Oklahoma hiking and climbing: Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Mount Mitchell.

One of the things that I like about the Wichita Mountains is how accessible the place is. And at the same time, how enjoyable its hard-to-reach areas are.

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is one of the rare places in Oklahoma that is a truly wild, albeit small, slice of land that is as forgiving or as harsh as you want it to be. Plenty of trails are available to the casual dayhiker. Highly technical rock climbs can be found on several of the mountains and canyons here. Most of the best places to see are within an hour’s hike of any given trailhead. Throughout the Wichitas, wildlife – elk, buffalo, coyotes and any number of birds – is abundant.

But it’s the more inaccessible places in the Wichitas where I’ve found myself more at home. I can remember doing some hiking around a rock formation called Crab Eyes and seeing in the distance a steep-walled granite massif in the distance. It was a peak I’d never been to, in a place within the refuge I’d never visited. I made a mental note that someday I needed to go to this mountain and climb it.

Easy hiking going west into Charon’s Garden.

Research in the coming months identified it as Mount Mitchell. The name is unofficial, but bestowed in honor of a physician and pilot who frequently hiked and climbed in the Wichitas and ultimately died there in a plane crash.

(It should be noted that the plane Dr. Mitchell crashed did not strike this particular mountain.)

The following fall, longtime hiking and climbing buddy Johnny Hunter and I decided to see Mount Mitchell for ourselves. Accompanying us was Johnny’s sister, Ouida.

The trails in the Wichitas are well marked and established, but there weren’t any maps that showed a clear path to Mount Mitchell. We’d later discover some game trails and lesser paths back to the trailhead, but not before we went off trail through one of the thickest and most difficult stretches of hiking in all the Wichitas: Styx Canyon.

We hiked from the Elk Mountain trailhead and headed west to Crab Eyes, then went around that formation’s west side. From there, we descended off trail into the canyon.

Working our way through Styx Canyon.

Styx Canyon is a morass of trees, underbrush, thorns and rocks. Potholes between the rocks are deftly hidden by fallen leaves and other dead foliage, forcing us to watch every step we took. Route finding was a bit of an art here as it was not hard to stumble through the thickets only to find ourselves stopped at the edge of a cliff and forced to turn around. There were even some places where we were forced to do some light bouldering moves to go around obstacles.

Somewhere in the middle of the tangle, Johnny and Ouida spotted a female elk. I caught sight of her as she bounded effortlessly though the underbrush, over a ridge and out of sight. That an animal weighing several hundred pounds could so easily navigate this mess while we struggled forward is a bit of a mystery to me, but seeing it was rewarding.

It took us well over an hour to cover about a mile. Eventually the terrain flattened out and the thickets cleared. We came into a gentler part of the canyon which revealed a small stream and a clearer path west. At the edge of a pool we finally got a clear view of Mount Mitchell.

A view of Mount Mitchell from the slopes of Sunset Peak. Our ascent went up a ravine just right of the summit.

The mountain is actually a long granite massif with one main peak and several shorter sub-peaks. Its north face presented some sizable Class 5 walls that would be good for climbing, but technical climbing gear would be needed. On its west ridge, Class 3 scrambling could be used to gain the summit. We chose a compromise: A steep ravine just west of the middle of the massif.

Like most of our outing, the way to the foot of the mountain would require some bushwhacking, but nothing on the order of what we saw in Styx Canyon. Once we got there, the climbing began.

Some bouldering moves would be required to get up to the ravine. There weren’t a lot of handholds and footholds to be had, but the rock was solid and grippy. Easier scrambling took us halfway up the ravine, then we hit a wall that forced us to make an easy traverse west. This was an interesting area as you could hearing water tricking inside the mountain, somewhere between the massive boulders jumbled all around.

The climbing started immediately. Here I’m going up the first portion low on the route. (Johnny Hunter photo)

About midway up the climb, looking back on our route. Class 3 bouldering here.

Johnny traverses across a wall before gaining the summit ridge.

After going up, we came to a place where we could continue west, gain the summit ridge and then reverse course east toward the summit block. I took a more direct path toward a fissure in the mountain just below the summit block that provided a fun piece of climbing.

Entering the fissure, it was too narrow to walk forward. I’d have to shimmy through sideways, which meant shedding my pack. At the end of it was a dead end, meaning I had nowhere to go but up.

I ended up stemming my way up the crack, avoiding a chockstone whose stability I couldn’t predict. About 15 feet later, I was out of the fissure and looking up at the summit block where Johnny had already topped out.

The fissure. I ditched my pack here, shimmied through and then climbed up the chute at the end.

Johnny catches me as I emerge from the fissure. (Johnny Hunter photo)

Summit view, looking east. From left, Elk Mountain, Mount Lincoln, Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain.

The summit block is small, barely enough room for two people and really, just one comfortably. It’s an exposed perch overlooking Mitchell’s steep north slopes as well as some familiar places where I’d been previously: Elk Mountain, Crab Eyes, Styx Canyon and the Boulder Field. I also saw sights of places I hadn’t been, including Sunset Peak (reached about 18 months later), Granite Mountain and Twin Rock Mountain.

We decided to find a gentler way down, but I still had to retrieve my pack at the entrance of the fissure. I ended up doing a poor job of route finding from there and cliffed out once, having to trust my retreat to the sturdiness of a bush whose roots I hoped were sunk deep into the mountainside. Sketchy, I know. But sometimes you do what you have to do. On one final bit of downclimbing I stemmed my way down and eventually found flatter ground at the mountain’s base.

Getting a little more stemming practice on the descent. (Johnny Hunter photo)

By design, the portion of the refuge where Mount Mitchell lies is wilder than the rest. Many of the places I mentioned – Crab Eyes, Styx Canyon and the Boulder Field – are all features inside the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. The further west we went, the more remote it became. It’s doubtful many people take the time to go this far into the wilderness, particularly in the way we chose to get there. It takes a lot more commitment than most day hikers are willing to take.

That said, all of this can be done within a day. Mount Mitchell would be an awesome place for rock climbers to explore, as I’m sure it is not climbed all that often. There are simply too many other, better-established lines closer to the trailheads that offer highly challenging climbs. But perhaps it’s the solitude that Mount Mitchell’s isolation provides that makes it such an interesting destination.

How to get there: Take Oklahoma Highway 49 into the refuge. Drive west until you get to the access road that takes you to Elk Mountain’s western parking lot. Hike 3.5 miles southwest on Prospector Trail through the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Once you’re clear of the neighboring ridges, hike off-trail toward the mountain.

Route information, northwest ravine:  Class 3 scrambling with some sections of Class 4 climbing. Mild to moderate exposure, with higher exposure on the summit block.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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3 thoughts on “Oklahoma hiking and climbing: Mount Mitchell, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

  1. Pingback: Hiking, climbing and mountains in Oklahoma? Yep. A tour of the Wichitas | proactiveoutside

  2. Great story, except author is confusing a plane crash that took two lives in 1968 on Mt Lincoln and Dr. Mitchel’s
    death on the west side of Elk Mountain,
    almost 30 years later. Still good story! Great hike too.

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