Sights and experiences to treasure in the Sooner State
Photos by James Pratt
When you're on a trip, Interstates are excellent at getting quickly from Point A to Point B ... but some truly fascinating destinations are waiting at Point C, or D, or Q. This summer, try venturing a little off the high-speed track to explore some of Oklahoma's less overt attractions.
Long before the internet, my wife Kay and I were always looking for low-cost ways to both entertain and educate our kids – and, more importantly, get them out of the house. We developed a family tradition of loading up in the Chevy Suburban and hitting the back roads of Oklahoma to discover tidbits of Oklahoma history. Usually these were day trips, sometimes camping overnighters.
First we hit the well-known Oklahoma landmarks such as the world-class Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, the Tucker Tower at Lake Murray and the Marland Mansion in Ponca City. Never wanting to travel the main interstates, we would meander along county roads and byways and enjoy discovering lesser-known nuggets of Oklahoma. After our kids were grown, we continued our travels via two Jeeps and even dual sport enduro motorcycles. Over the years, we have collected hundreds of unusual Oklahoma locations in our GPS, ranging from ghost towns to restaurants to colorfully painted rocks and even rural art displays.
Here, we share a few of our Oklahoma gems.
► Clayton Lake State Park
5 miles southeast of Clayton on US Highway 271
You could be forgiven if you roll out of your tent early in the morning, gaze though the mist rising off the lily pad-covered water, and think you’re in the high mountains of Colorado. Instead, you’re at Clayton Lake State Park in southeastern Oklahoma. Nestled deep in the Kiamichi Mountains five miles south of Clayton and the much more famous Sardis Lake, Clayton Lake is one of the lesser-known crown jewels in Oklahoma’s State Park system.
You can fish in the quiet waters, mountain bike in the surrounding rugged terrain, visit the monster jeep off-road park in Clayton, stop by the capitol building of the Choctaw Indian Nation in nearby Tuskahoma or ride motorcycles along some of the best roads in the state. With the purchase of an affordable Oklahoma Land Access Fee permit, you can enjoy almost 300,000 acres of wilderness in the Honobia and Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, where you can hunt, fish, kayak, hike and explore the rugged mountainous terrain. Cabins and hot showers are available.
► Bowling Ball Yard Art
Nowata / bowlingballyardart.com
What do you do when you have a few extra bowling balls lying around your house? Decorate!
Chris Barbee of Nowata turned his humble home into a world-renowned work of art. Using bowling balls. Lots and lots and lots of bowling balls.
Drive a mile down a dusty gravel road north of Nowata, past the cows grazing in the pasture, and soon you will come across a startlingly creative collection of bowling ball art. You can have your picture taken in front of an American flag made of dozens of brightly colored balls, or gaze at the caterpillar made of balls. Or the bowling ball spider. A Mickey Mouse stop sign. Ladybugs? A monstrous pool table with bowling balls? An entire fence of bowling balls? The variety is astonishing.
In addition, you can walk into a small “shed” made of bowling balls that houses – what else? – famous or unique bowling balls.
Route 66 tour buses often detour to see this eclectic collection of one man’s hobby. Visit and sign the guest book.
► U.S. Cavalry Museum
El Reno / uscavalry.org
The Cavalry is coming! Literally. The United States Cavalry Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the traditions of horse-mounted cavalry alive in the United States, recently moved its museum to historic Fort Reno just west of El Reno.
Fort Reno has been the host to the U.S. Cavalry’s annual Bivouac and National Cavalry Competition, which brings equine enthusiasts from all over the world to watch and participate in training events and competition designed to keep alive the skills used in the U.S. Cavalry. Each September, participants flock to Fort Reno and spend a week learning skills such as horse-mounted maneuvers, cavalry horse training tactics, period-correct uniform design and maintenance, even how to conduct a proper mounted saber charge. At the end of the week, competitions are held in which cavalrymen (and women) compete with sabers, rifles and pistols, all while astride galloping horses.
The museum contains important information and displays on the history of the United States Cavalry. Bring your children and show them the McClellan saddles used by cavalrymen for years. Read training books on how to properly care for your horse – the Army way. The museum is a wealth of historical information and a great way to provide interesting historical education to kids, while giving them room to run and play on the expansive parade grounds of this historic fort.
► Ingalls Ghost Town
If your idea of a “gem” leans more to tidbits of obscure Oklahoma history than places to eat, visit the Payne County ghost town of Ingalls, located a few miles southeast of Stillwater. A lonely monument on a now-empty street marks the spot of a deadly gun battle between a posse of 14 U.S. Deputy marshals from Guthrie and members of the infamous Doolin-Dalton Gang on Sept. 1, 1893. Intent on capturing the outlaws, the marshals descended on Ingalls, and three of their number and one gang member were killed and several people wounded, including two local townspeople. Today, replicas of several 1890s buildings dot the town.
► Railhead BBQ
Guthrie / railheadbbqok.com
Better than Eischen’s? Some people think so. Located a quarter mile north of Waterloo on Douglas Boulevard, Railhead BBQ doesn’t need fancy décor or a first-class location to succeed; they are known for their food. Unlike their more famous counterpart, Railhead serves up not only some of the best fried chicken in Oklahoma, but all the fixins – fries, baked beans, cole slaw – along with brisket and ribs. The choice is yours … but be sure to try the fried chicken. It might put your grandma’s to shame. And enjoy the old-time country. You know, Bob Wills, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patsy Cline – the classics of country music.
► Nutopia Nuts 'n More
Hydro / nutopianuts.com
Next time you are on a long drive west on I-40 toward Weatherford, Clinton, Elk City or even Amarillo, Colorado or other points west, take a few minutes to pull off the Interstate at the diminutive Hydro exit. Follow the road north about a mile into town and you will come across an Oklahoma gem that many international travelers exploring Route 66 are sure to visit, yet few in Oklahoma are aware of: Nutopia Nuts ’n More, formerly Johnson Peanut Company.
Originally founded in 1962 to market the local peanut crop, Johnson Peanut Company operated a retail store in Hydro for many years, selling delectables such as peanut brittle, peanut butter, chocolate-covered nuts, honey roasted nuts and more. The store was taken over by the daughters of the original founder and renamed Nutopia Nuts ’n More, while the product line has been enhanced to include local jellies, jams and relishes, as well as Route 66 gifts.
► B&B Grocery
What do you get when you combine a grocery store with a deli with a town museum with a feed store? B&B Grocery Store in Kendrick is pretty close to the answer.
While the local school has closed, the post office has left town and most businesses are nothing more than hulking empty buildings, B&B Grocery thrives in what would otherwise be another Oklahoma ghost town. Located just north of Chandler, this store is worth the short trip if only to enjoy sitting at the antique school table, eating a handmade deli sandwich, drinking a grape Nehi and browsing the Kendrick High School memorabilia lining the walls. The place is clean and neat as a pin, and the proprietors obviously take pride in being the “last store standing” in this tiny town.
► Kickstart Bed and Breakfast
Stigler / kickstartbedandbreakfast.com
If you like motorcycles, you will love this cycle-centric bed and breakfast in Stigler, Oklahoma. Operated by longtime riders Mike and Patty Youngpeter, this perfectly maintained home features a unique motorcycle-related decor for each room.
Do your interests lean toward American bikes? Pick the Harley Davidson or Indian Motorcycle rooms to surround yourself with historical two-wheeled Americana. Or do you prefer an Italian flavor to your ride? Stay in the Ducati room for a touch of exotica. Gather in the front entry to meet the nicest people around a Honda scooter that is right smack in the middle of the foyer.
Of course, the food is as delicious as one would expect, and riding the mountains south of Stigler makes the trip perfect. Dirt bikes are your thing? Schedule with Mike in advance, and he will lead you on a dual sport dirt bike adventure into the rugged mountains of eastern Oklahoma. Even if you currently are bound by four wheels, you will love the decor and friendliness of this unique getaway.
►Lovera's Handcrafted Foods
Krebs / loverasmarket.com
Many Oklahomans are familiar with the world-famous Pete’s Place Italian restaurant in Krebs. Fewer know about the unique, and incredibly delicious, Lovera’s just down the street. Not a restaurant, Lovera’s is a fine grocer and meat market that offers homemade cheeses, sausages, bread, oils, spices, espresso, cookies and other specialties with a uniquely Italian flavor.
While many of its products are imported from Italy, Lovera’s has been crafting its own cheeses for decades. You can stop in and grab some cheese, crackers and Italian sausage for a wonderful picnic or take some home as a gift. Explore the store and learn a bit of Italian history, and be ready to fall in love with its flavors.
► Indian Meridian Monument
Many Oklahoma County residents have driven Indian Meridian Road in the eastern part of the county, but may not be aware of the significance of the name. In 1870, the federal government established an arbitrary point one mile south of Fort Arbuckle to be used as the baseline for developing a geographic survey of what was then Indian Territory. Indian Meridian is a north/south line running through this baseline point. A similar Indian Base Line runs east/west across Oklahoma through this point, as well. A grid of township and range lines was used to divide the land into sections.
Using this grid system, all land in Oklahoma (except the Panhandle, which was “No Man’s Land” at the time) was surveyed from the baseline point, using Indian Meridian and Indian Base as reference lines.
The Indian Meridian Monument was erected in 1922 where the east/west Ozark Trail crossed the Indian Meridian. Over the years, it fell into disrepair, but was recently updated and provides an interesting stop on the way to Stillwater.