When it comes to travel within the Sooner State, a handful of destinations immediately come to mind, and for good reason: They are amazing. Beaver’s Bend in southeast Oklahoma continues to thrive and grow as a tourist destination, and the Pioneer Woman’s delectable stronghold in Osage County keeps getting more delicious. On any given summer day, it’s hard not to find shovel-wielding sojourners digging for crystals at Great Salt Plains State Park, and Adventure Road is – well, Adventure Road; it’s all about tempting tourism.
Our state, with 12 eco-regions, 39 state parks and countless cities and towns large and small, teems with travel-worthy attractions. We’ve decided to widen the scope, so we took to the road to find some spots you might have missed in your journeys. Let these suggestions for this year’s Alternative Oklahoma Travel Planner be your guide to an unforgettable summer of adventure, culture and cuisine.
Nature in the Northeast
It is immediately after sunrise on a spring Saturday as I pull into the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve, just past Tahlequah in northeastern Oklahoma. The last five minutes of the 25-minute drive through the vivid countryside are on a dirt road, occasionally offering glimpses of the slow-rolling river that ultimately runs adjacent to the preserve itself. Just past the visitor’s center, a handful of deer graze on grass so green it defies the color spectrum as above them, equally colorful neotropical migratory birds zip through the forest. Owned by the Nature Conservancy, the preserve offers three different hiking trails, as well as Bathtub Rocks – a waterfall feature and a perfect swimming hole to cool off in the hot summer. Somewhere in the woods roams one of Oklahoma’s only elk herds. There is perhaps no greater place to commune with nature than in this piece of protected natural space alongside the Illinois River.
By summer, crowds will come to the water, but not necessarily for respite. Most visitors to this part of northeast Oklahoma are here to float the Illinois, as countless outfitters send out half-day and full-day floats in tubes and canoes. For many, a float on the river has become a rite of passage or warm-weather tradition. But this unique region of the state offers so much more.
Tahlequah, tucked into the forests of the Cookson Hills, is home to Northeastern State University, as well as the headquarters of the Cherokee Nation. This merging of culture and youth, combined with countless ways to experience nature at its fullest, make a visit to Tahlequah a must.
For a casual lunch, stop into Sam and Ella’s Chicken Palace. This inauspiciously named eatery identifies itself both by name and decor as a chicken place, but the pizzas and the sandwiches are the best. The chuckwagon – ham, pepperoni cheese and tomato topped with a vinaigrette and served on a fresh deli roll – is perfect fuel to hike the Sparrow Hawk trail just outside of town.
Take Highway 10 south three miles and visit the Cherokee Heritage Center in the neighboring town of Park Hill. This affecting destination features tours of a 1700s Cherokee village, as well as a powerful exhibition on the Trail of Tears in the museum.
Tahlequah’s main street features a number of boutiques and galleries. Southern Bling and Meigs Jewelry are prime stops for the fashionista, and if you were moved by the Cherokee Heritage Center, you must visit the Spider Gallery, featuring superb work by more than 150 Cherokee artists. Beer lovers should stop by Kroner & Baer Pub, and if you’re looking for a little nightlife, Ned’s is a welcoming dive with live music, or the NSU Jazz Lab is a perfect stop for someone seeking a little culture. For dinner, stop into The Branch. Not too many places let you listen to a live piano player while eating a ribeye next to a shuffleboard table. It is the perfect blend of food and fun, and in summer, the deck overlooking a creek is sublime.
For lodging, the options are endless. If a float trip is your motive, stay just outside town at War Eagle or Diamondhead Resort. There are also a number of chain hotels and bed and breakfasts; the Blue Fern and the Blue Feather are both worthy lodging options.
Getting to Tahlequah is half the fun. Take I-44 through Tulsa – and while you are there, stop in to see the Gathering Place. Built by the George Kaiser Foundation, this riverfront park was recently named America’s best new attraction by USA Today. If you’re interested in seeing a huge amount of wildlife in a very small park, stop into the Oxley Nature Center in north Tulsa. (Note from the author: my favorite hidden gem in the state.) Want a little music history? Stop into Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center.
Sand, Scenery and Schnitzel
To get to Little Sahara State Park from Enid, you must drive a 50-mile stretch of Highway 412 … and most of the way, it is a pancake. For just a few miles, however, there is an odd uprising on either side of the road. If you blink, you might miss it. These upheavals of earth – the largest being Cathedral Mountain and the second, more isolated, one Lone Peak Mountain – make up Gloss Mountain State Park. Unlike most state parks, Gloss Mountain does not have a campground, nor a visitor’s center. But once you climb the steep staircase to the top of Cathedral’s mesa and look around, it is as though you’ve been transported to Oklahoma’s own extremely small version of the Grand Canyon. The views seem to go on forever. It is perhaps the most inspiring view in the state, and one that most folks will simply drive past.
While the mountain top appears to look out over a vast nothing, “nothing” is far from what lies beyond. The aforementioned Little Sahara State Park, with its endless sand dunes, is an adventurer’s dream – just rent a dune buggy or bring your own to experience racing around on the dunes. A stone’s throw away is Waynoka, where you can find, of all things, delicious German food. The family-run Café Bahnhof specializes in schnitzels, and has a sausage platter that alone is well worth the drive from OKC.
Also not to be missed is the aforementioned Great Salt Plains State Park. Once you’ve had your nature fix, head to Enid. If Tahlequah is the king of destinations in northeast Oklahoma, Enid rules the Northwest, and flourishes with attractions. The Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, Leonardo’s Children’s Museum and Adventure Quest (a three-story palace and hands-on museum for children), the Gaslight Theatre, Enid Symphony Orchestra (the oldest in the state) and the Railroad Museum of Oklahoma are all great ways to get your cultural fix. For a steak, set out to the upscale PaneVino Wine and Steak. For a more casual steak or burger and a beer, head to Callahan’s Pub and Grill.
While there is no shortage of bed and breakfasts (including the excellent Southard), for a truly unique experience, drive 20 minutes west and stay at a vineyard. Scott Grube purchased the Indian Creek Inn and Vineyard in 2015 and, with his wife’s help, not only turned the property into one of the state’s best lodging options, but distributes 17 different kinds of wine all across Oklahoma. The property features two guest houses, which both sleep 12. The 50-acre property includes a pond, vineyard and swimming pool, and is an ideal place to have weddings and events. It is also a prime spot to use as a base camp for your weekend in Oklahoma’s wild northwest.
The Road to Adventure
I remember once being en route to Lake Murray with a friend who was visiting from California. He was in awe of the beauty of the Arbuckle Mountains, and a quick stop at Turner Falls certainly blew his hair back, but it was a sign that – at least, in my opinion – was the fuel for what ultimately became a relocation from the West Coast to Oklahoma. “Fried pies,” he said, as we slowly rolled past the Arbuckle staple. His eyes grew wide: “You guys FRY PIES in Oklahoma?”
Yes, yes we do, and it is done best in Chickasaw Country.
If you live in Oklahoma, you’ve heard of Chickasaw Country. You’d be remiss not to visit the Chickasaw Cultural Center, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area or the aforementioned Turner Falls – and odds are that if you’re a Blake Shelton fan, which many are, you’ve considered driving down to Ole Red in Tishomingo for a brisket taco. There are, however, many smaller, more curious places (fried pies, anyone?) that are sure to make your journey down Adventure Road a more robust one. A stop at the Bedre Fine Chocolate Factory is a nice augmentation to further satisfy your sweet tooth. Just to the north is Pauls Valley’s Toy and Action Figure Museum, and if murals are your thing, both Pauls Valley and Davis are home to some memorable examples. The Vault in Pauls Valley is not just a gallery, but an event space with rotating exhibitions. In its Legacy Room are vintage items, including old signs from Pauls Valley days gone by.
Farther south, just outside Ardmore, is Lake Murray State Park. If Gloss Mountain wins the award for most sparse services and facilities when it comes to state parks, Lake Murray is at the other end of the spectrum. If you’ve already gone to Chickasaw Country to stay in Sulphur’s luxurious Artesian (which you should) and want something different, stay at the Lake Murray Lodge or in one of the park’s 56 cabins. The park itself spans 12,500 acres and features everything from hiking to golf, horseback riding, swimming and paddle boating, among other activities.
SPLENDOR BY THE LAKE
The carefully planned appeal of Carlton Landing
When you pull into Carlton Landing, a new urban community on a bluff overlooking Lake Eufaula, it is as though you are stepping out of the real world and into a fairytale. Largely a second-home community and designed by Andres Duany – also known for planning Rosemary Beach, Florida – Carlton Landing comprises 3,000 homes split into multiple walkable neighborhoods, and features its own farm, school, nature center, pool, common areas and walking trails. The homes are described as traditional American farmhouse, but have Victorian and Rural Gothic influences, as well. For families looking to rent a home, the amenities at Carlton Landing’s homes are of the highest caliber, and you couldn’t be closer to aquatic fun on Lake Eufaula.