Nature Day Trips in Oklahoma
Ideal spots for weekend wandering
Photos by Matt Payne
The bustle of modern life often means that day-to-day demands don't leave a lot of time for getting out and exploring the natural world. Fortunately, however, you don't have to orchestrate a great big trip in order to enjoy the great outdoors - there are cures for wanderlust, and spiritual rewards for the curious, available without leaving the state or even the city. To check out our favorite day trips to the natural wonders of Oklahoma, read on.
Little Sahara State Park
If you took a whack on the head and woke up in Little Sahara State Park, you’d struggle to understand how you went from Oklahoma City to a far-flung spot in northern Africa. Of all of Oklahoma’s state parks, this unique stretch of orange, powdery sand dunes is one of the most curious – a spectacle to see and experience. Little Sahara is worth the two-hour trip just to walk in the soft sand and take in the wind-swept expanse, humbling and almost spiritual in its beauty. It can be quite zen-like ... however, on any given day and considerably more so on weekends, the dunes turn into an ATV and dune buggy haven, and the calm is subbed out for high-octane adventure. Many folks bring their own ATVs, but there are rental companies and outfitters available, as well. No matter your experience at Little Sahara, it will be unforgettable. Make sure to bring water and sunscreen during the summer, and if you’re exploring the outer edges by foot, sandals or barefoot is the way to do it.
► On the Road
Breathtaking caves to beautifully pristine prairie wilderness, you can head off in almost any direction from OKC to find natural scenes worth seeing.
While Oklahoma might not have the highest mountains or largest lakes in the country, it does have variety – travelers with a yen for adventure and natural beauty can explore all kinds of eye-catching attractions, without ever leaving the Sooner State.
Great Salt Plains State Park
If you are curious about what the moon might look like, I’ve yet to make it to space, but by my humble estimation The Great Salt Plains, outside the town of Jet in northwest Oklahoma, must be damn close. The Great Salt Plains is exactly as the name suggests: a plain made entirely of salt. What was a salty inland sea millennia ago is now simply a flat expanse of land covered entirely in salt.
The unique nature of The Great Salt Plains alone makes it well worth the two-hour drive north from the metro, but once there, visitors have a multitude of activities to indulge. From April to October, crystal enthusiasts from all over flock to the plains to dig for “hourglass selenite.” Make sure to bring a shovel! It’s also a National Wildlife Refuge, so nature enthusiasts can find countless species of migratory birds, including Sandhill cranes, in both fall and spring. The park even features a shallow salt lake with plenty of opportunity to fish for saugeye, sandbass and hybrid striper, as well as hiking and equestrian trails around the lake.
Alabaster Caverns State Park
Also in northwest Oklahoma – beyond Alva and a stone’s throw from the town of Freedom – Alabaster Caverns State Park features a nice walking trail through a canyon in addition to its main draw: the extensive cave system. The Alabaster Caverns are the world’s largest gypsum cave open to the public, and are truly unique to experience. Guests must go into the caves with a guide; trips are done hourly (more or less), and if you want to take photos, you must specify you want a photography trip. There is a small fee for the tour, which takes an hour to walk from one end of the cave to the other. Groups are limited in size to 40 people. The caves are also home to many species of bat, although it is rare to see them during summer months.
The Blue River
If Natural Falls State Park gives Turner Falls a run for its money in terms of waterfall aesthetic, when it comes to waterfall-infused swimming holes in the summer and autumn, look no further than The Blue River. In the winter, the locale 20 minutes outside Tishomingo is a trout fishing hotspot renowned by local anglers – but by summer, it’s a magical getaway. With several small falls, complete with gathering pools and rope swings, this place is perfect to float while basking in the sun, cooled by the gentle spray of the ever-cascading water.
Osage Hills State Park/Tallgrass Prairie
There is much to be said about a trip to Osage County, but if you are looking for a little nature, the Tallgrass Prairie and Osage Hills State Park offer two very different experiences only about 20 minutes apart. Osage Hills is a heavily wooded park with beautiful walking trails, a quiet lake and gentle streams, complete with delicate falls. Tallgrass Prairie, on the other hand, is an unforgettable way to experience one of the world’s most rapidly disappearing ecosystems. Part of the Nature Conservancy, the area just outside Pawhuska features miles of uninterrupted prairie accented by a herd of bison, longhorn cattle, greater prairie chickens and some of the best sunsets in the state.
Natural Falls State Park
Turner Falls has long claimed to be the king of Oklahoma waterfalls – and while that may be true in terms of volume, Natural Falls, east of Tulsa and almost to Siloam Springs and the Arkansas border, might be the most beautiful. The delicate fall tumbling more than 70 feet into a small grotto is but one feature of this spectacular park. Heavily forested hiking trails run along a beautiful river, which erupts with blooming trees and migratory warblers in spring, and by autumn is a fall foliage fanatic’s paradise.
► The New Beaver's Bend
For decades, Beaver's Bend State Park has been synonymous with the Great Oklahoma Getaway.
Tucked into the Ouachita National Forest, the trout-rich water of the Lower Mountain Fork River is a century-old draw for anglers. The thick pine woods, which teem with wildlife and fresh mountain air, serve as a steadfast reminder that there is more to Oklahoma than the plains, and the pristine waters of the entirely undeveloped lakefront of Broken Bow Lake have appealed to boat enthusiasts since before boats had motors and beers came in six-packs. But with all its wild splendor, many folks – particularly those less naturally inclined or those without boats – find themselves wondering what else, exactly, there is to do in the state’s most mountainous corner.
In recent years, Beaver’s Bend has grown up. This famed state park now offers not just Boy Scout-variety horseback rides, fishing and canoe trips – but an array of adventurous opportunities to rival any mountain town. Visitors can explore the park’s back trails on ATVs, zip line across the lush forest canopy and kayak the Lower Mountain Fork River. With more than 15 miles of trails, the David Boren Hiking Trail offers some of the best views in southeast Oklahoma, and lost anglers now have the advantage of a plethora of world-class fishing guides, based in Broken Bow, to lead them to the area’s premier rainbow trout honey holes.
And whereas for years, most of Beaver’s Bend’s cabins were dusty hovels and an arachnophobe’s worst nightmare, accommodations near the lake have now exploded. The area around Beaver’s Bend now boasts more than 2,200 cabins available for rental, ranging from one-bedroom, cottage-style homes to high-end, multi-family retreats. For bookings, check out Beaver’s Bend Adventures at beaversbendadventures.com.
Hochatown, the last stop on Highway 259 before entering the park, was for years a couple of restaurants, a bait shop and an aging mini-golf course … but over time, it’s developed into a charming mountain town with a variety of great restaurants such as The Moon Tower, The Blue Rooster for fried chicken or pizza at The Grateful Head. Visitors could spend an afternoon sampling local brews on the deck at Beaver’s Bend Brewery, and for those curious about Oklahoma mountain wine varietals, Hochatown boasts three wineries with tasting rooms and gift shops. Stop by Girls Gone Wine, FishTales Winery and Vineyard or Vojai’s Winery.
► 5 things to do in Beaver’s Bend
1. ATV Ride: Rent an ATV from Hochatown Outfitters and explore some of the park’s deepest interiors. Just make sure you can drive a stick, as these street-legal vehicles only come in standard.
2. Zip line: Fly across the forest with Rugaru Adventures. Located at 2658 Steven’s Gap Road, this experience will get the heart pumping.
3. Hochatown Escape Games: In case you’ve been out of the loop, escape rooms are a blast. Groups are locked into a room and given an hour to work as a team in order to find clues in the room that will allow them to escape. Beaver’s Bend now has its very own!
4. River Beaver’s Bend River Floats: With 2.5 miles of river to float, the best place to rent a kayak or canoe and get to paddling is Beaver’s Bend River Floats. At $23 for a canoe or $12 for a kayak, there is no better way to explore the park at your own leisure.
5. Fly Fishing: It is impossible to write about Beaver’s Bend without mentioning its superb fishing. Dropping a worm and a bobber along the shore is fun, but to take on the real challenge, head into the Beaver’s Bend Fly Shop. If you want a guide, Orvis-endorsed Jenny Mayrell-Woodruff is the top of the line and will put you on some of the best trout there are. Find her on Instagram!
► Hike Oklahoma
When discussing “Through Hikes,” most folks’ minds wander to The Appalachian Trail and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Oklahoma rarely comes up.
That doesn't mean the Sooner State doesn’t have a section of its own interstate hiking trail and many other enjoyable ways to explore the wilderness. The Ouachita National Recreation Trail is a 223-mile hike that begins in Talimena and parallels the famed Talimena Pass, extending deep into Arkansas and ending in Pinnacle State Park just outside Little Rock. Forty-six of those miles are in Oklahoma, and – particularly when broken up into sections – are terrific ways to explore Oklahoma’s most scenic areas, with a high point of 2,610 feet on Rich Mountain, straddling the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.
We asked Kent Frates, Oklahoma hiking expert and co-author of the book Oklahoma Hiking Trails, to give us his favorite Oklahoma hikes. We’ve checked them out, too, and must agree.
OLD MILITARY ROAD TRAIL
Part of the Ouachita Trail, this one-way 6.5-mile trail curls up Winding Stair Mountain and offers a satisfying view from the top. It can also be a 13-mile “out and back” if you make sure to give yourself enough time and have enough water to make it the entire way. Located off US 271 and State Highway One, a.k.a. the Talimena Pass, it can be tricky to find – but the trail itself is well marked, solitary and satisfying.
Wichita Wildlife Refuge
If you are from Oklahoma, you’ve probably been to the Wichita Mountains. You’ve driven to the top of Mount Scott, spotted bison and absorbed the beauty of Quanah Parker Lake. Charon’s Garden, though, is one of Oklahoma’s truly great hikes, and often an over- looked part of the park. This five-mile hike includes navigating through an otherworldly boulder field, and features the best views of the refuge and beyond.
DAVID BOREN HIKING TRAIL
Beaver’s Bend State Park
Possibly the most popular trail in Oklahoma, the David Boren Trail winds through Beaver’s Bend and offers breathtaking views of the Lower Mountain Fork River. The whole trail is 12 miles, but is actually a series of shorter trails with varying levels of difficulty – Beaver’s Lodge Trail being the shortest and arguably easiest at one mile, and Skyline, a crowd favorite and in my opinion the best hike in the state, is five miles.
BLACK MESA SUMMIT
Black Mesa State Park
This 8.4-mile trail located in the panhandle leads through high desert to the highest point in Oklahoma. If you’re going to go to Black Mesa, plan on staying the night, as it is a six-hour drive from the city. It can be hot, so water is a must, and keep your eye out for snakes!
Perhaps you’ve seen them, usually on Saturdays: groups of people, en masse, most sporting CamelBaks and fancy outdoor clothing, sauntering through the streets of Oklahoma City and absorbing everything from the architecture to street art, landscapes to skylines.
These folks are part of the explosive new urban hike movement that is carving out a niche in the realm of Oklahoma City outdoor fitness trends. Trailhead OKC, which was started in 2015 by Addison Ball, is a walking tour of the city that runs anywhere from six to 12 miles and is part exercise, part social activity, with an engaging amount of history presented along the way.
While working in downtown OKC, Ball found that he preferred to walk rather than drive or ride to his job. Slowly, the city began to grip him, and his walking experience became something that he wanted to share.
“Much to my surprise, I had almost 100 people join me on my first hike – and it immediately became more than just a group of friends walking around,” says Ball.
And people seem to agree, as Trailhead OKC continues to grow. The group has hosted walks with upward of 180 people, all exploring different parts of the city together over the course of an afternoon.
“At first, I just created the routes and led the group through those routes, but now I treat it more like a tour. I highlight significant buildings, add historical context and tell interesting or funny facts about different places.”
Trailhead OKC recently led a 12-mile walk that began at Whole Foods on Western, cruised through the Western District, both commercial and residential, then carried onward downtown toward Elemental Coffee and across the Skydance bridge, then back up past the Myriad Gardens, over to the Skirvin, back to Robinson and past the Memorial – ultimately ending where it began on Western.
Overall, Trailhead OKC’s primary goal is not just creating community, but also highlighting that which makes Oklahoma City great. “It’s the city itself that blows people away,” says Ball. “So many people have a negative view of our city, but OKC has so much great stuff and is getting better all the time. Most people never know what we have because they don’t get out and see it. And why would they? We have to drive to work, school, the store, the game, whatever. That culture can be isolating. Trailhead OKC gives people the opportunity to get out of their cars and actually see what is in their city in a way that is safe, hopefully educational and fun.”
To learn about upcoming events, follow them on Facebook at Trailhead OKC.
►Tips for Hiking
1. Hydration: Oklahoma can get hot, and the trails are remote. Bring more water than you need.
2. Clothing: Dress comfortably and layer properly. While shorts may sound cool, Oklahoma has its fair share and then some of chiggers and ticks. Covering
up your legs with lightweight pants will make it harder for the little critters to get to you. Light long-sleeved clothing will also prevent sunburn.
3. Bug Spray: Best to both spray your skin and treat your clothing with spray designed speci cally for fabric. Focus on access points where insects might get to your skin – waistline, neckline and ankles particularly. You don’t want the a erglow of a beautiful day in the wilderness dimmed by itchy bug bites.
4. Sunscreen: Hiking is an all-day activity, and even if your trail is in the woods, that doesn’t mean you aren’t getting sun.
5. Maps: You have a cell phone. That’s great ... but pack a map, as well. You never know when your phone might die or won’t get a signal.
6. Snakes: Oklahoma has a lot of them. Always keep your eyes open.
7. Tell a Friend: Lots can happen on a trail, particularly if you’re hiking alone. Always make sure someone not hiking with you knows where you are going – that way, if you don’t come home, rescuers will have a starting point.