6 Adventures in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

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This hidden mountain escape in the middle of the Great Plains is a haven for wildlife and adventurers of all breeds.

The last thing you might expect to see driving across the flat plains of Oklahoma are the bouldery, 1000-foot-tall Wichita Mountains. They bubble out of the prairies just an hour-and-a-half southwest of Oklahoma City, forming granite domes cut by steep gorges and surrounded by grasslands.

Encircled by a sea of private farmland and one-stoplight towns, the mountains’ rocky soil made agriculture difficult, preserving them as a haven for traditional grazing species like American bison, Rocky Mountain elk and white-tailed deer. Numerous state parks and the 59,020-acre Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge mean there is plenty of public land to explore. So load up your truck with everything you need to climb granite cliffs, shred singletrack, hike haunted forests and camp under the stars.

Backpack the Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area

The Wichita Mountains’ lone federally designated wilderness area is named after the Greek ferryman of the dead, Charon. But don’t expect the River Styx. Instead, this jumble of granite boulders in the southwestern portion of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is one of the only places in the range where backpacking is allowed. (Pick up a first-come, first-served permit at the Refuge Visitor Center.) Access the designated backcountry camping area by hiking Charon’s Gardens Trail from the Sunset Picnic Area through riparian meadows hemmed in by rock walls to Crab Eyes Trail, which will take you the rest of the way to the camping area’s eastern edge. From there, it’s up to you to find a spot among the dead—er, stones. Just be sure to grab a map from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure you pitch your tent in terrain where it’s legal to camp and read up on the camping rules as the refuge has special regulations to protect the fragile ecosystem.

Set Up Basecamp at Doris Campground  

Those with campers, adventure rigs or who simply prefer a night outdoors that comes with basic amenities should head to Doris Campground. Located in the refuge on the banks of Quanah Parker Lake, the facility has 90 first-come, first-served sites, 23 of which have electricity. But no matter where you set up camp, you’ll find a fire ring, grill and picnic table, plus access to drinking water, bathrooms showers, firewood, ice and more. Pro tip: There’s a bird blind along nearby Quanah Parker Trail, perfect for spying great blue herons, red-bellied woodpeckers, northern cardinals and Carolina chickadees all year long.

A stream runs through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. (Photo Credit: Erin Hervey)

Hike the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

If you still haven’t gotten your fill of wildlife, follow this 1.2-mile out-and-back to the summit of 2,200-plus-foot Elk Mountain. From the trailhead (which you’ll also find in the Sunset Picnic Area), you’ll climb 580 feet up rocky steps and through scrubby brush. There are views the whole way up, but from the summit you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of the Charon’s Gardens Wilderness Area to the west and the snakelike French Lake to the east, where you might see bison herds grazing.

Get (a little) closer on the aptly-named, 5.3-mile Bison Trail, which starts at the Lost Lake Picnic Area and winds through rocky meadows and along French Lake. The buffalo, which are all descendants of 15 bison shipped by train from the Bronx Zoo in 1907 to repopulate their native territory, frequent the area. Just be sure to stick to the trail and give the wildlife plenty of space.

French Lake as seen from Elk Mountain. (Photo Credit: Tom Robson

Peddle Lake Lawtonka

Wichita singletrack isn’t just for boots and hooves. Load up your mountain bike and enjoy more than 20 miles of trail along the southern and western shores of Lake Lawtonka, just east of the wildlife refuge. The rocky, cross-country-style loops wind through grassy, lakeside meadows and under stands of pine, but occasional technical downhills mean they’re best suited for intermediate and advanced riders. The 5.7-mile Lawtonka West Shore Loop mixes a little bit of everything the area has to offer, making it one of the best rides in the state. And it’s easy to cross the Lake Lawtonka Dam and hit the lake’s Blue and Orange trails to extend your ride.

Listen to an Elk Call

More than half of the refuge is off-limits to the public to protect the bison, elk, wild turkeys, river otters, prairie dogs and more that call the area home. But there is one way in. Every September and October, the height of elk mating season, the refuge runs a bus tour through the special-use area so you can spot the roaming herds of females and listen for the high-pitched whistle bull elk make while competing for mates. Check with the refuge for exact dates and to reserve your place.

Climb at Quartz Mountain

Get intimate with the local granite at Baldy Point, an outcropping on the west side of Quartz Mountain Nature Park. The rocky monolith features a  healthy mix of trad and sport climbing, plus a little bouldering, and routes range from beginner-friendly 5.5s all the way up to 5.12s. Consider yourself warned, though: The rock will test you with numerous run outs and friction-heavy routes like S Wall, an amazing two-pitch, 5.9 sport route. Even the crack climbs are renowned. Check out Mountain Project or snag a copy of the guidebook, Oklahoma Rock: A Climber’s Guide by Tony Mayse, at REI’s new store in Oklahoma City for all the beta.

Big Rocks.

Climbing Echo Dome in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. (Photo Credit: Hiking Project contributor Ty Gittins)

Get Spooked in the Parallel Forest

Travel due north on Meers Road (Highway 115), and you’ll come across a strange sight: acres and acres of red cedars standing like soldiers at attention, each one exactly six feet from the others. The result is an erie, funhouse effect, and as if that weren't enough, the century-old grove is home to countless reports of ghosts, floating orbs, strange noises and paranormal events. Find the forest, and the short loop trail that winds through it, just east of Mount Roosevelt.

Eat an Earthquake of a Burger

Maybe it’s the region’s geologic past that gives Meers Store and Restaurant’s “Seismic Meersburger” its name. Or maybe it’s the burger’s earth-shattering size. Either way, the seven-inch diameter, one-pound patty of homegrown Longhorn beef is the signature post-adventure meal (or two) in the Wichitas. The store, on the northeast side of the wildlife refuge not far off the route back to Oklahoma City, is the last remnant of the once-bustling mining town that gave it its name. Wash your meal down with a Meers Gold Beer (brewed in the nearby Krebs), which comes in a suitably giant 22-ounce bottle. If burgers aren’t your thing, swing by the small town of Medicine Park just south of Lake Lawtonka for some Tex-Mex-style fare at Small Mountain Street Tacos.

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