This summer, let’s ditch the camp fire

Wildfires this summer are stretching government resources to their limits. (Uriah Walker/U.S. Army photo)

Nobody loves a good camp fire more than me. I can stare into the flames and enjoy that mellow nighttime vibe for hours.

But if I’m camping anywhere west of the High Plains, I’m not making one. And neither should anyone else this summer.

As of this writing, there are scores of large, active fires burning in the United States, and all but a few are in western states. Arizona has closed four national forests to visitors as massive wildfires there spread. Large fires are popping up in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana, as well as in British Columbia. And given the lousy snowpack much of the West received this winter and spring, there’s a good chance fire conditions are going to worsen.

The western drought is so severe that lake levels at massive reservoirs such as Lake Mead are near record lows. That’s a sign that this drought isn’t just one season in the making. It’s been an ongoing trauma to ecosystems in much of the western half of the continent.

Topping it off is the widespread tree die-off from bark beetle infestations. The mountain pine beetle has killed about 100,000 square miles of forest in the North American west over the past 20 years, leaving behind huge swaths of dead trees from New Mexico to British Columbia – ready fuel to turn the smallest fire into an inferno.

I could go into the whole fire etiquette thing – keep the fire in a fire ring, make sure it’s out and cold before leaving it, etc. – but we’re past that now. Any open fire sheds embers and sparks, and as we’ve seen, it doesn’t take much heat to get a fire going. Carelessness with camp fires often leads to disaster, but given the conditions right now, even if you do everything right, you could still set off a wildfire.

Some would argue that natural events, such as lightning, are a bigger cause of wildfires than people, but this is a myth. In the U.S., almost 85 percent of all wildland fires are caused by humans.

These wildfires can – and do – cause real harm to people. Property damage from wildfires runs into the billions of dollars, and as we saw with the 2018 Paradise fire in California, the effects turned deadly. Eighty-five people were killed in that fast-moving, fast growing fire that razed a town.

A calming camp fire is a time-honored tradition, and we all like cooking over a fire. But you can use a camp stove to cook, and find other ways to make that camp experience more relaxing. This summer, we need to do our part and not light those fires.

Bob Doucette

Rather than bail, go ahead and take that hike

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo., on an iffy weather day in 2015.

I got pretty stoked at last weekend’s forecast. It called for snow, which we rarely get anymore here in northeast Oklahoma, so my plan was to get my weekend chores out of the way, head to the trails and see what the woods looked like with a fresh blanket of snow on them.

I woke up to the snow ending, and just barely enough to pockmark the grass with dots of white. A dusting, and not the three inches I’d been expecting. It seems like the last few winters have merely been an extended fall that hurry themselves into spring earlier than I’d like. Part of that whole “hottest decade ever recorded” thing, I guess.

Anyway, I bailed on the hike and watched football instead.

But part of me wonders if I missed out, even without the scenery I expected. After all, some of the most memorable hikes I’ve done have come at times when the weather seemed to be saying “no.”

A few that come to mind…

In the summer of 2015, forecasts called for relentless morning and afternoon storms in the Rockies. I’d already been chased off Longs Peak earlier that week by bad weather and route conditions. But I desperately wanted some alpine time, so despite the ugly prediction I headed up to Loveland Pass to see what I could get.

It wasn’t a huge hike, nor was Cupid a prestigious summit. But the summit views and the way the clouds weaved around and over the mountaintops was so worth it.

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain in 2013.

Two years earlier, terrible rains were flooding the Front Range and northern Colorado when I was supposed to join a group for a climb of Capitol Peak. The trip was jettisoned, but here I was in Denver and having spent a bunch of time just driving there, I couldn’t let it go. I took a chance on the iffy forecast, headed to the Sawatch Mountains and car camped at the trailhead of Missouri Gulch Basin. The next morning, with things looking as dicey as ever, I started marching uphill toward Missouri Mountain.

The weather held off. I was treated to surreal scenery and solitude on what was probably the most memorable summit hike I’ve ever done. It wasn’t a particularly difficult mountain but doing it solo on a day like that made it special. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.

Rewind three more years. One weekend I had some free time and decided to head to the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I unintentionally ignored the forecast, but when I got there, it was apparent it was going to be a stormy day. Having driven more than two hours already, I said, “to hell with it” and marched down the trail.

A break in the weather going up a ridge in the Wichita Mountains in 2010.

I didn’t get to my objective that day (too stormy), but I did see some amazing things and got to know the range in a way that most of us never get to see: Enveloped in a historic squall, wearing the weather’s colors in a manner that was almost mythic. I’ll never forget that day.

I’ve had a few friends tell me that when it comes to big hikes and climbing mountains that you just need to go, even if the forecast sucks. It might turn out accurate, and you may have to bail. But you also might catch a window that allows you to have a memorable adventure. If you bagged it prematurely, you never know what you may have missed.

So, I suppose when I get my heart set on some snowy scenery and it doesn’t pan out, maybe I should go hike anyway. Something else might await that makes it worthwhile.

Bob Doucette

The best stuff I own: Five all-stars from my personal gear stash

Some of the best gear I’ve ever owned is in this photo. Keep on reading…

I don’t do many gear reviews, mostly because I don’t have access to a lot of new gear. What I buy, I make it last.

But what I can offer you is something different. Call it a shout-out to the products I’ve used that have become standouts for my outdoor endeavors.

I own a multitude of tents, sleeping bags, hiking boots, running shoes, backpacks and a whole bunch of other gear for hiking, backpacking, camping and climbing. Almost all of it has performed well.

But there are a few things in my gear cache that stand out. So what I’m offering you is a roster of my all-stars. Here goes:

MSR Pocket Rocket stove, attached to an Iso-Pro fuel canister.

MSR Pocket Rocket camp stove: When the Pocket Rocket debuted, it was dubbed the lightest camp stove on the market. At just 3.5 ounces, it held that title for a long time. I bought mine 13 years ago and have used it on every overnight outing in four different states, and in all sort of conditions. It’s simple, effective and durable. Unless MSR discontinues the style of fuel cans that the Pocket Rocket uses, I can’t see replacing mine anytime soon. It’s shown virtually no wear, does its job efficiently and well, and barely makes a dent in my pack weight. You can read my review of this stove here.

I’m sporting the Columbia Omni-Wick pullover on the slopes of Mount Sherman. Nice and toasty.

Columbia Omni-Wick pullover: Another one I’ve had for a while, along with other Columbia gear. The Omni-Wick pullover has been my go-to softshell for all seasons, and in several locales. It’s warm, durable, lightweight and versatile. It’s an essential piece of gear for mountain hikes and climbs as well as for any winter activities. It kept my toasty during a marathon that was 26 degrees and windy. Enough said.

Comfortable, versatile, durable: the Merrell Moab Ventilator.

Merrell Moab Ventilator hiking shoe: I’ve been a Merrell fan for years, and this particular hiking shoe has been one of the most reliable pieces of footwear I’ve ever owned. It’s rugged enough to handle more severe terrain (think Talus-hopping above treeline, or bushwhacking in various wilderness areas) but still comfortable, warm and breathable. I might trade it out for other footwear I own given the conditions of a particular adventure, but the Moab Ventilator is my default hiking shoe for good reason.

The Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe. Best trail runners I’ve ever owned.

Salomon Sense Pro trail running shoe: Another durable, light and high-performing piece of footwear. Unlike the other pieces of gear mentioned here (all of which were purchased), I got a pair of these through a testing program the company had going up until a couple of years ago. You can read my reviews of the Sense Pro here and here. They’re comfortable on various types of terrain, let you feel the trail and protect your feet. They’re great as lightweight hikers and drain water well. And they stay comfortable, even at long distances (I’ve run mine as far as marathon length). Of all the trail running shoes I’ve owned, these have been the best, and it’s not even close.

Me sporting the Solaris 40 backpack by The North Face. Simply put, the best piece of outdoor gear I’ve ever owned, ten years and counting.

The North Face Solaris 40 backpack: One piece of gear to rule them all. I’ve got several backpacks from a number of high-quality brands. All of them are excellent. Some are expedition-size packs, others are day packs. The Solaris 40 is in that latter category, and it might not be fair to compare it to the others. But I have my reasons for giving it the crown. I’ve owned it for 10 years. It’s been all over the world with me. It has all the features you expect in a great day pack: hydration sleeve, an ice axe loop, a lower compartment for ultralight sleeping bags, backside ventilation, and multiple pockets designed in a streamlined fashion. It’s been a reliable summit pack, day hiking pack and is the right size for hauling electronics for more urban uses. It’s also my daily use bike commute backpack. I use it almost every day, and aside from a scuff here and there, the Solaris has shown no signs of wearing out. It was the best $80 I’ve ever spent on ANY piece of gear, and defines the term “versatile.”

So there you have it. My starting five, so to speak. What has been your best gear? Let’s hear it in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Video: Take a visual tour of the Wichita Mountains

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written about a recent trip to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. It’s a unique landscape of ancient mountains, wide valleys and amazing wildlife.

It’s one thing to see pictures and read words, but another to see it in video. My partner in this adventure, Brian, put together a good compilation of the things we saw and did. It’s about 13 minutes, and it’s definitely worth your time. Have a look:

If you missed it, you can read my two-part series on our Wichita Mountains trip here and here.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 2: Hiking Sunset Peak and Crab Eyes in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains

Brian heading into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

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.

DAYBREAK

Sunrise from camp. Oklahoma does sunrises right.

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.

Mount Mitchell.

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.

SUNSET PEAK

Sunset Peak’s south summit.

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.

Halfway up Sunset Peak.

Brian tackles a scramble going up Sunset Peak.

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.

View from the top of Sunset Peak’s south summit.

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 the east, you can see Sunset Peak’s gentler north (true) summit to the right.

Another view of the Sunset Peak massif. Both the north and south summits are visible.

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.

CRAB EYES

A good look at Crab Eyes. This is an older photo from another visit to the formation.

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.

A view of Elk Mountain, from the base of Crab Eyes.

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.

A climber tackles a technical route on the east face of Crab Eyes. It’s rated a 5.10.

Belaying the climber on Crab Eyes.

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.

Tortilla, summer sausage and cheddar. This may be one of the best food combinations ever created.

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.

Okie mountains rock.

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.

Always something to see.

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.

Dawn breaks at the Doris Campgrounds.

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.

Bob Doucette

Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

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.

ELK MOUNTAIN

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.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up 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.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

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.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

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.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

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.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

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).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

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.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

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.

Bob Doucette

A look back at 2017, and choosing the chase the good

This was a good day. (Jordan Doucette photo)

In the past, I’ve done these year-in-review posts where I examine some of the things I’ve seen and done. Last year, I took a different tack, instead encouraging folks to take stock in the good things that happened in an otherwise rough year.

Without question, 2017 was an extension of the chaos of 2016. I don’t want to rehash what I already wrote, as those words still apply. But it would do some good to at least look back at the visuals of 2017. When I see these images, it turns out 2017 wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt.

A lot of what was good was tied to places I went. A friend of mine from Kansas City, Craig Cook, was good enough to meet me at Magazine Mountain for an overnight camping trip and a couple of days of hiking on Arkansas’ highest point.

North rim cliffs at Magazine Mountain, Ark.

What a great mix if fun that was. We only scratched the surface, but got in some short day hikes plus a longer, wilder hike through the Ouachita National Forest to the top of the mountain. It’s good to have an adventure buddy to prod you to see new places.

Later in the year, there was a trip out west. There was a lot to see in western Oklahoma, northern New Mexico and in the mountains of Colorado.

Storm clouds form over the Gloss Mountains near Woodward, Okla.

Gloss Mountains State Park in northwestern Oklahoma offers some unique scenery I’d like to explore more.

Ruins of a mill in the Valle Vidal of New Mexico.

I’ve always been a fan of New Mexico. A few days there earned some prime scenery and good hiking in the Valle Vidal near Cimarron. Again, only scratched the surface. This is a huge area, and west of there is more exploring to be had near Wheeler Peak.

And then it was on to Colorado…

Coming off Cupid, heading toward Grizzly Peak D near Loveland Pass, Colo.

For the past three years, I’ve made a point to go to Loveland Pass and hike the peaks there. A couple more 13ers in the bag, but plenty left to do when I return.

Once that was done, it was time to hang out with another adventure buddy, by nephew Jordan. First stop: the Mosquito Range.

An abandoned mine on the flanks of Mount Sherman. My favorite photo of the year.

Jordan and I had done the Decalibron loop the year before, so it made sense to finish off the Mosquito Range 14ers together. We got up early, drove to Fairplay and then hiked Mountain Sherman. This was a surprisingly scenic peak.

Summit view from Mount Sherman.

Having tackled that, we gorged in Buena Vista, camped overnight and took a shot at La Plata Peak. A lot of hard work going up those switchbacks, but no summit. Still, what an incredible place.

La Plata Peak the evening before our summit attempt.

Jordan checking out the scenery on the way down from La Plata.

One the way home from Colorado, another pit stop at a place I’d seen before, but in winter conditions. Black Mesa, Okla., is special in summer, too.

Hoodoos near Black Mesa, Okla.

In the fall, me and Bec headed out to Arkansas, this time to Bentonville. This was not exclusively an “outdoor adventure” trip, but it did have that element.

A hiker on the trail in Hobbs State Park, Ark.

Arkansas knows how to do state parks. Hobbs State Park is amazing, and begs for another visit.

I’ve got a few other good memories that were captured closer to home. Over the course of the fall, I had plenty of time to soak in the scene while on long runs or bike rides. Fall came late, but when it did, the appeal of the changing season was clear.

West Bank paved trail at Tulsa River Parks, near Turkey Mountain.

Maybe six weeks later, another great signal of changing seasons: a decent dusting of snow.

On the ridge trail on Turkey Mountain, looking across the Arkansas River and into south Tulsa. Another one of my favorite images from 2017.

There are plenty of other memories of places seen and things done that I could recall — 365 days is a lot of time to collect memories — but this is a decent sampling.

It would be foolish to dismiss the negative of 2017, whether it be what’s happening nationally or around the world, or how life has changed for me personally. But it’s nice to balance those scales with the good. And here’s a little lesson…

Every photo you see here has one thing in common: Being in these places involved a choice. A choice to meet a friend and hang out. A choice to make time for family. A choice to endure physical hardship to see uncommon beauty. A choice to lace up the shoes, head out the door and run. A choice to take advantage of the moment, even if that moment was fleeting.

So as 2017 comes to end, feel free to say “good riddance.” But don’t forget to say thanks for the good. And if the thought of 2018 brings a little dread, remember to make a few choices, to chase the good wherever it leads.

Happy New Year, friends.

Bob Doucette

Happy trails, 2017!

An overview of Arkansas’ Mount Magazine State Park

A view south from Magazine Mountain.

In the last post, I spent a good amount of time describing a classic Arkansas hike, the Magazine Mountain Trail. But I’d be remiss if I ended the description of this mountain and accompanying state park there.

Magazine Mountain is a big place, and being a plateau formation, there is a lot of space at the top. Planners made sure that the state park offered a number of options for visitors regardless of their physical fitness, ambitions and whatnot.

That’s what we’re going to go over here: the best of the rest of Magazine Mountain and Mount Magazine State Park. Here goes…

ACCOMODATIONS

The park includes a 60-room lodge with a swimming pool, restaurant and bar. The Skycrest Restaurant has a quality menu with good service and outstanding views looking south and west from the top of the mountain. Rates vary by season, but go anywhere from $128-$228 a night, depending on the size of the room you get.

The park also includes 13 cabins, one to three bedrooms/bathrooms, and all are ADA-compliant. Like the lodge, winter rates are lower, but in-season daily rates vary from $218-$478. Dog-friendly options are available in three cabins, but there is an extra fee. All cabin kitchens are fully equipped, and the cabins also feature clothes washer/dryer, decks overlooking the countryside and hot tubs.

Campsite at the Cameron Bluff Campground. (Craig Cook photo)

Finally, there are the campsites. The Cameron Bluff Campground offers 18 sites with water and electrical hookups, parking areas large enough for RVs, tent pads, grills and fire pits (firewood is available for purchase at the visitors center). There is also a centralized building with restrooms and showers. Campsites are $28-$32 a night. If you are camping, keep your food and any fragrant items locked in your car or hang a bag from a high tree limb, as bears are known to be in the area.

A full rundown on lodging can be found here.

TRAILS

From the Signal Hill Trail.

Not every trail on the mountain is a day-long hike. Several other trails exist that go anywhere from less than a mile to 2.8 miles, and many can be linked. They vary in difficulty, but most of them are accessible to people of nearly all fitness levels.

The top of Signal Hill on Magazine Mountain, the highest point in Arkansas.

Craig and I hiked a couple of them. The first was the Signal Hill Trail, which was right by our campsite. It was about a mile round-trip and not difficult and takes you to the highest point in the state. At the top is a sign, a map and a mailbox with a registry where you can sign in. There is also a USGS marker officially showing where the high point is.

On the Bear Hollow Trail. (Craig Cook photo)

From the Benefield picnic area, we took the Benefield Loop Trail to the Bear Hollow Trail. The route is 2.8 miles one way, ending on the other side of the mountain near the Horse Camp. This one is tougher than the Signal Hill Trail, but not as difficult or wild as the Magazine Mountain Trail. The views are stunning, particularly if you’re looking for a sunrise photo. There is one minor creek crossing and two points where you can see expansive views of the eastern flanks of the mountains and seemingly endless woodlands fanning out hundreds of feet down and many miles toward the horizon. If you go here, be sure to find Inspiration Point. It does not disappoint. Overall, the Bear Hollow Trail gives you a wilder experience without the commitment required of the Magazine Mountain Trail.

There are numerous other trails we didn’t have the time to hike, but if you want to learn more about them, check this link.

A view from a north rim scenic pullout, easily accessible on foot, on bike or by car.

There is a one-way paved roadway that can take you to what are, at sunset, the best views on the mountain. The road skirts the Cameron Bluff campsites and offers two pullouts with incredible scenery looking across large cliffs below and toward the Boston Mountains to the north. There is a pavilion and a seating area that are popular with visitors; the stone seating area is often used as an outdoor wedding venue. After a hard day of hiking, this is an excellent place to drive or ride your bike (they have marked bike lanes) to catch the sunset in what may be one of the most beautiful scenes in all of Arkansas, and that’s saying something.

ROCK CLIMBING

Where there are cliffs, you’re bound to find some rock climbing. That’s true on the mountain.

Bouldering, sport climbing and rappelling are allowed in a designated area on the mountain’s south bluff overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley. According to the park’s website, the mountain has a 1,500-foot wide stretch of sandstone with more than 100 routes up to 80 feet high, ranging from 5.5 to 5.12c in difficulty, with plenty in the 5.10 and under range. I didn’t have time to check these out, but maybe next time.

Before rock climbing here, you are required to register at the state park visitor center. More information on climbing routes can be found here.

MOUNTAIN BIKING/CYCLING/ATVs/HORSEBACK

There are 34 miles of off-road biking available on the Huckleberry Mountain Trail, which is near the park on land in the Ozark National Forest. The trails are also used for ATV tours and riders on horseback.

If you’re not up for the dirt, you can rent bikes at the lodge and ride on the roads all around the park. In a similar vein, Magazine Mountain is a popular destination for motorcyclists, as the roads leading up to and around the mountain are packed with great scenery for a ride.

HANG GLIDING

The steep drop-offs at the top of the peak make Magazine Mountain an ideal place for hang gliding. Hang gliding takes place on the south side of the mountain. Anyone hang gliding must register at the visitor center. If you are a certified Class 4 flier, you can fly alone; Class 3 fliers can hang glide with another Class 4 flier. There is an established launch site on the mountain.

So there’s the basic rundown of Mount Magazine State Park. What I’ve told people is if you’re looking for high outdoor adventure, you can find it here. If you want chill, eat well and enjoy leisurely views, you can do that, too. And everything in between.

In the next post, I’ll go over a few more things you should know about Arkansas and why this might become the next big thing in outdoor adventure travel.

Bob Doucette

Coming soon: Getting on the trail in Arkansas

Just one of the views from Magazine Mountain, Arkansas.

Like a lot of you, I have a need to find wild trails for awhile, be it on a multi-day excursion or a simple trail run. I can find these in other states, or down the road minutes from my home.

One thing that I’ve considered a personal failure was having never done much exploring in Arkansas. The state line is only a couple of hours from where I live, and everything I’ve heard about it seems to indicate that it’s a worthy haven for the outdoorsy set.

I finally remedied this error, spending three days in northwest Arkansas with a hiking buddy of mine, Craig, who agreed to drive down from Kansas City to meet me there.

It was time well spent. It was great catching up with Craig, one of my partners on an attempt to climb Longs Peak two years ago, and see how he’s been doing. We both had one thing in common: A need to take a break from everyday life and to unwind on the trail.

In the coming days, I’m going to publish some posts about what we discovered at Mount Magazine State Park – loads of hiking, great camping, and opportunities for a whole lot more. And I think you’ll be blown away by how beautiful this place is. I certainly was.

So stay tuned. In the next few posts,  I’ll be going over a classic Arkansas mountain hike, examining the features of the state park, and add a little more about some of the great things you can do in Arkansas.

Bob Doucette

Black Mesa: Solitude, silence and serenity at Oklahoma’s high place

The rugged, arid and hauntingly beautiful scenery near Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

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,

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.

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.

Being alone

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.

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.

Some examples of petrified trees at Black Mesa State Park.

This sign explains a bit of the history behind the petrified trees.

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 Back Mesa.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dinosaur tracks!

Dinosaur tracks!

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.

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.

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.

Bob Doucette