Four things I learned outside of my comfort zone

I consider myself a lucky man. Over the years, I’ve been to some amazing places and experienced indelible moments, small points of light in a life that is otherwise routine. There’s nothing wrong with routine; you have to live your life and do what’s necessary to pay your bills, take care of folks and live. But the sweet spots leave impressions.

I’ve got a strain of wanderlust in my blood. A healthy fear of being too ill or weak to get out anymore. I crave my time outdoors, hitting the road and collecting new stories. I love a physical challenge.

All of this has taught me plenty. Much of it has been through trial and error while the best of it has been dutifully learned through patient instruction by people who know better than me.

Through all of this, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

It’s important to go to new places. It doesn’t matter of it’s a new park, a different part of town, a state you’ve never visited, or a country on the other side of the world. Broader perspectives are gained when you leave the comfortable environs of home. You learn you can be home anywhere, and you might make good friends you otherwise would never have met.

There is no disadvantage to being strong. Making yourself physically stronger will only add years to your life and will make you a more capable person. The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill, be it from illness, accidents or from others who would do you harm. Strength is useful. Build it.

Find a difficult challenge and commit to it. I’m not talking about discovering the secret to world peace or curing cancer, although those are great (if you can do it, please do!). Consider this more of a personal thing. When my oldest brother talked about climbing mountains, I wondered if I could do that. And then I did. It was hard, but worth it. Same deal with running a marathon. It was a huge commitment well out of my comfort zone, but I have no regrets. In both cases, I felt I grew from the experience. What’s your challenge? Find one that sounds awesome but spooks you a little. And then try. You might end up changed for the better.

There is great value in spending time outside. Yes, there is fun to be had at the pub, at the movies, binging Netflix or playing video games. But all of those things – and the growing amount of time we spend hunched over smartphones, laptops and tablets – cannot do for us what an hour or so outside can. We need time outside to unplug from all this tech, to listen to the stirrings of the woods and the wind whipping in the lonely places, if only to remind us that there is a world outside of our big wooden, steel and glass boxes lining endless networks of asphalt. A night in the wild, rising with the sun and moving to the rhythms of nature, is a great balm for all that social media angst we always bitch about but willingly indulge. Make a habit of hiking a trail. It’s medicinal.

I hope to learn more in the years to come, during those times when I leave the house, my hometown, my state, and even my country. I can count the number of runs I’ve regretted on one hand and still have digits left over. I want to eat strange and exotic foods in a nation I’ve never visited, and hopefully enjoy some conversation with the people who made it. I look forward to the challenge of that next big mountain.

Here’s to the next journey outside my comfort zone, and the things learned therein.

Bob Doucette

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Work day: Trail repairs, great volunteers and a word about preventing future trail damage

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go… (Laurie Biby photo)

I’ve been a big believer in taking care of the places that take care of you. And I’m glad we have a bunch of like-minded people here in the Tulsa area.

The Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition, partnering with Tulsa’s River Parks Authority, held a trail work day last Sunday at Turkey Mountain. This is different from cleanup days, in that the focus is trail repair.

Somewhere around 30 people showed up. The trails there are popular for cyclists, runners and hikers, but all that traffic, plus the normal wear and tear from the elements, has taken a toll. People using their free time to do some hard manual labor for the trails is a good sign that people aren’t just engaged as users, but also as stewards. Here’s a bunch of pics of people getting after it on Sunday morning.

Rutted trail needs some work. (Laurie Biby photo)

Volunteers getting started. (Laurie Biby photo)

Working on the trail. (Laurie Biby photo)

We were blessed with a huge dirt pile and plenty of people willing to move said dirt from Point A to Point B. (Laurie Biby photo)

Building the base of an improved trail section. (Laurie Biby photo)

This gal was nonstop movement. (Laurie Biby photo)

Repairs coming along… (Laurie Biby photo)

Putting on the finishing touches. (Laurie Biby photo)

We’re several years past the day when the TUWC was formed. If you remember, the organization was born in the wake of plans to build an outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west side. Strong advocacy from TUWC members and effective public pressure turned that plan aside, eventually leading the land in question to be set aside as a permanent part of the city’s greatest wild green space.

During that period, the TUWC held a bunch of work days like this, and turnout was strong. We know a lot of that was due to the publicity Turkey Mountain had gotten over the mall controversy. Seeing a solid turnout last week, now a few years after the mall issue was resolved, is a great sign that people still have a sense of ownership of the place where we all like to play. Many of the people who showed up have also been active in developing trail systems in Claremore and Tahlequah, so there is a sense that not only will Turkey Mountain remain a high priority for outdoor enthusiasts, but that the region is primed for growth in outdoor recreation and sports.

There is, however, another issue that has arisen. And this one is not as positive.

January was a wet month here in Tulsa, and the section of trail we were working on was a muddy mess. It made our efforts more difficult, and frankly, I lobbied pretty hard to have that stretch closed for a month or so. It needs time to settle and harden.

In the midst of doing all this work, there were people out doing their thing, including a good number of cyclists. In the muddy sections we weren’t working on, new, deeper ruts were being formed before our eyes.

To be clear, let’s just say it: Any sort of traffic on the trails when they’re muddy is going to cause damage. And I know cyclists don’t want to hear this, but bike traffic on muddy trails leaves the most wear and tear.

I’d offer this: Wherever you live and whatever trails you use, think about the condition of the trails before you go out. A little muddy is no big deal. But if they’re saturated, consider letting those places dry out before you go. I’m happy to do the repair work. That’s going to be needed no matter what. But it makes sense to mitigate the damage by laying off when you know your favorite routes are going to be mud soup. You’ll save the trails some grief, as well as the components on your bike.

Bob Doucette

Life outside: My favorite photos from 2018

I know most people do posts like this before the year ends, but hey, I was busy. So it’s mid-January and now I’m finally getting to it.

Getting outside allows you to see some incredible sights. So what you have here is a collection of cool scenes that stuck with me. Let’s get to it.

CAMPSITE SUNRISE

A lakeside sunrise in the Wichita Mountains.

I took this shortly after crawling out of my tent on a cool January morning in the Wichita Mountains. Our campsite was right next to this lake. There’s nothing quite like the sun setting the sky on fire the first thing in the morning.

THOSE CLOUDS

Sunset Peak, Wichita Mountains.

The cloud cover made the light a little flat, but the clouds themselves fanning out over the south summit of Sunset Peak in the Wichita Mountains caught my eye. The scenery is never boring here.

LATE SUN, THICK GREENERY

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

I made a point last year to hike more, even if just locally. As the sun gets close to setting, you hit this magic hour when it pierces the woods and lights up the forest with a warmer glow than what you usually see when the sun is high and blasting you with Southern Plains heat.

THE CRESTONES

Crestone Needle (left) and Crestone Peak, as seen from the upper slopes of Humboldt Peak, Colo.

I had a hard time picking just one photo from last summer’s trip to South Colony Lakes. This one sums up the rugged beauty of the Crestones, two of the giants of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and I hope to go back soon.

AGAIN WITH THE MAGIC HOUR

Hiking the Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Oklahoma is a Southern Plains state, and most people see it as an expanse of prairie. That’s true in a lot of the state, but in southeastern Oklahoma are the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient swath of high, rolling hills covered in broadleaf and pine forests that stretch deep into western Arkansas. Coming back down the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, the lowering sun cast light and long shadows through the pines. The Ouachitas were showing off.

ONE WORD: RUGGED

Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, Wichita Mountains, as seen from Mount Mitchell.

We’re ending it here where we started: Deep inside the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma. We’d climbed to the top of Mount Mitchell and sought an easier route down. While scrambling down the mountain’s east ridge, I stopped to take in this view. The image encapsulates what may be the most rugged terrain in the state.

So there ya have it. What’s in store for 2019? We’ll see. Hopefully it’s at least as good as this.

Bob Doucette

So you want to climb all the Colorado 14ers? Here are some thoughts and advice from three people who have done it

If you’ve gotten started on the Colorado 14ers, you’re going to notice a significant difference between the walk-up peaks and the more technical climbs. Pictured here is Mount Eolus, as seen from the summit of North Eolus.

One night last summer, I was at a pub with friends when I got into a conversation about mountains. The fella I was talking to and his wife had recently hiked to the top of Mount Bierstadt, one of Colorado’s 58 14,000-foot peaks known as the 14ers.

As the conversation continued, he told me what he hoped to do. He planned to climb them all.

In another case, I watched with amazement as another friend went on a 14er rampage over the summer while also getting ready to run the Leadville 100. He amassed a couple dozen 14ers during that time, and like guy I mentioned earlier, he expressed interest in tagging all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

This is a big goal, but a doable one. I don’t say that as someone who has done it. I haven’t. But I know several people who have. Thousands of people have completed the list, and the number grows every year. But it’s not a small accomplishment, and there is a dividing line the confronts anyone trying to do it.

Thirty-nine of the 14ers are what we call “walk-ups.” That means they are ascended via hiking. No matter the mountain, even the walk-ups will be hard work, and some are harder than others. But generally speaking, the walk-ups are nontechnical and don’t have the big drop-offs and fall hazards that you see on steeper peaks. It’s mostly a test of endurance, mentality and keeping an eye on the weather.

But to finish the 14ers, you have to climb the rest of the list, which includes 19 mountains that aren’t walk-ups. Harder routes, the demands of climbing and higher risks of things like rockfall, loose rock and exposure to drop-offs. Some aren’t too bad. Others are objectively dangerous.

So if you’re one of those folks who has a few walk-ups under your belt and think you’d like to polish off the entire 58, what do you need to know?

Like I said, I’m not a finisher. My own list is mostly the walk-ups, sprinkled with a few of the harder mountains and routes. But I know a bunch of the finishers, and figured I’d ask them and pass along their answers to you.

First up is Bill Wood. Bill is a 14er finisher who is working on his second lap. He’s also climbed Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba. His thoughts?

“Give it time – don’t try for quick success because while many people have done it quickly, it’s not as fun a trip along the way. Stay relatively healthy and in shape; read the dotcom (14ers.com) for advice as needed, trip reports as needed and find a couple of mentors who have been there and done that and willing to do it again.”

Solid stuff. I’ve done a few peaks with Bill, and I’d trust him on all of those.

Next up is Annalise Grueter, another finisher, ultramarathoner and overall mountain athlete. She’s had her fair share of alpine successes in Colorado, Latin America and Europe, the type of experience that provides good perspective.

“So, it takes a stubborn person. Whether you spend decades or years working on a goal, it’s something that you’re fixated upon completing eventually.

“Flexibility can be crucial. Having plan Bs and Cs for the class 3 and 4 peaks is super helpful and makes it easier to adjust on short notice when weather is being weird.

(Class 3 and 4 routes are those where you transition from hiking to climbing. Class 1 and 2 routes are hiking. Class 5 is roped, near-vertical to vertical technical climbing.)

“It takes some degree of stupidity, aka reasonably high risk tolerance. You need to be aware of when you’re in a dangerous spot, but also able to mute that part of your brain and proceed calmly and logically (using fear productively as opposed to panicking).

“As others have mentioned, I don’t think physical fitness plays into it quite as much. Yes, you definitely want to be sure you’re somewhat acclimated, but folks of all shapes and sizes and different types of fitness have finished the 14ers. If it’s something you value, endurance training certainly helps, and being at low elevation, intervals can help you as well, but those pieces aren’t mandatory per se.”

Lastly is Michael Weddell. He’s a finisher who is known by his friends as the expert on the Elk Range, home to the hardest and most dangerous 14ers in Colorado. Between that and all the other big mountains he has on his resume, he’s legit.

“When you are planning peaks throughout the middle section of the list (he’s speaking of the mountains where hiking gives way to climbing), be flexible. For example, if you are going for Mount Lindsey, and the forecast is bad, maybe the San Juans are the way to go. Increase your chances for success.”

(In this case, Mount Lindsey is a peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range; the San Juans are southwest of that mountain, making a potential alternative destination if weather in the Sangres is looking bad.)

“For myself personally, I have a small window of time for upper class 3s and 4s. I only plan on them from about the third or fourth week in July until the first dusting of snow in September. I don’t like complicating a climb with snow. I’ll leave that for someone above my skill level!”

(He’s being modest here, but the point is worth repeating: give yourself the best opportunity to succeed by picking the right seasons.)

To sum up their advice: Don’t rush it. Be stubborn, but don’t be in a hurry. Be in shape, but don’t think you need Olympic-level fitness to do the job. Test your risk tolerance, and allow it to grow by moving, step by step, from easier peaks to harder ones. Identify and plan for the best times of year to climb so you can increase your chances of success. And always have a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.

Other pieces of advice I’ve heard include taking up rock climbing, and practice those skills in places that can simulate the tougher routes you’re hoping to try.

So there you have it. I’m not one to give out advice on something where I don’t have authority. But listen to these three. They’ve been there and done that. If you’re still game – whether you’re a mountain state resident or a flatlander like me –  then give it a shot. The 14ers await.

Some helpful links:

Fourteener fitness

Fourteener gear

Picking your first Fourteener

Ascending your first Fourteener

If your want to read more about Annalise’s adventures in the mountains and in running, check out her blog here.

Bob Doucette

Let’s talk about cairns and rock stacking

Some cairns and rock stacks are helpful. Some are not. And it’s becoming a growing problem in backcountry environments. Pictured here is a helpful cairn leading to a route up Broken Hand Pass in Colorado, with Crestone Needle seen in the background..

I’m a little late to the party on the subject of rock stacking, but I figured it was worth weighing in on now. So let me start with a story.

About a year ago, I was hiking with a friend in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I was showing him some of my favorite places, but also acknowledged that I hadn’t been to these spots in about eight years. Our goal that day was to go up to the south summit of Sunset Peak, traverse to the north summit, then hike down and check out one more place before packing it in and hitting the road for home.

Sunset Peak’s south summit it this weird combination of hiking, scrambling and bushwhacking that’s hard to describe. There’s no defined route to the top. You just pick your way through scrub brush, boulders and rock slabs until you make one final push to the top. We were about three-quarters of the way there, and I started looking around for the best way to go up when I spotted a cairn.

Most of you already know what a cairn is. If you don’t, it’s a stack of rocks built to be noticed. Some build them as route-finding aides or important markers. Others of late have built them for aesthetic value, stacking stones in pretty places and taking photographs. There are Instagram pages dedicated to rock stacking.

Anyway, I’m thinking that this particular cairn was supposed to be a route-finding aide. So I climbed up to it, took a look around, and found nowhere to go. I backtracked, bushwhacked and found another way up. This was an annoyance, for sure, but no real harm was done.

But the ambiguity of why people build these things can lead to bigger problems. Go on 14ers.com and you’ll read stories about complicated and difficult routes littered with useless or deceiving rock stacks. People following them sometimes run the risk of getting lost or, possibly in danger.

As far as the cairns built for art’s sake, there are other issues. Some have decried excessive rock stacking as a form of littering otherwise picturesque natural scenes. In some places, rock stacking might lead to a degree of environmental damage. Rock-stacking enthusiasts dismiss this, saying they are doing no harm that anyone can measure, at least in their eyes, and they are enjoying the outdoors in their own way.

I’m a live-and-let-live guy. But there are aspects of this debate worth addressing.

First, let’s talk about building cairns for route-finding. Generally, this is a positive. Anything we can do to unobtrusively keep people from getting lost is a good thing. On Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, a huge cairn was built on its north ridge to keep people from descending the wrong way into the wilderness area that surrounds the mountain. People have gotten lost there, never to be seen again, or found dead months later. The cairn keeps people on track as they descend the mountain.

But if you’re going to build one, make sure it actually helps. Be certain there aren’t already cairns built for this purpose, as yours might just confuse people. And best yet, it’s not a bad idea to leave cairn and blaze marking to the people whose job it is to maintain the lands where you hike and climb. I think the person who built the cairn on Sunset Peak was trying to be helpful, but it ended up being a hindrance. Someone following it might have been convinced that climbing a nearby airy and exposed rock rib was the easiest way up, but in truth was the riskiest.

Now what about the rock stacking for the sake of photos? This comes down to a question of values. If you value altering a landscape to suit your photographic goals, rock stacking is a temptation. If you do it, I’d ask that you limit it to a single cairn, take your pic and then dismantle the stack, putting the stones back where you found them. I can’t think of any justification for patches of beaches, river banks or cliffsides where dozens of these things are built and left standing. When others behind you are looking for beautiful settings to see and photograph, a chessboard of rock stacks kills the vibe.

Am I making too much of this? Maybe. But know that the National Park Service is discouraging this. And don’t be the guy/gal who builds an unhelpful cairn that gets people off route, and possibly at risk.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma outdoors: Hiking in the Wichita Mountains, climbing Mount Mitchell

Jen and Luke hiking down the trail toward Mount Mitchell.

Any time I talk to people about the Wichita Mountains, I describe them as “my Oklahoma happy place.”

Growing up in Colorado, the mountains were always near, and in plain sight. Moving to the Southern Plains, that changed. But in the southwestern quarter of the state is an ancient mountain range of granite domes, spires and towers that give me the mountain fix I need.

A buddy of mine named Trent gave me my first real introduction to the Wichitas back in my 20s. Later, another friend of mine named Johnny took that to the next level. Johnny and I, and at times, his sister Ouida, tromped all over the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and its Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

I like to take people to these places, to pass down what was shown to me. Last year, it was my friend Brian, who has become so transfixed by outdoor adventure that he’s sold all of his stuff, outfitted a van and is roadtripping across the country full-time now. He plans to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and already has a bunch of big hikes under his belt. Brian and I spent a couple of days in the Wichitas in January in what was not just an introduction for him, but a badly needed homecoming for me.

This month I’ve made a conscious effort to hike more, and when company was available, bring ’em along. I put out the word that I wanted to go down there and revisit an old favorite of mine there, Mount Mitchell. The peak is in the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge and it one of the most rugged mountains in the entire range. It’s great practice for people wanting to graduate from hiking and into scrambles and climbs just short of where you might need ropes.

My brother-in-law and his wife signed up. I felt good about this for a couple of reasons. Jen is someone I’ve hiked with before. She did Mount LeConte with me a few years back and likes to climb. Luke, being a firefighter, is trained in rope rescue and is no stranger to high places. I like taking all kinds of people on these trips. But it is a relief knowing that the chances were good that these two would be able to handle to challenges Mount Mitchell offers.

Approaching Mount Mitchell.

The hike takes you about three miles from the Sunset Trailhead to the base of Mount Mitchell. It’s fairly easy hiking, going over a few hills and following a decent trail right up until we got to the junction that takes you to a rock formation called Crab Eyes (more on that place later). The trail fades a bit west of there, and eventually we were “off trail,” hiking through grassy meadows and an burned-out forest until we got to the mountain.

What I’ve told people about the Wichitas is that the area has something for everyone. If you’re looking for easy, short and scenic hikes, there are plenty. If you are jonesing for difficult roped climbs, there are dozens of them throughout the refuge. Mount Mitchell is in between, a peak that can be scaled without ropes, but is no hike, not even by its easiest route. There is plenty of Class 3 scrambles and Class 4 climbing throughout.

I figured I’d taken them up the same way I went last time I was here, up a gully on the mountain’s north face. It’s rugged, steep and filled with route-finding problems. The granite on the mountain is grippy — great for handholds and footholds, ideal for friction climbing, and tough on your hands unless you’re wearing some sort of glove. I learned a few years back that when doing scrambles like this, a pair of batting gloves can save you a lot of grief when the rock is cutting up your fingers and palms on every move.

Me starting up the mountain. Climbing butt-shot. (Jen Baines photo)

Jen and I going up the gully. (Luke Baines photo)

The upper part of the climb with the summit in sight.

The downside for the three of us was that it has been nine years since I’ve climbed Mitchell. I knew the basics of how to get to the top, but the specifics eluded me. So I did a lot of scouting to see if a particular line would go, only having to turn around and look for another way up. Mitchell’s north face is a complicated mix of boulders, cracks and slabs, and some obstacles aren’t visible until you’re right up on it.

That said, Luke and Jen provided plenty of feedback of their own, often helping us move forward, and eventually to the summit ridge.

One thing I was looking forward to was finding a fissure below the summit that leads to a fun 15-foot chimney climb. Had to do that one again for old-times’ sake.

Eventually we topped out, took a few pics on Mitchell’s tiny summit, then found a place protected from the winds to chow down on some lunch. Jen brought a book and read a few pages. We all checked out the views overlooking the wildest, most rugged part of the range, where Styx Canyon links Crab Eyes to Mitchell, and where Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain guard Treasure Lake.

Jen takes in the views just below the summit while eating some lunch.

Luke and Jen noticed some grassy meadows below us on the south face and figured heading down there and following the east ridge to the bottom might be the easier path off the mountain rather than descending the way we came. Earlier I’d told them, “The good news is that we got the summit. The bad news is that we have to go down the way we came, and going down is always harder than going up.” With that in mind, we agreed the east ridge down was worth a shot.

Going down the south face/east ridge, looking toward the ruggedness of Twin Rock Mountain and Granite Mountain in the distance.

It turned out to be a good choice. I have memories descending the north face, and it had a couple of pucker-factor moments. Going down the south face/east ridge was considerably easier, though still Class 3 in some spots.

We did some more off-trail hiking around the mountain, then up a hill that gave us some great views of Sunset Peak’s south summit. We heard what sounded like a large animal give off a huff/grunt somewhere on the other side of the hill. I figured this might be our shot to finally see a buffalo (we hadn’t seen any all day), but no dice. Whatever it was stayed out of sight.

Hiking toward Crab Eyes, with Sunset peak in the background.

Our next stop was Crab Eyes. This is a popular hiking destination, and if you’re a seasoned climber, it has challenging routes that go all the way up to 5.10. You can also get to the spot just below the two “eyes” at the top of the formation’s tower, something that involves an awkward, and at times highly exposed scramble to the top. Jen was keen on doing it, so we got there and climbed around on this odd little peak for a while before a few others arrived to do the same. I’ve had Crab Eyes to myself a few times, but the last couple of trips have seen more visitors than in years past.

Crab Eyes.

Luke looks it over as we hike out.

Crab Eyes capped off a solid day of hiking and climbing under blue skies and mild temps. I love hiking in the Wichitas in the fall and winter, and I think my buddies felt the same way. And we finally saw an elusive buffalo on the drive out.

Me and Luke walking toward Mount Mitchell. (Jen Baines photo)

The trail through the woods on the way out.

My sad photo of a buffalo, taken from the car on the way home.

I can envision another trip coming soon.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma hiking: The Mountain Trail, Robbers Cave State Park

Golden hour light on the Mountain Trail at Robbers Cave State Park, Okla.

Once my fall races ended in November, I did a major re-think about how I scheduled my time. It seemed I was devoting six days a week for training toward some sort of goal, be it a race or some arbitrary strength metric that usually meant I was sticking close to home every week so I wouldn’t miss a workout.

That meant that I was crowding out some of the thing I loved. It made weekend road trips nonexistent. Any hiking had to be within minutes from my house. It’s very limiting, and it showed: For all of 2018, I only went on two trips outside my city to go hike or climb something. Those were awesome trips, but too few in number. It’s hard to get your outdoor fix when you’re tethered to a schedule that’s tied to the places you run or lift.

So I resolved to do a couple of things. One was to keep Saturdays free. That way I could at least take a day trip somewhere new. The second was to make sure I was doing things that would help me get in “mountain shape.” There are only so many ways a flatlander can prepare for the rigors of altitude, but I can do things to help me get used to carrying a pack, hiking long miles and getting some vert. I know that sounds a lot like “training,” but I don’t see anything wrong with injecting some utility in the fun you’re having.

Gradual uphill near the trailhead.

Last weekend, I went to a place I’ve visited a couple of times before: Robbers Cave State Park in southeastern Oklahoma. The southeast quarter of the state is different than what most people might think. Oklahoma conjures images of sweeping plains and flat prairie, and that’s true for much of the state. But in the southeast, Oklahoma has a small mountain range with good-sized hills and ridges covered in hardwood and pine forests. Robbers Cave is the first place I ever tried rock climbing, and offers a nice introduction into the Ouachita Mountains that rise over sections of Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

One plus to this trip: Robbers Cave is only a couple of hours from my home. And once you get south of Interstate 40, the countryside is gorgeous. On the negative: I spent the previous night binge-watching “An Innocent Man” on Netflix (I recommend it). As in the whole series. So I went to bed very late and didn’t get out the door until late morning.

There are a ton of trails at Robbers Cave, so much so that there is going to be an ultramarathon held there next year, the Outlaw 100. Given the hilliness of the terrain, I’m going to say that this will be a challenging course. My goal was to hike the Mountain Trail, a 7-mile out-and-back that is one of the tougher trails in the park.

I got there two days after the state had received a good 36 hours of on-and-off again rain, so the trail was soggy in spots, especially down low. Just getting off the trailhead involved a stream crossing, one of several I’d make through the day.

The trail starts out as a long, gradual uphill before topping out, then descending to the shoreline of Lake Carlton. It’s an easy shoreline walk before the trail reached the base of a sizable cliff face that had a few running waterfalls. A steep climb led to somewhat exposed trail sections by a series of clifftops overlooking the lake before turning to a more gradual uphill section. A couple of miles in, the trail went on a quick, moderately steep downhill that led to a freely flowing creek at the bottom of a ravine.

Spillway at Lake Carlton.

Shoreline views. Mellow hiking here.

More rugged, steeper hiking near this outcrop.

Clifftop view over Lake Carlton.

I stopped there to eat and contemplated what to do next. My late start meant that hiking the entire trail was probably out of the question unless I wanted to hike in the dark. Ahead of me was a third uphill climb, and the biggest one of the hike. I had to call it a day there and turn back to the car. Maybe next time.

One of the great things about this hike was I had solitude for almost all of it. A group of kids wandered down to my lunch spot, but other than them, I saw no one. The forest is beautiful: Southeastern Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas have incredible woodlands of big hardwoods and tall lodgepole pines. I loved the look of it, especially as the sun began to sink and pierce the woods with golden light and long shadows.

On the downside, the trail is never far from the lake, and the noise of campers hanging out there. You can also hear highway traffic that’s close by. So while the trail has a wild feel, it’s definitely not a wilderness experience.

Look at how green that is!

But if you can get past that, it’s a place with big views and a lot of natural beauty. Add to that the availability of rock climbing, rappelling and trout fishing elsewhere in the park and you have a place with a ton of outdoor recreation options. Camp sites run start at $14 a night for tent camping.

One last note about the trail: I was surprised with the amount of elevation changes on the route. I mean, we’re talking about a Southern Plains state, so huge vert is never going to happen. But if you do the entire Mountain Trail, you’ll get more than 1,200 feet of vert for your trouble. That’s good training for people wanting to hike in mountain terrain. The trail is extremely well-marked with blue blazes, decently maintained and straightforward to follow. It’s mostly class 1 hiking, with some rugged class 2 sections near the clifftops. Unless it’s been dry, expect at least five mellow creek crossings on the hike.

It’s a beautiful trail, and it’s well marked.

After doing some hikes on my local trails in Tulsa, it was cool to see something new and more challenging on this outing. And plans are already in place to do more. Stay tuned, because some awesome destinations may be on tap.

Bob Doucette