Oklahoma hiking: Boulder Field hike, Wichita Mountains

Easy and scenic hiking at the start of the Boulder Field hike. This was taken in mid-spring conditions.

We’re entering an interesting time of year on the southern plains. Winter is giving way to spring, which invariably gets people to thinking about a lot of things: baseball, warmer temps, and severe weather, for starters.

But there is something else out there that should provide some motivation to get out of the house and on the trail. We’re entering a prime season for checking out one of Oklahoma’s outdoor gems: the Wichita Mountains.

I see the Wichitas as somewhat of a three-season place. Summer is just way too hot there, but the other seasons are awesome. Winter is uncrowded, fall gives you turning leaves and spring provides an awakening of life in the ancient mountain range.

Dropping into the canyon on the south side of Elk Mountain.

Provided the spring rains show up, you’ll see grasses and trees green up and flowers bloom. Rainy conditions will fuel the seasonal waterfalls that are found in some of the more rugged canyons here.

The Wichitas offer such a breadth of potential activities, from easy hikes and wildlife viewing to challenging rock climbing routes, that they can be enjoyed by just about anyone.

One thing I’d recommend is a classic hike that offers just the right amount of challenge to fit hikers while also giving you a taste of everything that spring in the Wichitas has to offer. I’m talking about the Boulder Field hike, which follows a canyon on Elk Mountain’s rugged south side.

Down at the bottom of the canyon, looking up at the Apple and the Pear. Those boulders are about as tall as a two-story house.

The best plan for the Boulder Field is to park one car at the Sunset picnic grounds while parking another at Treasure Lake. This allows you to through-hike the trail without having to turn around at a halfway point or punish yourself by hiking it twice.

When I’ve done it, I’ve started from Sunset, which is on the western edge of Elk Mountain and a common entry point for many destinations inside Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

The hike starts on easy, level ground, moving south along Elk Mountain’s west side. A side trail jogs east to go up Elk Mountain, which you will bypass. Hiking through a thick wooded area take you to a junction where you can turn west or slightly southeast. You’ll take the latter, which will eventually bring you into the entrance of the canyon.

Easier hiking after descending into the canyon.

Easy hiking continues for a little while longer before you enter an area that requires a little more commitment. Here, you’ll descend into the canyon by picking your way through and over a jumble of boulders. For those less steady on their feet going over difficult, off-trail ground, this may be a bit much. But it shouldn’t cause too much problem provided you carefully navigate the rocks as you head down. I’d call this part of the route difficult Class 2 hiking.

Once you descend, you’ll hit the canyon floor and will be treated to some of the more iconic sights of Elk Mountain, namely a couple of huge fruit-shaped boulders called the Apple and the Pear. More bouldering and climbing opportunities await in the Rock Rooms, and climbers can use this hike to scout out many of the technical routes on Elk Mountain’s steep south face.

A cool view of a minor peak inside the canyon.

Ultimately, the terrain opens up into easier hiking that offers some great views of Elk Mountain, Mount Lincoln and a number of minor peaks in the area. Eventually the terrain will narrow again as you face a chokepoint in the Boulder Field Hike, which in this case will mean getting around a pool that varies in depth and water flow depending on the season. The last time I went there, the water in the pool was high enough that it was overflowing the granite bowl that contained it. Rain and water from the pool made the rocks fairly slick, so negotiating this obstacle was a bit tricky. It’s not like some radically exposed climb, but a spill here would be pretty easy and there’s no soft place to land if you fall unless it’s into the pool itself. So be careful here.

Another minor peak in the canyon. If you had the time, there are fun scrambles up formations like this all around the canyon, not to mention a plethora of technical rock climbs on Elk Mountain's south face.

Exiting this point leads to a final stretch of hiking that took us past a few ravines, one of which had a high waterfall, maybe 30 feet or so. These are cool to see in the spring, mostly because the mountains dry up considerably once the summer heat sets in. It was a nice reward after a good bit of rugged hiking.

The hike ends at one more scenic spot: Treasure Lake. The lake, with Elk Mountain in the background, is what I consider a signature portrait of the Wichitas.

This sweet little pool is actually a bit of an obstacle during the rainy season in the Wichitas. Bypass this with care, as it's all rock all the way around it, and the water makes it slick.

A seasonal waterfall. Provided we get enough rain this spring, this is something worth looking for toward the tail end of the Boulder Field hike.

Of course, you don’t have to just do a straight hike through the Boulder Field. There’s an abundance of scrambles and climbs, and plenty of interesting things to see. My first trip through here included an ascent of a slim ridgeline that provided a pretty cool bird’s-eye view of the canyon looking east. A photo I took from that vantage point is one my favorites.

Awhile back, I wrote about how hiking the Elk Mountain trail to its summit is a good introduction to Charon’s Garden. The Boulder Field is a good next step.

A view of Treasure Lake, looking west toward Elk Mountain. This is one of my favorite photos from the Wichitas, as the scene is just so beautiful.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Like I said, half of the hike is fairly easy, level traveling. However, the more rugged sections are akin to difficult off-trail hiking. Route length is about 6 miles. During the spring, water flows pretty good but I’d advise against filtering water here. Make sure to bring enough water and food to get you through. Even fast hikers can expect to spend a good portion of their daylight hours going through it. I would also advise having a few other things in your pack. Once you descend into the canyon, there’s a good chance you won’t be around a lot of people, and if something goes wrong it’s going to take a long time for help to get there. So include a first-aid kit in your pack and let people know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


7 thoughts on “Oklahoma hiking: Boulder Field hike, Wichita Mountains

  1. How beautiful! (and much greener than I’m used to). I honestly don’t know too much about Oklahoma, but I didn’t think there were mountains like these!

    • There are! The Wichitas a pretty much the only game in town for western Oklahoma. They are rugged and ancient and make for great climbing, among other things. In eastern Oklahoma, you have what amounts to the western beginnings of the Ozarks. Nice, and at times, big, rolling hills covered in trees. Most of the state is prairie, but we do have mountainous regions as well, and they are worth seeing.

  2. Is this area dog friendly? We are wondering if the area is full of those small round burrs with spikes all over them? Hate to take the dog into something like that. Thanks for advise on this!

  3. Two ways to answer this. In the wildlife refuge, there are plenty of trails that aren’t too filled with burrs and thorns.

    In Charon’s Garden Wilderness area, there are some areas that aren’t so bad, but some areas that are thick with it. On the Boulder Field trail, it’s a mix.

    If you bring a dog, I believe it’s a federal regulation that the dog be on a leash, particularly in the wilderness area. The Boulder Field trail is in the wilderness area.

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

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