Hiking Havens Around Oklahoma
Tiger Swallowtail on prairie flowers
It’s mid-morning on a sultry fall day in northern Argentina and I am hiking a little-used trail in the sub-tropical rainforests outside of Iguazu National Park. Wrapped in both mist and mystery, this path ambles through some remarkable scenery and it’s easy to see why this place has become a popular hiking destination for enthusiasts from around the world.
Even so, I find myself longing to be back home – hiking, instead, underneath Oklahoma’s vast blue skies. I’ve had the opportunity to hike all over the globe and some of my very favorite hikes are right here in the Sooner state.
I can think of few other places in the world where the landscape explodes in such a rich riot of color as it does in Oklahoma – red rivers, pink mountains, green hills, tangerine sunsets, candy-colored forests in fall and endless miles of rolling prairie that undulate in breathtaking hues of yellow and lavender. And while we’re at it, let’s bust the myth that the entire state is flat and uninspiring. We have a remarkable mix of topography that includes four major mountain ranges, hardwood forests, plateaus, high plains, salt plains, tallgrass prairies, travertine waterfalls, ancient limestone sea beds, caves, cypress swamps, pine-covered valleys, cross timbered ridges, playas, badlands, monolithic granite boulder fields, quartzite canyons and an endless string of mesas studded with shimmering caprock gypsum.And all of this non-flat natural beauty is reflected back by more than 1 million surface acres of water, including 78,000 miles of river, and more miles of shoreline than the Atlantic and Gulf coasts combined. Oklahoma is one of only four states to have more than 10 distinct ecoregions, and it is said we have the most per mile.
The good news for metro residents is that much of this is easily accessible by hiking trails within a few hours’ reach, and some are right in our own backyard.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
With nine designated hiking trails, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is our geological crown jewel and one of the premier hiking destinations in the state. The stunning pink granite mountains of this 59,000 plus acre park rise up out of a vast sea of prairie grass, ringed by a post oak and blackjack forest. It is a place of such exquisite and rare beauty that it inspired a Pulitzer Prize winner.
M. Scott Momaday writes: “To behold these mountains from the plain is one thing; to see the plain from the mountain is something else.” At every turn, this diverse and multicolored landscape provokes awe and wonder. The park is also home to species of 50 mammals, 240 birds, 64 reptiles and amphibians and more than 800 plants. It is probably the only place in Oklahoma where you can encounter buffalo, elk, Texas longhorn cattle, prairie dogs, an electric-blue lizard and the rare black-capped vireo from a hiking trail. I recommend stopping first at the park’s visitor center and picking up a trail map. The designated hiking trails within the park range from 2 to 10 miles round trip and accommodate all skill levels.
For a stunning, panoramic view of the park and surrounding area, try the Elk Mountain trail. Although the 1.1-mile trail makes a modest climb toward the top of Elk Mountain, the grades are gentle and the path meanders through shady forests of maple and oak with plenty of rocky outcrops to rest and enjoy the dramatic views of the plains below.
The Narrows trail, accessible from the Boulder picnic area, is a little-used, 1.3-mile, moderate level trail that offers a spectacular canyon hike along West Cache Creek. The trail begins just beyond the picnic area, winds its way through a mix of dense prairie and riparian woodlands and then descends into one of the most breathtaking canyons in Oklahoma (especially during late fall when the leaves are changing). The trail crisscrosses the creek several times (wear shoes that can get wet and prepare to rock-hop) and then winds its way up toward Eagle Mountain. At the top, the trail doesn’t seem to have a definitive end – so explore the many meandering paths that dart from the main trail. Take a moment to listen for the haunting melody of the canyon wren from down below. A closer look at the rocky outcrop might reveal a brightly colored lizard sunning himself and showing off his outrageous shades of orange, green, yellow and blue; that’s the collared lizard – Oklahoma’s official state reptile.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is located west of Medicine Park on Oklahoma Highway 49. From Oklahoma City, take I-44 W to Highway 49 (exit 45). Go west 10 miles to the refuge gate and follow the signs to the park’s visitor center.
The Oklahoma City metro area has a number of notable hiking and walking paths that make for impressive urban escapes. One of my personal favorites is a little-used trail in far northwest Oklahoma City that is nothing short of a hiker’s (and kayaker’s) paradise.
►Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge
A smooth, flat, wide, easy 2.6-mile trail meanders in and out of dense woods and farmland and follows the tucks and turns of the North Canadian River after it re-emerges out of Lake Overholser to the south. The 1,000-acre refuge was named one of the 100 largest city parks in the United States and is home to an extensive bottomland hardwood forest. There is something wonderfully ancient and primitive about this part of the North Canadian River as it passes through the refuge; pterodactyl-like great blue herons soar, prehistoric-looking turtles grapple for space on submerged logs and the ghostly shadows of great horned owls abound.Tucked away among the vast urban sprawl of Oklahoma City, Stinchcomb offers a rare glimpse of the metro’s stunning natural history. The refuge is near the intersection of N. Stinchcomb Ave. and N.W. 50th St., just west of Council Road.
A multipurpose trail that follows the east side of Lake Overholser for 3.2 miles, the Overholser Trail provides good views of avian wildlife and spectacular sunsets. Easy access to the trail can be found at N.W. 16th St. and E. Overholser Drive.
►Lake Hefner Trail
The trail is a multipurpose 9.8-mile trail that circles the entire lake. Regardless of which section of trail you walk, you are likely to encounter an abundance of unique avian wildlife, including hawks, kites, ospreys, ducks and wonderful wading birds. The best place to join the trail is at Stars and Stripes Park, 3701 S. Lake Hefner Drive.
The lake features three trails offering 13 miles of scenic hiking paths that ramble through a mix of shady forest and mixed-grass prairies flush with wildflowers in spring and fall. Arcadia Lake is also a popular spot to find bald eagles wintering in Oklahoma. The trails can be accessed at the park’s office in Edmond at 9000 E. 2nd St. or at the Spring Creek Park entrance at 7200 S.E. 15th St., also in Edmond.
Rich in both flora and fauna, Edmond’s 280-acre Mitch Park, located on W. Covell Road between
N. Santa Fe and W. Kelley Ave., has a 2.7-mile trail that loops through fields of remnant prairie and across beautiful, rolling, sun-dappled landscapes.
►Martin Park Nature Center
One of the city’s most beloved parks, Martin Park Nature Center is a true urban wilderness and any of the park’s mile-long trails gives instant access to a hidden world of wonder and wildlife. The nature center is located at 5000 W. Memorial Road, on the south side of Memorial.
As with any hike in Oklahoma, always remember to carry water, sunscreen and insect repellent. The best times of year for hiking in Oklahoma are spring, fall or winter. And don’t forget your camera!
The great naturalist John Burroughs once said, after returning from one of his many travels, that the lure of the distant and difficult is deceptive. “The great opportunity is where you are – every place is the center of the world.” I followed the lure of the distant and difficult here to northern Argentina on a mission to experience the beautiful rainforests, to see those legendary falls and to hike these famous trails. As I reflect on the remarkable diversity and beauty of Oklahoma’s wild places, the only mission I now have is to get back home, to Oklahoma and the center of my world, where, indeed, some of the most spectacular landscape I know is right here in my very own backyard.