In the mood for a quick dayhike to one of the more unique natural settings in Oklahoma? The Crab Eyes formation inside the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area of the Wichita Mountains is just the trick.
The wilderness area is one of those places where you can be as challenged as you want to be. It can also be a place where you can see some truly amazing things without having to go through all the hard-core off-trail bushwhacking a scrambling that is so common here.
Crab Eyes entails a little bit of all of that.
The formation itself is a minor peak with one major feature that sets it apart from the rest of the range: Two massive boulders perched atop its tiny summit that give it the appearance of a hermit crab’s head.
The trail is easy to follow, going west away from Elk Mountain and toward some of the wilder, rougher parts of the wilderness area. It’s in these parts that you can come face to face with the refuge’s wildlife. King among those is the bison.
Wild bison roam freely here in sizable herds. They’re big enough that they don’t have much to fear here, and for the most part they are fairly docile as long as you don’t get too close or do anything that might spook them. Trust me, the aggressive side of the buffalo is not something you want to experience.
The trail winds its way through tightly packed woodlands, open prairie and across creek beds. The hiking is fairly easy and enjoyable, and gets more interesting the closer you get to Crab Eyes. The approach is rockier, steeper and a bit more choked with brush but otherwise very manageable.
Ascending it from the east, a short hike up takes you to the base of the summit tower that serves as a perch for the “eyes.” Sitting at that base looking east, you get two things for the price of one. First, it’s a great place to stop, grab lunch and maybe get a nap. Second, the views looking toward Elk Mountain and some of the other mountains on the eastern edge of the refuge is one of the area’s best.
It would be easy to stay here and use this as your turnaround point, but that would rob you of the real fun: getting to the top.
This involves a bit of an awkward scramble/climb going up the formation’s north ridge. It involves wedging yourself between two slabs and shimmying up about 15 feet until coming to two other narrow slabs that lead to the top.
From here, you have two choices. You can crabwalk between the two slabs, or do a tightrope walk up one of them. With the former, you have to take care as to not slip and fall in between the slabs. If you did, you might fall up to 20 feet and get corked between them.
Choose the second option, and you avoid that whole “corked” scenario. But to your left is a sheer drop that, at its greatest, is about 80 feet. A fall here would cause serious injury and could very well be fatal. Needless to say, the exposure here is pretty high.
Once completing that little traverse you find yourself on a small summit block that serves as the base of the eyes. It’s a bit cramped, but you can actually crawl up right under the eyes, which seem almost impossibly balanced despite their size and the high winds that often whip through the area.
One word of caution: Don’t try to climb the eyes. They are huge and heavy, but there are not any handholds/footholds to speak of and I would shudder to think what would happen if one of these massive stones actually moved.
The round trip of the hike is less than 5 miles and is an easy half-day outing. Generally speaking, most people who hike in the Wichitas stick close to Elk Mountain or the Boulder Field, so there’s a good chance you can have Crab Eyes all to yourself. This in itself is remarkable, considering how readily accessible this little trip is.
ROUTE INFORMATION: From the Elk Mountain trailhead, follow the trail to the point where you can either continue south, then east into the Boulder Field or turn west. Veer west and follow the prospector trail over a gentle ridge, then down into a valley. From here, you will hike about another half mile and can either continue west toward Sunset Peak or south toward Crab Eyes. Go south, following the trail up toward the formation.
As you ascend, you will approach a headwall that you can easily bypass either to the south or the north. This will lead you to the base of the rock column that supports the eyes.
On the non-technical route, you’ll follow a staircase-like path to the slabs on the upper portion of the formation. Here, wedge yourself between two horizontal slabs and shimmy up to the middle of the ridge, which is actually two vertical slabs that go up toward the summit. Choose to either crab walk between the slabs or do the catwalk thing on the exposed outer slab. This will take you to the summit block, which entails a small scramble move to the top.
I would rate the trail Class 1 hiking while the scramble/climb to the top comes in at Class 4 with high exposure.
EXTRA CREDIT: If merely hiking to the formation or scrambling up its north ridge is not a big enough challenge for you, try climbing its west face. It’s a trad route rated over 5.8 and does have some bolts set up for protection. There are similar crack climbing routes on the east and south faces.
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