Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.
They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.
I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.
I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.
That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.
The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.
After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.
A.T. OR BUST
I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.
More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.
When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.
The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.
After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.
There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.
The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.
I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.
The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.
We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.
Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.
Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.
For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).
Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.
After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).
With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.
In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.
Getting there: Take Interstate 44 to the State Highway 49 exit and go west. The highway will take you to the refuge.
About the route on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.
About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.
Things to know: The Wichita Mountains are home to abundant wildlife as well as a managed herd of longhorn cattle. Of particular note are bison. Give bison and the longhorn cattle plenty of room, as they can be dangerous when spooked or angered. The range is also home to rattlesnakes, so be on the lookout for them during warmer months. The range is also dry. All creeks and waterfalls are seasonal, so opportunities for filtering are relatively few. Bring plenty of water, regardless of season.