When I was thinking about how to write up a trip report on the Elk Mountain trail, I had a hard time figuring out exactly what to say. It’s a trail I’ve hiked numerous times. It’s short. And the route itself is pretty straightforward and doable for just about anyone.
That doesn’t mean it’s not spectacular, because in its own way it really is. But let’s just say it doesn’t have the wildness you might see going up some of the other mountains within the Wichitas’ Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.
But perhaps that’s what makes it so good. The Elk Mountain trail is the perfect introduction to this wilderness tucked deep in southwestern Oklahoma. It’s relatively easy as a hike and its accessibility make it a wonderful place for people who want to experience an awesome Wichita Mountains summit view without having to commit to some of the more difficult hikes and climbs in this range.
As with anything the deals with first impressions, this one has stuck with me. Elk Mountain was my first introduction to the Wichitas, and subsequent visits there have marked different milestones in my life.
The first time I hiked it was when I was a 27 years old. Five years out of college, working hard, neglecting my fitness and eating a lot of junk. In the middle of the summer, I was with a youth group on a day outing. The Wichitas in summer are brutally hot, made even worse by the heat building on the granite peaks that proliferate here.
The hike up was fine, but the boulder-hopping descent down sapped me. The rest of the day was a huge struggle, with me hardly able to keep up with the younger set. As I’ve recounted before, that day I was even falling behind the chubby kids.
Lesson learned. At that point, I restarted my personal fitness quest. Within the week, I was running.
Years later, I returned here to hike it with frequent hike/climb buddy Johnny Hunter. Johnny is the kind of guy who doesn’t stop. He’s always in motion, can carry a conversation and knows the Wichitas almost as well as the rangers who patrol the place. By this time, I was back in shape, just not “Johnny” shape. Johnny runs daily, is an avid swimmer and a past triathlon competitor and coach.
My pace was good – a brisk hike that ate up ground on the mountain’s gentle trail up. I felt pretty good about how I was passing others on the way up.
But Johnny upped the ante. He ran it. The trail to the summit is about a mile, but as a run, that’s a steep, challenging ascent complete with dodging stumps and rocks. He blasted it out very quickly and was waiting for me on the summit.
At that point, I wasn’t as committed to running as I am now. But I was shown a different level of what I call “outdoor fitness,” or physical endurance as applied to the outdoors. It gave me something to think about. Maybe one day in the future I’ll run Elk Mountain, I thought. That line of thinking helped give birth to my current infatuation with trail running.
I’ve been back to Elk Mountain a couple of times since then, with each visit having me help introduce it to new hikers. For the uninitiated, it makes for a brisk ascent that has a visual payoff that is way oversized in comparison to the effort it takes to get there. Elk Mountain’s summit view is among the best in all the Wichitas, particularly as you peer south and west into Charon’s Garden. The Boulder Field below is hardly a “field” – it’s more of a rock-filled ravine that is a fascinating hike in itself. Perched atop Elk Mountain are huge boulders – many larger than a two-story house. Two that are parked right by each other have been dubbed the Apple and the Pear for their resemblance to the fruit for which they’re named.
The best view is looking south toward Mount Lincoln and the numerous nearby peaks deeper in the wilderness. Elk Mountain is the gateway to these wonderful places, and its summit gives you a bird’s-eye view of almost all of it. A day on Elk Mountain’s summit can be one of those things that spark the imagination of the uninitiated. That’s what makes Elk Mountain special, its power to inspire and show people more accustomed to tamer pastimes what it means to get really get outside and learn about life beyond four walls and city limits.
This simple hike has definitely done that for me. In its own way, coming here so many years ago didn’t just wake me up from a fitness standpoint, but it also rekindled my interest in all things outdoors. Now those two passions are one.
Simple yet powerful.
ROUTE INFO: Exit I-44 to Oklahoma 49, head west into the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Drive 7.5 miles to a T intersection just past the visitor center. Go about six miles until you reach the west face parking lot and picnic grounds. The Sunset trailhead is here. Cross a small bridge and follow the well-established trail south, then east along the mountain’s north face. The trail is easy to follow and is Class 1 hiking all the way to the top. The hike from the trailhead to the summit is about a mile with somewhere just shy of 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
EXTRA CREDIT: Elk Mountain’s wilder south and west faces feature numerous slab trad climbs and bouldering problems.
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