A vibrant manufacturing city in Northern Indiana, Elkhart is billed as the capital of two very different products.
First up, this is the RV Capital of the World, with 80% of all American RVs manufactured here. You can find out about this heritage at the RV/MH Hall of Fame, which has a superb museum.
Since the late 19th century, Elkhart has also been known as the Band Instrument Capital of the World.
Over time the various instrument makers that flocked to the city 100+ years ago have been absorbed by the Conn-Selmer brand, which is headquartered here.
There’s a handful of intriguing museums to check out in Elkhart, as well as some enchanting horticultural attractions, like a botanic garden at the city’s main water source, and Indiana’s largest garden center.
1. RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum
Recreational vehicles have been manufactured in Elkhart since the 1930s and today more than three quarters of all RVs built in America come from this city.
No surprise then that your first port of call should be the hall of fame and museum celebrating this unique mode of transport.
At this giant complex off Interstate 80, you can see RVs and motorhomes going back to a 1913 Earl Travel Trailer and can trace their evolution up to the high-tech homes-from-home produced today.
Different areas shine a light on milestones in RV history, like the first indoor toilet and the first microwave oven.
Among the must-see exhibits are a 1931 Chevrolet Housecar offered to Mae West by Paramount to tempt her to leave Broadway for Hollywood, as well as the oldest Winnebago and the smallest Airstream models.
The most noteworthy historic residence in Elkhart is the Beaux-Arts mansion built for Albert and Elizabeth Beardsley, who descended from the city’s founder.
Completed in 1908, Ruthmere was named in memory of their only child, Ruth, who died at just seven months.
Not just a place of residence, the Beardsleys used Ruthmere for business, as well as political and social gatherings and is still richly furnished with Cuban mahogany, silk wall hangings, hand-painted ceiling stencils and a lavish art collection.
All of this can be admired on a tour, savoring sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps and windows, and a small fleet of vintage automobiles.
Also on the campus is the Dr. Havilah Beardsley House (1848), belonging to Elkhart’s founder and restored to its 1870s appearance.
3. Midwest Museum of American Art
An impressive Neoclassical former bank building from 1922 is now an exciting showcase for a wide-ranging collection of midwestern American art from the 19th century to the present.
The Midwest Museum of American art encompasses every style and movement, from Primitives to American Impressionism to Pop Art, with original works by Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell.
The latter is represented by a large set of hand-signed lithographs, while you can also peruse the world’s largest collection of Overbeck pottery, produced in Indiana in the first half of the 20th century.
Around 1,200 works are on show at one time and there’s always something fresh to see. To take the pulse of the area’s contemporary art scene there’s the Elkhart Juried Regional every fall, with the largest cash award of any art prize in Michiana.
4. Wellfield Botanic Gardens
The Main Street Well Field has been Elkhart’s main drinking water source for more than a century.
In the 2000s this site was chosen by the Rotary Club of Elkhart for a community service project, endowing the city with a magical botanic garden over more than 30 acres, laced with water features and sculpture.
With a tapestry of sub-gardens like a Waterfall Garden and English Garden, this attraction opened in 2005 and has developed gradually over time, with new spaces unveiled every few years.
One recent addition is the Japanese-style Island Garden, designed by a Japanese landscape architect and scattered with boulders that weigh up to 16,000 pounds.
Wellfield Botanic Gardens is a wonderful backdrop for seasonal events, one of the biggest being a multisensory holiday light show, during which the ½-mile Promenade Pathway is aglow. On these evenings there’s free hot chocolate, and musicians playing Christmas carols.
5. National New York Central Railroad Museum
Elkhart is a vital link in the country’s railroad infrastructure, connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the Midwest and beyond.
For much of its history, the city was connected to the immense New York Central Railroad (1853-1968), which spanned 11 US states, two Canadian provinces and more than 11,500 miles.
This heritage is remembered at the National New York Central Railroad Museum, which holds the largest collection of NYC artifacts in the world.
The museum is on a sprawling yard by the operating Norfolk Southern Railway, with freight trains passing by every 15 minutes.
Inside are interesting relics like lamps, signage, photographs, bells, tickets, uniforms, maps, along with a huge section dedicated to model railroading. Outside there’s an amazing display of historic rolling stock, in varying states of preservation.
6. The Lerner Theatre
One of a lineup of downtown landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places is this solemn Beaux-Arts theater constructed as a stage for vaudeville in 1924.
The Lerner Theatre has a sheer terra cotta facade, dominated by four fluted columns with Ionic capitals. Within is a 1,700-seat auditorium under a magnificent dome, measuring as much as 40 feet in diameter.
This venue evolved into a movie palace during the 1920s and served as a movie theater from the 1930s until closing in 1987.
A couple of restorations have taken place since then, and today the Lerner Theatre is a beloved performing arts complex with musicals, concerts, film screenings, plays, talks and workshops throughout the year.
7. Island Park
One of Elkhart’s prettiest features is a wooded river island at the confluence between the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers.
You can access Island Park via three different footbridges, for a gentle amble by the water in the shade of tall trees.
On the banks you’ll pass lots of water birds to feed (oats or birdseed), as well as people fishing for bass, pike and walleye.
In early August this is the idyllic setting for the environment-themed Meet Me on Island Park festival, with live music, a beer garden, food vendors, a silent auction, a kids’ area and lots of eco-oriented exhibitors.
8. Linton’s Enchanted Gardens
This vast garden center on Elkhart’s eastern margins has more in common with a family theme park than an ordinary place to buy plants.
On nine acres, with a string of show gardens and 50,000 square feet of indoor shopping, Linton’s Enchanted Gardens stocks the largest choice of rare and exotic plants in the Midwest.
May to October the six outdoor garden plots are a delight and feature a Quilt Garden, a local horticulture specialty in Elkhart County.
Among the many attractions are a tourist train, a lake with swan boats, an aviary, a children’s play area, a petting zoo, bumper boats, pedal go karts, a parakeet encounter and tons more. The Garden Café at Linton’s is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and serves Indiana wine.
9. Ox Bow Park
This scenic park is on the banks of the Elkhart River, a little way upstream from downtown Elkhart. The setting is gorgeous, and you can get your bearings and take in the distant views atop the park’s lookout tower.
There’s plenty to do on these 110+ acres, with amenities for fishing, archery, disc golf (24 holes), field sports, as well as snow sports in winter.
There’s an extensive network of trails, a canoe/kayak launch, horseshoe pits, volleyball courts and a choice of playgrounds for wee ones.
Ox Bow Park has no fewer than eight shelters that you can rent for parties and family gatherings. Seven of these are open, ideal for summer, and one is a cozy spot for a winter get-together.
10. Hall of Heroes Superhero Museum
Elkhart lays claim to the only superhero and comic museum, not just in the United States, but the whole world.
Whether Marvel or DC, Hall of Heroes charts the 80+ year history of everyone’s favorite superheroes, across a variety of media.
The collection at this private museum is staggering, and counts more than 70,000 comic books and over 10,000 toys.
A couple of standout exhibits of memorabilia include Adam West’s Batman costume and the original shield used by Captain America.
An area of specialty is comics and memorabilia from the Golden Age (1938-1956) and Silver Age of Comic Books (1959-1969), with a Captain Marvel #1 from 1941, along with an array of super rare comics and toys from these eras.
11. Heritage Trail
Setting off from the Visitor Center in downtown Elkhart, you can take an award-winning 90-mile driving tour, on a scenic route taking you to the most scenic, historically and culturally significant spots around Elkhart County.
You can download an audio tour for turn-by-turn directions on your way through the picturesque and lively communities of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, Nappanee, Bristol, Wakarusa, and Shipshewana.
Give yourself plenty of time are many worthwhile stops, at orchards, one-of-a-kind furniture shops, restaurants, cute downtowns, galleries and much more.
Uniting the communities on the Heritage Trail are some 16 Quilt Gardens, intricate flower gardens inspired by patchworks, in bloom throughout the summer.
12. NIBCO Water and Ice Park
Winters are almost invariably frosty in Elkhart, and you can take advantage of these low temperatures at a charming outdoor rink by the Elkhart River.
Open early December through February, weather permitting, NIBCO Water and Ice Park has skate rental included in the entry price and is a pretty place to take a spin.
There are also occasional special events like skating sessions with the characters from Frozen. Outside the skating season, this park is a venue for outdoor concerts, yoga and much more.
On Saturday mornings up to the end of September, the Elkhart Farmers’ Market can be found just next door in Kardzhali Park.
13. Ideal Beach
Heaton Lake, in the northeast of Elkhart, is the setting for a seasonal beach attraction.
Open to coincide with the school summer break, Ideal Beach has a good expanse of golden sand, accompanied by volleyball courts, picnic areas, a concession stand and a little water park area with two corkscrew water slides.
The beach is kept spotlessly clean, and the water quality at Heaton Lake/Puterbaugh Creek is closely monitored. On a warm summer day this is a fine spot for a family outing without leaving the town.
14. Amish Country
Elkhart County is home to the third largest Amish population in the United States. This can be traced back to a wave of immigration from what is now southwest Germany in the mid-18th century, first arriving in this area around the 1840s.
If you travel the local backroads, especially in the east (around Middlebury) and southwest of the county (towards Nappanee) you’ll come across horses and buggies on the roads.
Amish woodworkers are exceptionally skilled, and there are plenty of Amish furniture-making businesses producing high-quality tables, cabinets, bed frames and many other pieces.
Beyond that, Amish have a high reputation for leathercraft, horse accessories and traditional cuisine, if you’ve ever wondered what an Amish restaurant might be like.
In summer you can visit the gargantuan flea market in Shipshewana (Tuesday and Wednesday) for bargains on handmade items, while the Amish Acres Arts & Crafts Festival in Nappanee every August has been going for 60 years now.
15. Elkhart Jazz Festival
In mid-June downtown Elkhart stages one of the country’s top jazz festivals. What’s special about the Elkhart Jazz Festival is that it’s powered by a dedicated team of 200 volunteers, setting up stages, transporting performers, taking ticket orders and doing much more.
Now into its fourth decade, the festival has gained an international reputation, appropriate for a city dubbed the Band Instrument Capital of the World.
This four day bash is a platform for more than 100 performers, and brings 20,000 people to the city every year. Recent editions have featured the likes of Ramsey Lewis, Gregory Porter, Ben Folds and Ben Davis.