Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain: Why urban wilderness is important

The beginning stage of a typical trail run at Turkey Mountain in Tulsa.

Clomping down that path as I’m wont to do, I spied in front of me a pretty interesting sight: through the trees, on the same trail and just around the bend, were two backpackers heading the same direction as me.

It might not be an odd sight on a popular hiking trail, but the view from this same trail also included skyscrapers thrusting into the skies above the city of Tulsa on a cool, dank day.

The truth is you never know what you will see when you’re out on the many trails of Turkey Mountain.

More properly known as the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, this rare piece of earth has become a refuge of nature inside the city limits of Oklahoma’s second-largest city. Mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners, dog-walkers and horseback enthusiasts regularly visit this heavily wooded ridge on the west bank of the Arkansas River.

Though I didn’t talk to them except to say “hi,” I figured the couple I saw with fully loaded backpacks was training for future backpacking adventures. An excellent idea, in my opinion.

The routes

As far as this place is concerned, I’m a trail runner. But I meet all types who, despite their differing activities of choice, get a lot of enjoyment out of an area that stands in stark contrast to the well-developed suburban sprawl of Tulsa’s south side.

Turkey Mountain features three main trails, each color-coded and marked throughout their routes. The short red trail is about .6 mile and sits off by itself, making it an excellent place for beginner trail runners, bikers and hikers to get their feet wet.

The blue trail is what I call a summit run. It’s about 1.6 miles round trip, starting out in a flat run, then ascending rapidly up the ridge to the top before coming up to a pond. You then circle the pond and head back down its steep sections.

The yellow trail is the ridge run, 4.5 miles that include steep ascents/descents, long flat stretches, and roller coaster sections with lots of elevation gain and loss. I typically run the yellow, though I’ve been known to combine the blue and the yellow to add a little distance.

Speaking of adding distance, there are also scores of side trails that are not marked, but are part of the main network of trails. It was on my most recent trail run here that I decided to explore more of these routes on the northwest end of the ridge.

Part of the summit route.

Unlike a lot of trails made for runners, Turkey Mountain’s routes can be a bit rough and challenging. It’s a rocky place, with plenty of exposed stones poking up from the ground. They are often joined by exposed tree roots and stumps of small trees that were cut down or otherwise felled. It makes for a challenging run, particularly on the steeper uphills and downhills. I’ve told people that running at Turkey Mountain is a lot like combining running, stadiums and agility drills in one, long workout. Going up the Blue and Yellow trails starts with a bang, a steep run to the top of the ridge that includes all of the obstacles and hazards I just mentioned.

Embracing urban wilderness

Turkey Mountain is a beautiful place, harkening back to the hilly, forested countryside that Tulsa once had before it became a settled city. Northeast Oklahoma is, after all, the place where the Ozarks begin before ascending to loftier heights further east in Arkansas.

One of the things that I love about this place is how much the locals have embraced it. A trail running group meets every Sunday for a group run. Mountain bikers flock here in big numbers, plying their skills on the best singletrack available locally. I see couples taking leisurely strolls and families with their kids. A lot of people come here to exercise their dogs.

Running and biking groups have made Turkey Mountain a venue for races, be they trail run ultras, bike races or even those crazy (and fun!) obstacle course races like the Warrior Dash.

As I was leaving I saw two guys getting ready to hit the trail, one with a fully loaded military rucksack. It turns out he was going to be deployed overseas soon and wanted to use Turkey Mountain’s trails as a place to get in “ruck shape.” Not a bad idea!

I find myself very lucky to have this place in my city. Other communities where I’ve lived and worked just don’t have anything like it, though the foresighted community planners of places like Denver, San Diego and Los Angeles, for example, made a priority to set aside larges pieces of land for urban hikers, trail runners and bikers. In an age where obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are rampant, it’s clear that more communities could stand to do this. We all need to get out more, encourage others to do the same and provide places to do just that.

Pick your routes!

Best of all, it’s integrated into the city’s riverside trail system, a long network of paved running and biking trails running from downtown to the city’s south side, and on both banks of the Arkansas River. These trails also continue east, then north, following the Creek Turnpike. It would not be hard for a road biker to get a 40-mile ride in without having to stop for traffic more than a couple of times. This same extensive system runs right up to the parking lot and trailhead at Turkey Mountain.

Exploration

My most recent run had me running the summit route, then over to the first pond near the top of the ridge. Rather than cutting it short, I then traveled north on easier side trails before eventually sinking lower, then up again as the trails ran by two other ponds on a roller coaster section that tested my legs and my mind.

Mud splattered. Rocks and stumps were dodged as I sank lower, then regained elevation before breaking through the trees into an open stretch that followed a row of powerlines toward the downtown skyline. Here is where you turn back south to rejoin the yellow route and finish the back half of the run.

Despite the cool 45 degree temps, I had already worked up a good sweat. I was now in familiar territory here, but worn down. The ups and downs would continue the rest of the way south, but in a mellower version than before. In dodging one mud puddle, I came a little close to the edge of the trail and a steep dropoff, but I was nimble enough to avoid any major hazard.

Further down, I spotted a problem – a bouldering problem. I say this half in jest, but on another run, I saw this rocky outcrop as an opportunity to pull off the trail and try climbing a bit. I’ll figure it out in time, but that would have to be for another day.

After about an hour, I was finally back on the south side of the ridge, finishing the loop and on the home stretch. My calves were blasted and I was tired, but in a good way.

I think what I like most about this place is that it is a unique place to run. I can invent new routes almost any time I come here. And as much as I enjoy Riverside Park or running in the city streets, they are much more predictable than Turkey Mountain.

Best of all is Turkey Mountain isn’t just for trail runners. I’ve seen all types, as I’ve mentioned before. The parking lot is almost always full of people doing basically what I do – finding some enjoyment outside in a more rugged, natural setting.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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