My wife and I recently took an anniversary trip to the Wichita Mountains in south-central Oklahoma. Both of us are lifelong residents of Oklahoma and lovers of the outdoors, but admittedly we are still working through all the wonders of our own great state. The Refuge was established in 1901 and spans an area of 59,020 acres and is the home of many species of wildlife and native grasses that survived the plow as its soil was too rocky for tilling.
While it might not seem unusual if you are hea ding west in Colorado, it is almost shocking to see mountains rising, as if out of nowhere, in the plains of Oklahoma. The landscape is beautiful yet has the arid look of a Utah or New Mexico. A rocky landscape with grasses, a variety of small shrubby plants, cactus, wildflowers and in the lower areas a lot of Blackjack Oaks that are typical to a rocky Oklahoma landscape. Above all, its breathtakingly beautiful.
Wildlife appears to be fairly abundant, and we were pleasantly surprised to see several species. Whitetail deer and coyotes worked the edge habitat in the hours just before nightfall. The Elk were in the prime of their breeding season and we were treated to bugling throughout the night. In fact, I am convinced that one actually passed through our camp, though I cannot verify this, there was definitely a large hoofed mammal passing through merely a stone’s throw from our tent! We were also fortunate to spot one large bull grazing a few hundred yards off the road as we headed to Sunset parking area for a morning hike. There is a prairie dog town where prairie dogs can be seen sunning near their burrows. Lastly, we were excited to see buffalo as nothing is more iconic to the plains and wild places. The largest heard we saw roaming the landscape was from a vantage point on Elk Mountain. Also, while not wild, you can see many Longhorn cattle grazing freely.
There are several trails within the preserve to choose from. We were fortunate to have some local insight from a friend who directed us to a few in particular, these were: The Narrows, Crab Eyes and Elk Mountain. The later of the two are accessed from the Sunset parking area. The trails were stated to be moderate but both were comfortable hikes and short enough to do multiple routes in a day, if so inclined. The trails are not designated by physical markers but there is a visible footpath that at times can be slightly challenging to locate but never to the point of concern. I assume that the reason that the trails are not marked is because it’s a refuge and not a park therefore they want to preserve its integrity as a wild space.
Campground and facilities
There are a couple of campgrounds, but the primary campground is Camp Doris. It’s a large campground with designated areas for group camps, electric and semi-primitive sites. Camp sites (with the exception of the group sites) are not available by reservation so first come, first served. It has facilities which include pit toilets and some facilities with running water, flushing toilets and showers, yes showers!!! While the showers were very basic and rudimentary, they were free and had hot water, for which we were very grateful! One last thing that should be noted is that the water on site must be boiled so be prepared for this or bring your own (which is what we did). Also worth noting is that cell service is limited within the refuge.
The weekend we visited we absolutely nailed the weather, however, so did many others and we were lucky that we got a campsite. We had planned to car camp but due to poor planning we arrived late to find only semi-primitive sites remained and these filled quickly. These sites are located in Section C and require you to park and carry in your items. That said, we chose a site, took in only what was necessary and quickly set up camp. While we had planned to car camp we still enjoyed the site and never felt we were doing without.
We found the park staff to be both friendly and helpful at the campground and at the visitor center. As previously mentioned, the park campground was full. Also Mt. Scott was closed due to road repair. This led to some congestion at the other parking areas. When we arrived at the entrance to Sunset, we were greeted by a member of the Park staff who was equal parts mountain man and friendly neighbor. A real joy with a good humor and quick wit. He was in the unfortunate position of directing traffic and diverting cars away as the lot was full but would let 2 cars wait for someone to leave. We were lucky enough to grab one of the spots which allowed us to enjoy some great one liners all stated with a smile and the best of intention so as not to be insulting in the least, such as: (as a car pulled up) “Some peoples lucky, some peoples not. Ya’ll aren’t.” (as a person asked repetitive questions about getting in the lot) “You people are ruining my perception of of Kansas” and lastly, (while people were leaving) he would wave and shout “Hey, thanks for leaving!”.
In review, it was an amazing weekend trip with beautiful weather, sights, wildlife. Scenic, family friendly, hikes that got the blood pumping but never left us feeling like we couldn’t handle more. And a wonderful example of the diverse range of ecology that Oklahoma has to offer across this great state.
Last but not least I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Meers. If you are in the area you must take a trip to Meers to eat at the Meers Restaurant. Established in 1901 it still serves as an eating establishment today and its uneven floors speak to its history. It has a friendly staff and portions that will blow your mind and stomach. My recommendations are the Fried Green Tomatoes, a famous Meers Burger and cobbler with homemade ice-cream. Be prepared for up to a 40-minute wait and be sure to bring your appetite and your stretchy pants.
–The 8 Point