It usually takes a me couple of days to get used to sleeping on the ground. Fancy mattresses and memory foam have made us weak. Comfy, but weak.
The growing chill of the night and the empty bottles of beer that Brian and I had finished off signaled that it was time to hit the rack. Frankly, I looked forward to crawling into my sleeping bag. It had to be warmer than sitting outside in the cool chill of the wind. But sleep doesn’t come easy. Not at camp, and certainly not with a thin pad between me and the ground. Then again, I knew this. It would be 20 minutes of dozing here, an hour there and so on for several hours, interrupted by the need to roll over to another side, shake off the chill or go outside to take a piss.
What I didn’t expect were the wake-up calls from our neighbors. And by “neighbors,” I mean the furry, four-footed kinds.
Somewhere near the lake, a chorus of howling and yipping pierced the still of the night. A regular coyote party, loud, constant and maybe even a tad aggressive. Those suckers wanted to be heard. And then, as if something caught their attention, it would cease. Not tail off from weariness, but end abruptly. It was weird. The little buggers would repeat this act a couple more times during the night. It wasn’t scary, but it was loud. It’s almost as if they knew they’d be waking us up.
On another occasion, I heard something more sinister. Some rustling, then loud, high-pitched animalistic noises of protest and pain, and finally silence. It wasn’t hard to solve that mystery. One fuzzy creature became another fuzzy creature’s dinner. It’s a hell of a thing to listen to something die.
That happened twice, further disrupting my sleep. The circle of life, on display in the Wichita Mountains: an annoying wakeup call to be sure, but at least I wasn’t someone’s midnight snack.
Being a night shift worker, I rarely see a sunrise. That’s the beauty of camping, though. When it gets dark, you turn in. When it gets light, you get up. More like it should be outside the artificial construct of things like work, civilization and whatnot.
Dawn broke and I willed myself out of my sleeping bag to get the day going. We had a big day planned, so there was no sense dragging out any more minutes in the bag and on the cold, hard ground.
I was greeted by a cheery sunrise over the lake where we camped. High clouds blown in the from the south added texture to the fiery colors of the rising sun, with the orange, red and pink hues of dawn reflecting off the water. Oklahoma sunrises and sunsets are vastly underrated.
We munched breakfast, gathered our gear and talked about what the day might be like. Seven years of being away from the Wichitas left me wondering if I’d remember how to get to some of the spots I hoped to see. The trails in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area tended to be faint and sparsely marked, and I’ve been known to get lost a time or two.
No matter. We’d figure it out. We got in the truck and headed back to the Sunset trailhead and made our way west.
I told a few stories along the way. As we were hiking through a patch of thickets and blackjack oak, I showed him where I had a close call with a buffalo nearly eight years earlier. Although I wasn’t keen on repeating that experience, I was hoping that we’d see some bison.
Shortly after leaving the woods, we ran up on a trio of hikers coming the other way. A man and his wife, plus another fella were making their way toward us. The second guy, as it turned out, was the other man’s father. His age: 86.
I know plenty of people 10, 20 and even 30 years younger than this guy who’ve long resigned themselves to steering clear of anything remotely close to wilderness exploration. And here he was, pounding dirt on a brisk Saturday morning. Call me impressed.
Eventually we made our way far enough where I could show him where Crab Eyes was, but that side trip would have to wait. The first destination, Sunset Peak, had to come first. We kept hiking west.
Somehow, I got us on the wrong side of a ridge that was taking us away from Sunset Peak and toward another mountain, Mount Mitchell. I figured this would lengthen our approach (Bad guide! Bad!), but it also showed me a more direct route to Mount Mitchell than the one I’d taken nine years before with my friend Johnny and his sister Ouida. On that trip, we hiked to Crab Eyes, then pointed ourselves toward Mount Mitchell by way of Styx Canyon. The canyon is probably the most rugged patch of “hiking” in Charon’s Garden. There’s no trail, but there is about an hour’s worth of heinous bushwhacking and route-finding before you’re clear of the thickets, thorns and boulders that litter the canyon floor. That’s not exactly what I’d call fun, so finding a smoother, clearer game trail that went straight to Mount Mitchell’s base was a pleasant discovery.
Around the time we were making out way around the ridge and toward Sunset Peak, we had our first megafauna sighting: First, it was one female elk. Then another. And then, more. At least seven of them warily eyed us from the crest of the ridge, then loped away and out of sight. No buffalo yet, but seeing elk in Oklahoma is rather rare unless you’re in the Wichitas.
By now, Sunset Peak’s south summit was in view. It stands out, towering above a high meadow that rests atop a short headwall. The last time I was here, that meadow sported a herd of a couple dozen bison. So I half expected to see them again once we topped the headwall.
But the meadow was empty. It was just us, the wind, and stubborn cloud cover that was keeping the temperatures down. While it would have been fun to see buffalo, at least we didn’t have to worry about navigating around these at-time temperamental beasts. Before long, we at the base of the peak.
Nearly seven years ago, my friend Johnny and I topped out on this mountain. It was tamer than Mount Mitchell, but there were still a few challenges getting up to the top. I remember some fantastic views and a little bit of effort, but I figured this mountain to be solidly Class 2 without any need for Class 3 scrambling unless you wanted it.
What we got was something else altogether.
There’s no trail up the south summit. It’s all about zig-zagging your way up the face, and route-finding is a constant.
My memory must have dimmed a bit on this one. I didn’t recall the thick, intermittent bushwhacking. And I certainly don’t recall as many Class 3 scrambles as we got. Brian readjusted his pack and stowed his trekking poles to handle the climb more easily.
We did spot one cairn, so I went over to it hoping it would lead to a more obvious route up. No dice. It was a worthless rock stack, and I should have kicked it over. That took me back to more scrambles up the face before we eventually climbed our way to the big blocks atop the south summit.
One memory did hold, and that was the views. They’re spectacular. Shorter peaks and rock formations littered the surroundings. Farther north, Sunset Peak’s north summit (and true high point) awaited. The big sentinels of the Wichitas loomed in the distance, and for miles to the west, the fringes of the range could be seen rising from the prairie floor from as far away as Altus.
What I like about these mountains is that they offer something most peaks east of the Rockies don’t: unobstructed summit views. When you’re in the Appalachians, most summits are covered with trees. It’s not until you get to New England that you hit mountains with treelines. The same is true in the Ozarks, the Ouachitas and most other mountain ranges east of the Rockies. You’ll get occasional outcroppings with panoramic vistas, but the Wichitas give you that alpine-style, 360-degree view without all the hassles of high altitudes. It’s hard to describe, other than maybe the Wichitas resemble what Joshua Tree might look like if you plopped it down on the Southern Plains.
We took a snack break in a natural wind break. Forecasts called for 60-degree temperatures, but even at 10 a.m., it was just 40 degrees and incredibly windy atop the peak. Soon we headed away from our shelter and down the saddle toward Sunset’s north summit.
Traversing the saddle proved a lot easier than climbing the south summit, and the north summit was an easy hike to the top. No bushwhacking, no scrambles. The north summit might be Sunset’s high point, but it’s considerably milder than its southern neighbor. Sadly, I forgot to take any pics from here. You’ll have to trust me that we got there.
From there, we stayed on the eastern slopes of the mountain and angled our way down south toward a ridge that stood between us and Crab Eyes. I wanted to avoid the ravine – just more boulder-filled heinous bushwhacking that didn’t look like a lot of fun. As we left the mountain and hiked up the rise, we saw the elk herd again, and just like last time, they eyed us for a few moments and hurried off. Within a half hour, we were back at the junction of the trail we took to Mount Mitchell and the southern trail that led to Crab Eyes, our final destination of the day.
We also talked with a young couple that was camping there: they were among the lucky few that got a backcountry permit. They were relaxed, munching on pizzas they made at their campsite. Cold pizzas, of course: Campfires are forbidden in the wilderness area.
The hike to Crab Eyes is a fun one. You meander through skinny trails that hug rock walls leading to the formation’s base, and then you see it towering above you: enormous granite slabs holding two massive boulders at the top. It looks like a huge, stony hermit crab staring down at you, hence the name.
Every time I’ve come here, I’ve had the place to myself. But this time we had company. I spotted three people at the base, with one person shimmying between two rock slabs. I recognized the move, as the route he was climbing was the “easy” way to the top. It goes something like this:
First, you wedge yourself between two roughly horizontal but slightly angled slabs and crawl your way up. Free of that obstacle, you can do one of two things: Crab-walk up two slabs (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or, for the more daring and dexterous, tightrope-walk up one of the slabs and never mind that 50-foot drop to your left. I’d call it a solid Class 4 route with a no-fall zone to the climber’s left.
As it turned out, they were making this climb to set up an anchor to do a technical climb up Crab Eyes’ east face. This is no small trick.
Though it’s a single-pitch climb, it’s notoriously tough. It’s a crack climb on really grippy granite, but it’s also slightly overhanging in spots. It’s rated a 5.10+, and according to this crew, a tough 5.10 at that.
I munched a little more and watched one of them negotiate the climb. He handled it expertly, but even after being lowered down, he admitted, “It’s harder than I remembered it.”
His friend piped in, “Just typical climbing in the Wichitas!”
Brian struck up a conversation with a third member of that party. She was considering hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and given Brian’s interest in through-hiking that Appalachian Trail, talk of gear and logistics came easy. As for me, I munched on my trail fave: summer sausage, cheese and a tortilla.
We headed back not long after, reliving the complications of Sunset Peak and the beauty of the range. Too few people in Oklahoma know of this place, the most rugged patch of rock in the state. Considering the scarcity of public lands and real wilderness, it’s a little surprising to me.
At the same time, it is exactly as I remembered it. Wild, untamed and severe. It was a reminder of what America does right, in that we have long taken seriously the idea of preserving wild places such as this.
I can only hope that sentiment endures. The Wichitas are my Oklahoma happy place, a destination where I can climb rocky crags, enjoy sweeping summit views and tread the same paths of creatures that have called these environs home for longer than people have lived here. I hope it is always so.
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, Sunset Peak: From the Sunset trailhead, take the trail that starts at the gate of the west side of the parking lot. You’ll hike through a wooded grove until you reach a sign pointing left toward the Charon’s Garden Trail. Go right instead, continuing roughly west. You will cross two dry creek beds, then hike up a rise that gives you a view of the western portions of Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.
In less than half a mile, you will run into a junction in the trail. One spur goes south toward Crab Eyes, the other turns into a game trail going west. Keep going west. You will hike toward Mount Mitchell, then turn north at the end of a rocky ridge to your right. Getting around the ridge, you will see Sunset Peak’s south summit. Hike up the headwall and cross the meadow to the peak’s base. From here, you’ll likely zigzag your way up the face. Route finding will be essential. About half this effort will be steep hiking, with some short but numerous scrambles on mostly solid rock. Continue until you get under the summit blocks, then traverse to your right to gain the top.
Once you’ve reached the south summit, hike down the saddle between the south and north summits. You should be able to find easier hiking with a little boulder hopping by staying toward the left side of the saddle. At the bottom, start going up toward the north summit on easy hiking to the top. A small bit of boulder hopping near the top will help you gain Sunset Peak’s true summit.
Round-trip hiking is about 6 miles. The route up Sunset’s south summit is difficult Class 2 to Class 3. The rest of the hike is a Class 1 approach, with class 2 sections on some portions of the mountain’s north summit.
Crab Eyes: Follow the trail out of the Sunset trailhead parking lot like you would going to Sunset Peak. At the trail junction mentioned above, go left (south) and follow the established trail up toward the formation. The trail will eventually take you to a small headwall at the base of Crab Eyes. Hike left of the headwall, then up and to the right to the base of Crab Eyes. A Class 4 route to the top is the easiest way up if you choose to do it. On the north side of the base, hike up to an upwardly slanted pair of horizontal slabs. To ascend, wedge yourself between the slabs and shimmy your way up about 20 feet. From there, you will see two parallel vertical slabs about three feet apart that make up the main tower of the formation. You can crab walk up (hands on one slab, feet on the other) or tightrope walk up the left slab to the top. This is a very exposed part of the climb, as a 50-foot+ vertical drop is on your immediate left. The climb takes you to the top of the formation where the “eyes” (two large boulders) rest. Don’t bother climbing the boulders.
Otherwise, there are Class 5 routes up both the east and west faces. Bolts are in place on the west face.
The hike to Crab Eyes is Class 1, with Class 2 portions at the end, and is 3.6 miles round trip.
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.
Camping: For tent or car camping, the Doris Campground features 90 spots. Some are semi-primitive, others have RV hookups. The east edge of the campground is by the western shore of Quanah Parker Lake. Campsite costs are $10 a night for tent camping. Prices go up for sites with electrical hookups. Restrooms and showers are on site.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers limited backcountry camping permits in Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Inquire for reservations; all permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed in the backcountry.
For more, go here.
Read Part 1 of “Return to the Wichitas” here.