special diets and made sure we were safe, but it wasn’t what we’re used to in the big city. Next time, we’ll know to pack more of our own food to fill in the gaps.
Disclaimer: The destinations on this trip were chosen by me with recommendations from a public relations representative for Visit Madison. Many of the accommodations were provided to my family at no cost for the purpose of sharing our experiences. However, the opinions expressed are completely my own. We absolutely loved our visit and highly recommend it. These are the recommendations I would make to my closest friends and family.