The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.
Think of a place. A place that you’ve never been, that caught your attention, and for whatever reason, didn’t let go. You tell yourself that one day, you’re going to go there.
I seem to zig where other people zag. Whereas a lot of people might gravitate toward a tropical paradise or some sort of alpine wonderland, I seem to be drawn toward something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to explore Patagonia or the Himalayas, or spend a week or five on the beaches of Bora Bora. It’s just that those lonely little corners, the remote places, that capture my attention so much more.
For me, that place is Black Mesa. As in Oklahoma. Yeah, you heard that right. For the better part of a couple of decades, I’ve thought about going to the furthest point west in the Oklahoma Panhandle to see the semi-arid bluffs of Black Mesa. It started with seeing a TV news story about the people who live in Kenton, a small ranching outpost of a town situated right in the middle of the tabletop formations that rise from the high plains. The TV crew filmed it well, showcasing its haunting, Old West beauty. Scenes of the sun setting over the rocky, windswept landscape remained with me for years.
I like desolate places. I like the people who dare to live in them. There is an eternal hardness to such locales that draws me to them. It was high time I scratched that itch.
The journey is half the fun
Getting there is a bit of a haul. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to the furthest corner of a state and proclaim that it’s “remote.” But state lines are just man-made constructs, and truth be told, the corner of many states is actually pretty close to something else.
That’s not the case with Black Mesa. No major thoroughfare goes through the area. If you’re on the highway leading to Black Mesa and the town of Kenton, you have to want to get there. It’s a very intentional decision. It’s closer to Denver than it is to my home city of Tulsa; this is also true of the state’s capital, Oklahoma City. And believe me, Black Mesa ain’t anywhere near Denver. It’s a good seven hours from my home, taking secondary highways across the prairie and farmlands of northern Oklahoma and through the Panhandle until there is almost no place further north and west you can get before entering another state.
I was OK with this. Back when I lived in the Oklahoma City area, all my drives to New Mexico and Colorado traversed rural western Oklahoma all the way through the Panhandle. Flyover country can be just as monotonous as it sounds, but sometimes it can surprise you. Just east of Woodward, I ran into a surprise in an area called the Glass Mountains. Rolling plains give way to short tabletops and bluffs that, at times, cut a dramatic skyline. These aren’t the Rockies, but the range’s namesake, Glass Mountain, packs a lot of ambition in its vertically limited but striking profile.
Glass Mountain, the namesake peak of the Glass Mountains of northwest Oklahoma,
Certain things I’d see along the way made me curious about what it was like to live in the Panhandle, a three-county stretch of flat prairie that at one time was forsaken by tribal and state authorities alike, dubbed “No Man’s Land” by outsiders and inhabited by the supremely tough or the thoroughly criminal before eventually becoming part of Oklahoma Territory. The Panhandle has never been cosmopolitan, wealthy or flashy. It is now much as it was back then – wide stretches of plains suitable for cattle and farming. Aside from those activities, well, you can always go back to Oklahoma City.
One site of curiosity for me is in a little wide spot in the road called Elmwood. There isn’t much here – two gas stations and a burned-out building called the Pit Stop Motel. I know about the Pit Stop because in 2002, back when I was a newspaper reporter, there was a murder here I wrote about. Someone got whacked behind the motel – shot several times and left in a car obscured by bushes, a rare crime in these parts.
A few years later, when driving out west, I noticed the Pit Stop motel had turned into a charred husk. Holy cow. First a murder, then a fire. That’s a lot of calamity for one place. Surely this place had a story. If only I could find someone to tell it.
The ruins of the Pit Stop Motel in Elmwood. But the gas station next door is still alive and kicking.
So on my way out there, I stopped at the ruins of the Pit Stop to have a look. Yep, still in ruins. But something was out of place: A bright sign planted on the property’s west end advertising lottery tickets. That part of the building appeared to be intact, and upon closer inspection, was open for business.
How did I miss this? The Pit Stop Motel might be toast, but the Pit Stop convenience store was still stubbornly hanging on after all these years.
I went inside and found a woman named Emily manning the counter, eager to help. Not many of the lights were on, but the walls were lined with coolers stocked with drinks. So I asked her about the motel.
“It used to do good business,” Emily said. Her accent was strong, possibly eastern European, or maybe eastern Mediterranean. I couldn’t quite tell. “But a big storm, the worst storm, came through. It was hit by lightning.”
She couldn’t have been any older than me, but had been running the show here for the better part of a decade. The murder behind the motel happened before she came along, the storm some time after. Emily had plans to hopefully bulldoze the wreckage and open an RV park. I hope that day comes. She was really sweet and open about it. It would be nice to see things turn around in a place where opportunities just don’t grow on trees.
I bought a soda and a Tecate and continued west, satisfying a curiosity of mine that went back ten years.
The time it took me to get from Tulsa to the Panhandle was about the same as it would take to get to the Panhandle’s end. It’s just a really long way out there. I navigated the speed trap that is Hardesty, then picked my way through the de facto capital of the Panhandle, Guymon. Unlike the rest of the region, Guymon is actually growing, with an influx of Hispanic immigrants finding work here in the city’s pork processing plants, then later, in the construction and oilfield jobs that have come along. Western Oklahoma is mostly lily white, but not here. Texas County is about a quarter Hispanic now, and in Guymon, the ratio is about a third. You can see it just walking around town, and even on the electronic marquis of a fairly new elementary school on the east side, displaying messages in English and Spanish.
Something tells me there has to be a really great Mexican food restaurant here, one that I’d like to find. I’m a sucker for pork carnita tacos and a cold Mexican lager.
Back on the road, the day was getting long, and daylight short. It was nearing sunset in Boise City, the largest town and county seat for Cimarron County, with about 1,300 people calling it home. Instead of a stoplight, you get a traffic circle that uses the county courthouse as its hub. Signs tell you which way to Denver to the north, Clayton, New Mexico, to the southwest and finally Kenton to the west. Driving straight west, it took about five minutes before I became the only car on the road.
Now that’s a strange feeling. Drive in any rural area and you’re bound to see a passing car every now and then, and usually the driver will give you a friendly wave before passing by. But I saw nothing, just the occasional ranch home, sometimes with Christmas lights up, every 10 miles or so. Other than that, I might as well have been driving on the moon.
When you’re by yourself, your senses become magnified. You’ll notice things that wouldn’t ordinarily catch your eye if someone is with you. In this case, as I tried to beat the darkness to my campsite, it was the different phases of dusk. First, you get those brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red and purple as the sun retreats below the horizon. Once it disappears, the darker, less vibrant colors take over the show as the hues of the land become flatter and darker. Soon, only a cool glow remains out west, and the land turns gray, then black, and eventually melts into the darkening sky. By then, all you can see is what is illuminated by your headlights or from lamp poles and homes miles away.
That was the point I was at when I finally got to Black Mesa State Park. All I could see where the light poles. As I pulled in and drove through, I came to realize that no one was there. No campers, no park staff, not a soul. The only thing here were the dimly lit, almost ghostly, campsites and me, motoring around until I found a suitable place to park and settle in for the night.
We’re spoiled by electricity. In “normal” life, we can do all sorts of things well into nighttime because of the benefit of electric lighting. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, that changes. Darkness is the signal to call it a night. I set up my camp, ate a little dinner, then hunkered down with a book for awhile, drifting into sleep before waking up again, usually because the copious amounts of water and caffeinated drinks I’d had on the road wouldn’t leave me alone.
Daybreak gives me a better look at my campsite at Black Mesa State Park.
Weird noises greeted me when I went outside to take care of business. Camp was near some sort of body of water, the bank on the other side covered in trees. I knew I was being watched, mostly because of the noises I’d hear when I went outside – strange calls, scratching sounds, a plop into the water. But what was the source? Antelope? Coyotes? Some other predator? No way to tell. In addition to sharpening your physical senses, being alone has a nice way of intensifying your sense of paranoia. In my mind, I knew that even predators mostly shunned people, that wildlife is more scared of us than we are of it. It was, however, impossible not to conjure up images of a pack of coyotes suddenly surrounding me, catching me quite literally with my pants down, and collectively licking their chops.
My bathroom breaks were brief.
Getting up the next morning, I went back outside and walked up to the pond just past camp and found the source of the sneaky commotion. As it turned out, the things that were going bump in the night were just ducks. To my knowledge, no human had ever been devoured by a flock of waterfowl.
With morning also came a break in the solitude. Someone else was here. I saw him motoring around on an ATV around the campgrounds.
We visited for a bit. His name was Cody, the park superintendent, and like a lot of people, he drove a good ways just to get to work every day – 43 miles from Keyes, a little down just east of the county seat. Cody told me that the previous week, he’d only seen three or four campers in the park, and I was the first this week.
“So what do you do here when it’s so quiet?” I asked.
“There’s always something that needs to be done,” he said, noting that many of the screens at a group camp building all needed replacement, and that he’d been working on flooring and other improvements for awhile now. It occurred to be that this guy experiences solitude quite often, working hours at a park which, during the off season, hardly anyone visits. And when the day is done, he hops back into his pickup for the long haul home – I imagine just about everyone out here is accustomed to long bouts behind the wheel to get just about anywhere – before getting up early the next morning and doing it all over again.
Given that, he was eager to chat. So we talked about the park, Black Mesa and some dinosaur tracks I could see if I didn’t mind driving a little further. He also mentioned the volcanoes around Capulin, New Mexico, formed in the same period that gave birth to Black Mesa and the neighboring buttes scattered throughout this corner of the Panhandle. I’d been there a couple of times before, so that wasn’t in the itinerary this time.
I was also wondering if there was a trailhead outhouse at Black Mesa. Seeing that the restrooms at the park were all locked, I figured a pit stop before the day’s hike might be a good idea. He then proceeded to tell me there was, and how nice it was, how it cost $80,000, and how much he could get done at the park for the price of that single outhouse. He was joking about it, of course. Mostly.
I paid him my $12, and he asked me where I was from.
“Tulsa,” I replied, and he then told me that he gets more visitors from my city than any other town. “Oklahoma City is second, for sure, but for some reason, well, I always ask them what the draw is. Why here?”
That’s a good question. Maybe it’s because it’s so different from where we live. Or perhaps it’s the lure of seeing the highest point in the state. It could be that we’re just more adventurous than our neighbors in OKC. They’ve got NBA basketball to distract them now.
Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.
This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.
With that, I left him, checked out the remains of a petrified forest inside the park, then took the winding two-lane road further north and west, toward the remotest part of Oklahoma. Black Mesa was in my sights.
Oklahoma’s high place
The state park isn’t actually at Black Mesa. It’s within the same geological formations, but to get to the mesa you have to drive another 17 miles or so. Practically like going to the mailbox, right?
The drive has its charms. You get to see more of the mesas, and in some stretches, hoodoos. I figured these curious formations to be more of a Utah or Arizona thing, yet here they were, twisted, windblown stone sentinels overlooking the highway.
Hoodoos seen on the side of the road near Black Mesa.
Kenton is nearby, but not actually on the road to Black Mesa. It’s a very small town, but situated perfectly amongst the hills. You could find many towns that have a less attractive setting than Kenton. There are a few things you need to know, however. The hours of operation of anything except the post office are pretty limited, and if you’re low on gas, you’re out of luck. The closest gas station is behind you in Boise City.
What it does have: bed and breakfasts. It’s how a few of the ranchers out here supplement their incomes. There is also a curious looking building outside of Kenton that looks like a mock-up of an Old West town. At first appearance, it looks fairly new. But I could spy some parts of the building already falling apart from neglect. My guess: it was a would-be tourist destination that never got off the ground, now left to the elements to eventually be reclaimed by the land on which it sits. It will take time for that to happen, but in this part of the world, time is abundant and relentless.
Eventually I reached the Black Mesa trailhead. A ranch-style cattle gate barred things from inside getting out (the state allows ranchers to run livestock on the nature preserve), but had a nice little chute for people to squeeze through.
Oh, and it also had that wondrous $80,000 outhouse. Which was locked. For all of the ingenious engineering that went into this shiny new one-holer, I could only hear Cody’s voice telling me that the money might have been better spent somewhere else.
I packed some extra napkins in case I had to use the non-locked outhouse at Black Mesa, which is another term for a hole in the ground dug by yours truly if the need arose.
The winter sun tries to break through the clouds over Black Mesa.
I saw one other person—a small SUV pulled into the lot as I was about to start the hike. It had Colorado plates. I figured the driver would breeze past me on trail, but I never saw the dude. My guess is he stopped to make use of the 80 grand in taxpayer facilities, found them shut tight, cursed his lot in this world and moved on down the road. So as I planned, I’d have the mesa to myself.
For a mid-December day, it couldn’t have been much better. It was maybe 40 degrees, mostly overcast and still. Considering that this area sometimes sees major blizzards and normally gets whipped by high winds, I think I lucked out.
One thing that struck me about Black Mesa: It’s huge. You can’t really see it all at any given vantage point.
It also became fairly clear how it got its name. Black Mesa is volcanic in origin, having been formed by massive lava flows that filled primordial valleys from eons past. Over time, soft soil and rock eroded away, leaving behind the sturdier rock of the hardened lava. It’s been described as a region of “upside-down valleys,” which makes sense: Most of the bare rocks you see out there are black or a deep slate-and-brown hue, colors festooned upon them by the ultra-high heat from deep beneath the earth that filled a void much the same way you might create a sculpture from a plaster form.
The hardness of that rock makes the entire region, well into New Mexico, impossible to farm. No plow can penetrate the soil. Only stubborn junipers, oak, cactus, wildflowers and prairie shortgrass can break that firm crust, so the only agricultural activity going on out here is ranching.
The most common critter I saw — Black Angus cattle.
I guess it’s not surprising that the most common animal I saw at the base of the mesa was Black Angus cattle. Scores of them were out there munching on whatever they could scrape up from the mid-winter scrub. I also managed to scare up a few coveys of quail, and ravens soared overhead. All the other wildlife common to Black Mesa – antelope, deer, coyotes and rattlesnakes – remained hidden from view.
The hike was simple enough – flat for the first couple of miles before turning up a ravine in the Mesa. This is where you pick up most of the 600 feet of elevation gain to the top. The trail got a little more rugged and somewhat steep in spots – it reminded me a little of hiking Elk Mountain in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma, just bigger. And higher.
Not quite halfway to the top. The steeper section lasts about a mile.
I’ve hiked and climbed above 14,000 feet plenty of times, but the fact is that I live in Tulsa, elevation 800 feet. Black Mesa’s summit is more than 4,000 feet higher than where I live. It wasn’t too bad, but I felt the elevation going up.
About a mile later, I was on mesa’s top. Walking away from the rim, it looked exactly like I was in the middle of a prairie. The top of the mesa is that big.
Near the top, looking north.
The trail was clear, however, so I kept heading west. And then I saw it: a stone obelisk, marking the highest point in Oklahoma. Now as much as I get into the high country, I only have two state high points under my belt. Black Mesa marked the third – and shortest – in my life, 4,973 feet above sea level.
The marker of Oklahoma’s highest point.
So I stood there and looked around. Scrub brush as far as I could see on this thing, considered one of the easternmost outposts of the Rockies. Then I stared out west and made out what appeared to be a snowcapped peak. Or was that just a cloud? I walked past the monument, treading west to see if I could make it out better.
This took me to western rim of the mesa. Shortgrass gave way to black rock, and a sharply dropping cliff face overlooking a wide valley in New Mexico. And that was no cloud. It was, indeed, a large mountain, maybe 8,000 feet high, some thirty miles or more away. The winds were calm as the sun struggled to break through the clouds. While a bit chilly, that cliff seemed like the perfect place for lunch and a view.
The incredible lunchtime view on the side of a cliff on Black Mesa. New Mexico lies beneath me.
I pulled out a pocket knife, a summer sausage, some cheese and Hawaiian rolls. Serious trail cuisine, you know. And I munched on that while taking in ridiculous views that went on for days. There were a couple of ranch homes way down below and not much else. I imagine it was a lonesome life, at least to some degree. But man. It would be hard to beat the scenery. You might lack company, but you’d be rich in so many other things. So I sat there slicing off hunks of meat and cheese and soaked it in. Black Mesa may not be the most dramatic or hard-won summit I’ve seen, but as I stared out into the high plains, I can say that the sights and sounds of that moment may be some of the most indelible of my life. Few outdoor experiences have been so sweet.
The hits kept coming. After eating I turned back to head back down. Across the mesa top, then down the ravine and back to the flat pastures of the valley floor. From time to time, I thought I heard something – some sort of animal, I imagined – and would stop to listen. Each time this happened, I’d stand stock still, even to the point of slowing my breathing. Sometimes I’d find the source of the sounds, usually a bird call or something. But other times, just silence.
The remains of cactus.
Now contemplate that for a moment. How often in your life do you actually perceive silence? In your home, office or workshop, even at its most quiet, you’re likely to hear the whir of a computer’s internal cooling fan, or the blower from a vent, or the hum of electric lights. More often, we have noise around us, even if it’s just white noise – the din of conversation, or tires on the road, or maybe the TV or radio broadcasting whatever.
But here, in windless conditions, I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. To think of a place this big, with so much in it, making no noise whatsoever is difficult to describe, not to mention comprehend. The closest I can recall to this sort of audio sensory deprivation is in the midst of heavy snowfall. But other than that, the silence was, for me, quite rare. And beautiful.
Once back at the trailhead, I thought about one more thing Cody told me I needed to see – the dinosaur tracks. So a little further up the road, I pulled onto a dirt road that led to a flat area where it looked like people had driven around or parked. Stopping the car, I looked around, and then headed down into a dry creek bed that seemed to be a place where fossilized tracks might be.
Sure enough, there they were.
The tracks were large, about the size of dinner trays, maybe a few feet apart, a few inches deep and some filled with water. Whatever prehistoric beast left these impressions could be measured in tons. Many, many tons.
I climbed out of the creek bed and went back to the lot. It had been a couple of hours and a whole lot of hiking since I last ate, so I munched on more of my trail food and cracked open the Tecate I bought from Emily the day before. As is always the case after a rewarding summit, that beer could not have tasted better.
Dark clouds began to gather to the north. Time to head home.
Bright sunlight hits the bluffs just as dark clouds move in from the north.
On the way back, I made one more stop: A barbecue joint in the small town of Woodward called Wagg’s, a place I’d visited years before when I was out this way to write about caving at Alabaster Caverns. The food was good, so a repeat visit seemed in order.
I sat down and placed an order. There were a few other people there, too, gnawing on ribs and jawing about the day’s events. A guy on a barstool strummed quiet notes on a guitar while gently crooning country tunes in front of a tip jar. It was completely mellow, almost warm, warm in the way that the glow and crackle of a fire calms the spirit while a winter storm rages outside.
I sat there for awhile, listening to the music and enjoying my dinner while thinking about what the last two days had given me.
I got to hear the “sound” of total silence. Roam an ancient land while having the entire place to myself. Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs.
I got to peer into the lives of people in places few people know, but places brimming with stories just the same.
At that moment, I felt gratitude. I was grateful to have the time and the health to be there. It’s rare to have any these moments, not to mention having so many all at once. When you come across such a confluence, you have to acknowledge that.
I’m a blessed man.
GETTING THERE: From Tulsa, take U.S. 412/64 west until you get to Boise City. In Boise City, continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325. The highway will take you to the state park and beyond: turn north just before you get to Kenton to reach the Black Mesa Nature Preserve. The trailhead parking lot will be on your left.
From Oklahoma City, take Interstate 40 west until you reach U.S. 270 northwest until the highway intersects with U.S. 412/64 in Woodward. Go west until you reach Boise City, then continue west on Oklahoma Highway 325 until you reach the turn north just east of Kenton to reach the nature preserve.
From Denver, go east on Interstate 70 to Limon, then continue southeast, then south on U.S. 287 until you reach Boise City, then go west on Oklahoma Highway 325,turning north just before Kenton to the nature preserve.
Mile marker benches are placed along the trail up Black Mesa. This one has a pretty nice view.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: At the trailhead, go through the gate and hike west, then south on a flat, well-marked trail. There is a chance you will encounter cattle on this portion of the trail. Signs with green, metal arrows show the way, and every mile there are park benches marked with the number of miles you’ve hiked.
Continue hiking on this portion of the trail for about 2.25 miles, then reach the portion of the trail that ascends the mesa. The switchbacks here are moderately steep and there is some loose rock and washouts, but the path is clear and the washouts avoidable. This portion of the trail lasts a little less than a mile, and most of the elevation gain happens here. You’ll pass under a wooden and barbed-wire gate of sorts at the top.
The trail continues south, then west on flat, easy terrain until you reach the summit marker a mile later.
Estimated total elevation gain is about 600 feet. Round-trip route length is about 8.4 miles and does not exceed Class 1, with minimal exposure. I’d consider the hike as moderately strenuous at its most difficult. Bring plenty to drink, as there are no places to filter water. This is especially important during the summer, when temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees. Also, during mild to hot weather, be on the lookout for rattlesnakes.