Once home to famous Indians Geronimo and Quanah Parker, who chased wild buffalo across the open plains, this wilderness area is reputed to have gold bullion buried somewhere in its hills by Spanish traders. Legend also says that loot stolen by the Jesse James gang can also be found among its rocks. Today its gold is its natural landscape, lakes and wildlife. If you’re on the way across the USA, or just visiting Oklahoma and looking for challenging terrain, breathtaking views and an affordable day out... this is it.
Nestled in the south west corner of Oklahoma is a park with canyons, two 2500 foot peaks, trails, Lakes, Elk, Deer, over 650 Bison, Prairie Dogs, Longhorn cattle and even a bird species on the endangered list -The Black-capped Vireo. If you love to hike, bike, and fish, see animals in their natural habitat, or just like to walk in the woods with the kids, it’s the perfect one day family getaway. Even if you’re on a business trip to Dallas it’s a great day out to drive up, stretch your legs and see the area. Driving around or walking, you’ll ooh and aah at all the animals and sights. Best of all there’s no entrance fee.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife refuge, just north of Lawton, Oklahoma is one of 550 free refuges dotted throughout the United States. Established in 1901 as a forest by President William McKinley it is now administered by the Fish and Wildlife service. It’s most famous visitor, President Roosevelt, turned it into a refuge in 1907 but also stayed at Doris campground in the middle of the park during his term in office.
The tallest peak in the refuge, Mount Scott, close to the entrance, offers views of Medicine Park and Lake Lawtonka as well as the refuge itself. Some say you can even see the Texas border on a clear day. Elk Mountain is another pinnacle of similar height on the west side of the park and part of the Charon Garden Wilderness area. If you enjoy mountain climbing there’s no better place in this part of Oklahoma.
A favorite destination at this popular site is “Forty Foot Hole”. A natural canyon, it is part of Kite trail, one of 9 in the refuge covering 15 miles of designated hiking and biking trails. At more than 40 feet deep the quiet and peaceful canyon is perfect for hiking, or just for enjoying a picnic on its precipitous ledges. The waterfall at its edge pours over the cliff into the water below reflecting the green lichen covered granite walls, giving them an emerald glow in the morning light.
The main draw for this unique location today though is its tours and wildlife. The cute Prairie dogs and Bison are always a hit with the 1.5 million visitors to this refuge each year, and the various tours are second to none. The Refuge boasts several throughout the year such as the fall foliage tour, the wildflower walk, a nighttime tour for star gazing, and even one to search for the elusive Bald Eagle.
Ralph Bryant, Deputy Manager of the refuge, told me about all the tours as well as their recently implemented ecological drive of putting electronic collars on the bison to track their annual habits as they move around the park. He also mentioned studies on the age of trees coupled with prescribed wildfires to check growth in various areas, but how this year the wildfires had caused some damage. He told me “Wildfires from the excessive summer sun has caused problems in some parts of the refuge. We had several months of 100 plus degree days which meant we had to cancel the fall foliage tour completely; however the fires were small enough to be easily contained and no danger to the public or animals”.
Mr. Bryant’s enthusiasm about the park was evident, and it’s easy to see why the Wichita Mountains Wildlife refuge is a great day out for everyone. If you go now you can take advantage of the lower temperatures and the fall colors (and fewer visitors). At just three hours from Dallas this unique area might not remind you of Yellowstone, but its proximity and the fun you’ll get from the animals, tours and trails will want you coming back more than once. Who knows, maybe you’ll find some lost gold!
Contact the visitor center or check out the websites below for the latest information and dates.
Best time to go and other stuff.
Due to the sweltering hot summers in Oklahoma, the best time to visit is spring or fall.
Be prepared for any weather conditions so take light rain gear and suntan lotion with you.
Good hiking boots if you have them are a must if you intend to go on the trails.
Take plenty of water and a few granola bars as hikes can be strenuous.
The Refuge itself is free but there’s a cost for camping of $8 to $18 depending on if you need electricity or not, and back country camping is by permit only.
Group picnic areas can be reserved in advance by contacting the Refuge’s main number at 508-429-3222.
Pets are welcome but only on a leash.
While you’re in the area.
If you have time in one day visit the sulphur springs at Microbial Observatory nearby, as well as Saddle Mountain and the Slick Hills. Those staying for the weekend should take advantage of the sunrise and sunset from Elk Mountain, as well as signing up for one of the star tours available through the Park center. Check dates and times on the website.
Another “not to miss” is the Fort Sill museum just south of the park where visitors can still see missiles and cannons at this still active army base, as well as the graveyards of Geronimo and Quanah Parker. There are several Indian casinos which offer nighttime fun in nearby Lawton and accommodation is available at the usual hotel chains such as La Quinta, Best Western, Baymont Inn, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express all available locally. Prices range from $65-$125 for these 1-3 star hotels. Restaurants abound in Lawton with multiple choice as well as fast food outlets.
For more information check out the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge website at:
Or the National Wildlife Refuge site at: http://www.refugeassociation.org/new-about/about%20nwra.html. Brochures and pamphlets are available at the excellent visitor center near the entrance to the park.