An Arkansas outdoor adventure overview

As you might expect, there is a lot to see and do in a place like this.

You can’t encapsulate the outdoors offerings in Arkansas in a couple of blog posts, just like you can’t see it all in three days. Like most of you, I’m a working stiff that has to fit all this fun into small bits scattered between long stints at work.

But I did some research, reached out to some friends, and pulled together a more comprehensive look at what’s happening in this state, particularly in its northwest corner.

In my first post, I mentioned something about the Interior Highlands, which is in an area that covers parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The Ozarks dominate the northern part of the highlands while the Ouachitas make up the bulk of the south.

The biggest section of the Interior Highlands is in Arkansas, and this is also where it is at its wildest. The trails are long and winding, the woods are thick and scenic, and though none of the mountains here go much higher than 2,700 feet above sea level, you can find some decent vertical gain – more than 1,500 feet of it on Magazine Mountain.

What this means is you have a place that is prime for outdoor recreation, sports and just relaxing outside.

A few years back, Outside Magazine surprised a lot of people when it named Chattanooga, Tennessee, as its top destination city for the outdoors. The secret has long been out, and people are heading to eastern Tennessee to see what wonders await.

But here’s the thing: Many of the things about Chattanooga that appeal to the outdoorsy set also exist in the Ozarks. For the most part, that fact remains mostly under wraps unless you live there or in one of Arkansas’ neighboring states.

That’s  starting to change. Arkansans are beginning to realize the outdoor recreation potential for their state, and people are taking notice.

So here are some other things you should know about the adventures you can have in Arkansas…

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Mountain biking is becoming (already is?) huge in northwest Arkansas. The state’s hilly, wooded terrain contains lots of flowy singletrack, giving you anything from easy cruisers to highly technical routes.

Check out Slaughter Pen Trail out of Bentonville, or Womble on Mount Ida. And so many more. Many mountain biking trails connect to city trails around Bentonville, Fayetteville and so forth.

“Arkansas is chock full of great places to ride,” said Cleo Berninger, a Tulsa-based cyclist with a number of races under her belt.  “A wide variety of experiences are available, depending on what I want:  Hobbs is great in that it’s not a long drive from Tulsa, it’s a go-to for when Tulsa is muddy.  I love Lake Leatherwood trails in a Eureka Springs, bench cut trails… (it) feels like you are way, way out, but in truth it’s in town. Syllamo Trails at Blanchard Springs is the whopper, technical, beautiful, so challenging and days’ worth of adventure. Back 40 and Ilk are great training AND socializing. So much to do in Bentonville, it’s especially good for mixed groups where maybe not every individual wants to be on the trail.”

Eric Doswell, another Tulsa-based cyclist who also builds bikes, shares the same enthusiasm for the state’s growing mountain biking scene.

“I personally like Hobbs State Park near Rogers, it’s a nice 8 or 14 mile loop system with rolling contours singletrack.  The Womble and Ouachita trails are great for a more backcountry experience, and can be hooked together for a whopper all-day epic ride.

“In the Bentonville metroplex there is Slaughter Pen, which is accessible from multiple points along a paved trail system through the city, which also connects to The Back 40 in Bella Vista. Farther away from the city, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail and Upper Buffalo Trails are epic backcountry experiences.”

You can find out more about Arkansas cycling here.

CLIMBING

Arkansas’s mountainous regions are loaded with cliffs and crags, giving you plenty of options for bouldering, top-roped sport climbs and multi-pitch trad routes. None of them will be the massive walls of the Rockies or the Sierras, but make no mistake: Arkansas is a climbing state.

In addition to what I mentioned earlier at Magazine Mountain, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is a popular destination for climbers in Arkansas. The state is known for its quality sandstone precipices, all of which is present at Horseshoe Canyon.

“I’ve been visiting Horseshoe since 2006 and it’s still our favorite place to go climbing in the Midwest,” says Jacquelyn Musgrove, an Oklahoma City-based climber, cyclist and climbing coach. “Horseshoe is amazing for people who want amazing climbs with little fuss with longer rigorous approaches to some of the best rock faces around. You can tent camp or rent one of their cabins. Horseshoe is great for all types of climbers and for us having a toddler, we love taking Max. With the short approaches and nice cabins its perfect for those not looking to rough it.

“With the Midwest’s mild winters, we go year-round.”

More information on climbing sites in Arkansas can be found here.

HIKING

Where you have trails, hills and woods, you have hiking. Arkansas’ national forests and state parks are loaded with trails. Some are as basic as easy day hikes, but for the backpacking set, you can spend a good chunk of time thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail, which weaves through the hills of the Ouachita Mountains in northwest Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma.

As a bonus: Depending on what time of the week you hike, you’re likely to find some solitude on the more rugged trails, and wildlife viewing abounds. Arkansas is home to deer, bear, and any number of species of birds. The forests themselves are a sweet mix of broadleaf and pines – the best of what makes Southern woodlands so great. For more color, plan your hikes for mid-October to early November and catch the fall foliage of the Ozarks and Ouachitas.

A popular destination for the day-hiker crowd: Devil’s Den. Read two people’s experiences at Devil’s Den here and here.

For other hiking options, find your next big hike here.

RIVER ADVENTURE

You’d think any talk of river systems in Arkansas would include its namesake, and that would be cool – the Arkansas River is one of the country’s great waterways – but the best river adventure in the state is along the Buffalo River.

Spend a week floating the Buffalo River, and pull off to find waterfalls, great hikes and excellent mountain scenery. Paddle, hike, fish and camp. You’ll be hard-pressed to pack in more outdoor activities than you can find here.

A little more about the Buffalo River can be found here.

So there you have it. Whether you’re looking for hardcore outdoor adventure or something more relaxing, you can find all of that in Arkansas. Do a little research, find a destination and head out. The state can prove that you don’t have to travel halfway across the country for a little adventure.

Bob Doucette

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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

A conservation win: Master lease plan would keep Turkey Mountain wild for the long term

Turkey Mountain and the Arkansas River in Tulsa. Two natural resources that people are starting to value more.

An important announcement about the future of Tulsa’s wild green spaces and park lands was made on Monday. At a news conference at the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness’ trailhead parking lot, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he’s proposing a 50-year “master lease” be given to property currently managed and developed by the city’s River Parks Authority. Inside that inventory of park lands is Turkey Mountain, a trail system of minimally developed woodlands that’s popular with runners, cyclists, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The proposed master lease would consolidate a bunch of individual leases the city currently has on about 900 acres of land under the River Parks umbrella. The thought behind this idea would be to simplify and solidify any planning that has to do with some of the most treasured green spaces in the city.

To me, this is such a stark contrast to what we saw back in 2014, when developers and some folks in City Hall, including former mayor Dewey Bartlett, were talking about building an outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west edge. Now instead of developing it, the new mayor, Bynum, is talking about preserving it for at least half a century. Talk about an about face!

There is some unpacking to do here, given what was said on Monday afternoon. So here goes…

I don’t think most people realized how tenuous the status of Turkey Mountain and the rest of the River Parks System really is. As it stands, every parcel leased by the city must be renewed every 30 days. In theory, every square inch of Turkey Mountain could have been sold off to the highest bidder if the lease was allowed to lapse. In reality, that would be politically difficult – we saw how hard a lot of people fought plans for Helmerich Park, which is essentially a strip of open grass and sand volleyball courts. But it would have been possible under the lease structure now used by the city. And don’t think there aren’t people who’d love to plop a subdivision or some restaurants/office space/retail stores on a hill with a view. It wasn’t long ago a developer wanted to put an amusement park at Turkey Mountain, and Mr. Bartlett last year even mused about stuffing a restaurant at the top of the hill. The master lease proposal would effectively end that possibility.

If the proposal is approved, it’s going to make it a lot easier for RPA to spend money on land acquisition, which could expand the footprint of Turkey Mountain. Some $6 million has already been set aside for that purpose, and if the existing park land is secure, adding to it will become simpler and more attractive. Another $1.6 million is set aside for making improvements, which would be easier to commit to if you know the land in question isn’t going to be changing hands anytime soon. Most people who use Turkey Mountain wouldn’t mind seeing more woodlands to explore, more trails to ride, and more elbow room for an increasingly popular – and crowded – trail system.

Conventional wisdom says the master lease will invite more private investment. Whether it’s donations for park enhancements or possibly something else done on the privately owned sections of Turkey Mountain, Bynum made a point to say that the stability of a master lease would encourage philanthropic donations and more. The terms “zip lines” and “climbing boulders” were tossed about, so you could see a more diversified land-use plan unfold if this idea goes through.

With that said, serious conversations about land use need to start. Zip lines are a blast, and climbing is fun. But what will a canopy tour zip line do to the overall park user experience? Will the presence of such things detract from the “wild” nature of Turkey Mountain? And I imagine “climbing boulders” would need to be installed. I’ve seen all the rock faces at Turkey Mountain, and they’re not good for climbing. You’d also have to consider wildlife impact. The park is there for us to use, but a number of species call Turkey Mountain home. Any development inside its confines will need to answer these questions, and do so with all stakeholders in mind.

In any case, these are good things to be talking about. It’s rare that a Great Plains city like Tulsa has a parks system like we have, and especially a place like Turkey Mountain. The table appears to be set to preserve urban wild lands for the long haul, and also substantially invest in them. That in turn will help make the city’s residents healthier, boost tourism and enhance efforts to recruit new businesses and residents. Conservation also wins here, and wins big.

It’s not often you can look at government and say, “they’re on the right track.” But in this case, that appears to be true.

Bob Doucette

Common sense can prevent a pedestrian ban on Oklahoma City trails

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

Runners and hikers can coexist with these guys. I promise.

There’s some good news and some bad news coming out of Oklahoma City.

The good news: Much like many communities across the country (including my hometown of Tulsa), more people are spending time on trails to hike, run or ride bikes. This is a good trend for urban and suburban communities, which for decades have been zoned and sectioned to death, leaving residents stuck with seas of rooftops with the occasional park thrown in. Trail systems in our cities are getting more people back in touch with the natural world, as opposed to the more sanitized version of the outdoors that we normally see.

Now the bad news: Friction between different trail users has caused city officials in Oklahoma City to propose banning pedestrians from Bluff Creek Park, as popular place for local trail users. In doing so, they’re hoping to avoid accidents between people on foot and those on bikes.

According to this recent report, no one is happy with this. Runners and hikers feel like they’re being unfairly targeted, and cyclists feel like they’re being turned into a public safety scapegoat. All sides believe the proposal was rushed, without getting input on solutions from people who use the trails. The matter is being brought up at an Oklahoma City Parks Commission meeting on Wednesday.

When I look at this, I do it from the vantage point of someone who uses a busy urban trail system regularly. Here in Tulsa, we have a couple: Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area in south Tulsa, and the trails on the west side of Chandler Park, in west Tulsa. In the former, our users are runners, hikers, cyclists and equestrians. In the latter, a lot of hikers, runners and in one area, rock climbers.

I’m most often at Turkey Mountain, and it is by far the busier of the two trail systems. It’s also become more popular every year. And yet its users manage to get by just fine without one specific group being told to stay away. (One small counterpoint, however – Turkey Mountain is a much larger trail system than Bluff Creek Park.)

So, when I look at the proposal floating around Oklahoma City, it seems like the solution was long on overreach and short on common sense. When it comes to common sense, execution is in the hands of the trail users. So here are some suggestions:

First, people need to keep their ears and eyes open. Be listening and looking for the sounds of bikes or pedestrians and don’t get too lost in the moment in what you’re doing.

Second, it’s far easier for the person on foot to give way to a rider. Do that and avoid a lot of confusion, and take care to give way to the person going downhill.

Third, if you have dogs, keep them leashed. I know it’s more fun for the pups to be off-leash, and maybe they’re trained to obey voice commands very well. But you have more control with they’re leashed, especially when a cyclist is rounding a corner.

Fourth, if you’re on a bike, verbally announce yourself if you’re coming up behind people on foot and slow down.

Fifth, lose the earbuds. In tighter spaces with trees obstructing views, you need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. This applies whether you’re on foot or on the saddle. A compromise might be having an earbud in only one ear, keeping the other free to hear outside noises. But I’d say it’s better to go without.

It should be noted that the proposal to make the trail system for mountain bikers only came as a result of a user survey, one in which less than a third of respondents wanted to ban pedestrians, and less than 2 percent had reported an accident with another user. And yet, the pedestrian ban is what’s being floated as a result of the survey.

Oklahoma City parks planners would do well to avoid discouraging trail usage from its residents, which is exactly what this proposal would do. We need more people getting outside and moving, not less. It sounds like what is needed here is a strong effort from the city and trail user groups to educate people on how to be safe when they’re on the trails, and to learn a little trail etiquette. Banning entire groups of trail users is overkill.

Bob Doucette

Four takes on what Turkey Mountain’s National Recreation Trails designation means

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

This stretch of trail on Turkey Mountain is now part of the National Recreation Trails system.

National Trails Day brought some good news for conservationists and outdoor recreation enthusiasts in northeast Oklahoma. On Friday. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced six sites as being included in the National Recreation Trails System. Three trails on Turkey Mountain are part of that list.

This, on the day before National Trails Day.

The news was spread pretty quickly, and not just a few people were pretty pleased about the designation. Tulsa’s mayor, Dewey Bartlett, joined the chorus — quite a feat, considering how just months before he was talking about putting a restaurant on Turkey Mountain, and in the weeks and months before that, pulling hard for an outlet mall to be built on Turkey Mountain’s west side.

In any case, the news is, indeed, pretty good. But what does it mean? I did a little looking around to see what might happen next, what people’s questions were, and how this might guide future decisions on green space preservation and development along the Arkansas River, which flows past Turkey Mountain’s eastern flank.

Here’s what I came up with…

Turkey Mountain is on quite a winning streak. The National Recreation Trails designation is the latest of many positive developments for Turkey Mountain and its trail system. The outlet mall plan was scrapped after heavy public opposition, and with the passage of a sales tax package in April, the land in question (which was privately held at the time) was purchased and folded into the River Parks Authority system. The land, which had suffered from tree and brush clearing and illegal trash dumping, is slowly being restored to its natural state while most of the garbage dumped there has been removed. There are now more trails permanently protected, and more natural habitat for wildlife preserved for the future. This also bodes well for the Westside YMCA camp, which has a permanent buffer of woodlands to its south.

The Interior Department’s designation has real benefits. Being recognized nationally gives Turkey Mountain specifically and Tulsa generally positive publicity. It further showcases a recreational asset that is uncommon to Midwestern cities. And, by being a part of the national system, Turkey Mountain is now eligible for promotion, technical advice and even potential grant money to make more improvements.

National recognition does not mean a federal takeover. I read through comments on a story about this news, and there were plenty of people bemoaning federal government involvement, takeover, overreach and all the other buzzwords you tend to hear when anything comes down from Washington. However you feel about the federal government, the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area is still locally owned and controlled by Tulsa’s River Parks Authority. It is not part of the National Parks Service, the National Forest System, the Bureau of Land Management or any other arm of the Department of the Interior. Personally, I’m a huge fan of federal public lands. But I also like what we do here locally at Turkey Mountain. That’s not going to change. But opportunities for future improvements and conservation will be enhanced.

The conversation on urban green space is likely to grow and evolve. Turkey Mountain’s journey from an obscure (and sometimes maligned) park to a popular destination was slow, but it accelerated greatly over the past several years. The outlet mall controversy elevated its profile in the city, and usage of its trail system has grown significantly. There is talk about what trail system could be next for improvements — perhaps Chandler Park (great, scenic trails and rock climbing/bouldering awaits), or other places. Development along the Arkansas River will be a hot topic for years to come, with competing interests seeking commercial development vs. more recreational, park-like development. It’s good we’re having these conversations. There will be tension on this front for quite some time, but if park and river corridor development is done right, the city has the potential to be a prime destination for outdoor recreation tourism, and its assets useful tools for overall business recruitment.

I spent part of National Trails Day getting a little dirt under my feet, running a short, hilly loop through the woods. As usual, I saw mountain bikers, other runners, and plenty of families hiking. This is a great thing, and it can be built upon. Already, efforts to do just that are paying off, and we’re getting noticed — not just by fellow Tulsans and Oklahomans, but by people from across the country.

Bob Doucette

A river, an election and a game-changer for Tulsa

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

The Arkansas River, just south of downtown Tulsa.

Elections on Tuesday night may have been a game-changer for the city of Tulsa.

A number of things were on the ballot, but one issue in particular — more than $500 million for economic development — has the possibility of putting Tulsa on the national map of outdoor recreation.

The proposition, which earned more than 60 percent approval from voters, does a number of things. Two of those really stand out.

The first — two dams on the Arkansas River to “put water in the river,” or basically create a couple of small reservoirs that should provide consistent bodies of water.

The second — $7.6 million to acquire land for the expansion of the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area.

Let’s start with the dams. As it stands, water flowing in the river through Tulsa is at the mercy of how much is released from the upstream Keystone Dam. Keystone provides flood control while creating a large lake for recreation and water supply. Keystone also has a hydroelectric power station. All of these purposes affect how much water is released downstream. Sometimes the river is full, sometimes it’s mostly sand bars. The latter is more common than not, and aside from fishing, there isn’t much you can do with a partially drained river.

Creating larger bodies of water on the river offers a number of possibilities. To see what that looks like, all you have to do is drive 90 minutes down the turnpike to Oklahoma City and observe what has happened there.

A smaller river — the North Canadian — flows by downtown Oklahoma City. OKC is drier than Tulsa, and in its natural state, the Canadian is more of a prairie trickle than anything else. But as part of a large sales tax package passed in the 1990s, a dam system was built that turned the dusty Canadian — dubbed the Oklahoma River — into an inviting stretch of calm, flat water within walking distance of Oklahoma City’s downtown entertainment district.

The Oklahoma River project created an entirely new outdoor recreation culture out of nothing. A couple of universities started rowing teams. A number of boathouses were built. Rowing, kayaking and other water sports began to flourish. An Olympic training center was established in what is now called the Boathouse District. Regional and national competitions happen in Oklahoma City. And very soon, an addition to the river project — a whitewater kayaking course — will open. The Boathouse District has turned into the next hot draw for Oklahoma City. Most importantly, it’s exposing people to a new form of outdoor recreation that should help future generations of Oklahomans lead active, healthier lives.

These are the types of things that happen in mountain communities or seaside cities, not in the middle of the Southern Plains. And yet there it is.

The potential for something similar — or even greater — happening in Tulsa is very real. The Arkansas River is considerably larger than the Canadian, and the prospect of a couple of large flatwater sections of the in town creates the possibility of all sorts of water sports taking off.

Outdoor recreation as a focus of Arkansas River development is the city’s best bet. We’ve seen what’s happened in Oklahoma City. Farther east, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, leaders there took advantage of their river and the surrounding hills and mountains to create a vibrant outdoor culture that has become a huge part of that city’s economy. Chattanooga has been so successful that it earned Outside Magazine’s top city in the U.S. in 2015, the second time it’s won that honor.

Oklahoma lacks the topography of the Smokies, but Tulsa is in a position to compete. The dams would be anchored by A Gathering Place for Tulsa — the huge, $350 million park now being constructed along the river — and Turkey Mountain, widely recognized as one of the best mountain biking  destinations in the country. All of it will be connected via an extensive River Parks trail system that already exists on both sides of the river. The southernmost dam will be close to the Oklahoma Aquarium, a substantial facility that is a good-sized draw in its own right.

The city would be wise to focus on outdoor recreation and resist the temptation to line the banks of a newly full river with box stores, apartment complexes and subdivisions. Those would be the easy things, but would lack the pull that the river could have as a quality of life asset focused on outdoor recreation. The opportunity is huge.

This vista was once destined to be a shopping center parking lot. It's now going to be protected, wild park land.

This vista was once destined to be a shopping center parking lot. It’s now going to be protected, wild park land.

A second, smaller portion of this project — the $7.6 million for Turkey Mountain — dovetails nicely with the river dam projects. It closes the circle on a drama that began in 2014 when outlet mall developer Simon Properties announced it would build a shopping center a Turkey Mountain’s western edge. The plan faced stiff community opposition, so much so that it moved on to another location.

The land in question was still in limbo, so two community benefactors — the George Kaiser Family Foundation and QuikTrip Corp. — plunked down the money to take the acreage in question off the market. Passage of Tuesday’s proposal will pay back those benefactors (their purchase was basically a loan) and fold that land into the River Parks system. There will be enough money left over for more improvements at Turkey Mountain, and perhaps (this is speculation on my part) the purchase of more, adjacent land.

This  is great news for outdoor enthusiasts in the Tulsa area. Turkey Mountain has long been a favorite place to go for mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, equestrians and nature lovers. Its popularity has grown over the years and is increasingly a destination for families. Its expansion is a public commitment to maintaining and growing the value of urban green spaces, a forward-thinking concept that is at the root of why the mall plan was rejected and why, now, Turkey Mountain’s trail system has become a priority. (Future prospects for Chandler Park, with all the trail amenities of Turkey Mountain, plus rock climbing and bouldering areas, look good as well.)

Tulsa’s current economy shows that dependence on the energy industry can be risky. Economic diversification should be a priority going forward. By adopting an outdoor recreation strategy that involves the river, the dams, and Turkey Mountain, Tulsa can transform itself into a draw for visitors, and even a place where people and companies want to be.

Was Tuesday’s election really a game-changer? It depends how the river corridor is managed from this point forward. But if the city plays its cards right, maybe Outside Magazine looks at us for its top cities list.

Bob Doucette

What the evolution of local conservation looks like

Group picture before the work day starts. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Group picture before the work day starts. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

I can remember a day when we would do cleanup and trail maintenance days at Turkey Mountain when there might have been a couple dozen of us out there. And we were dang pleased with the turnout.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and we routinely draw well over a hundred people coming out for a few hours on a Saturday to pick up trash, haul dirt, spread seeds and trim back limbs that block the trails. Real grunt work, but more people seem to be happy to do it.

We had one of those days last weekend. The morning was chilly and bright, and it warmed up nicely as the day wore on. If our turnout would have been low, I was have understood it — gorgeous outdoor days in late winter are usually hard to find, and this one was about as good as it gets.

The crew heading out. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

The crew heading out. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

But still, the volunteers came. Teams headed out, loppers and garbage bags in hand, to scour the trails of trash and do some trimming. High school kids, college groups, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and just about anyone else you could think of showed up looking for a job to do. We shored up a needy section of trail, which meant a lot of time with shovels, tampers and wheelbarrows.

Cleanup days at Turkey Mountain were once the sole project of Tulsa’s River Parks Authority, which has jurisdiction over Turkey Mountain. But they’ve gotten a partner over the last couple of years in the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition.

If you’ve been reading this blog for very long, you know who the TUWC is. If not, a quick explainer…

Yours truly even did some stuff. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Yours truly even did some stuff. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

The TUWC formed when it was announced that a developer planned to build an outlet mall on a section of the western fringe of Turkey Mountain. So at its outset, the TUWC was the voice rallying the outdoor community and Tulsa residents in general to oppose the plan, which would have leveled dozens of acres of woodlands and created substantial erosion, pollution and overall degradation to the land. TUWC’s arguments proved successful, and the developer moved on. Better still, the section of land in question has been set aside to be kept free of commercial development, allowed to once again become part of the urban wilderness area at Turkey Mountain. Score one for outdoor enthusiasts.

More trail rebuilding work. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

More trail rebuilding work. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

But there are side benefits to this effort as well. The TUWC made a conscious effort to not just be a group opposing something. It wanted to be for something, namely, preserving and promoting urban wild spaces like Turkey Mountain. As part of that, the TUWC got involved with these cleanup days, leveraging its visibility in the community to rally people to the task.

The results have been stunning. As I said before, 25 to 30 people at past cleanup days was considered a pretty good turnout. Since TUWC’s creation, participation has more than quadrupled.

Re-seeding the grounds near the trailhead. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

Re-seeding the grounds near the trailhead. (Laurie Biby/Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition)

TUWC’s vocal presence going back to the fall of 2014 had a major impact on preserving green space. But it also elevated the public’s knowledge of what Turkey Mountain was, why it’s important, and what you can do there. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I see far more people hiking, biking and running there than what I witnessed back in 2011 when I first moved to Tulsa. Recent surveys show that visitors to Turkey Mountain outnumber those visiting some of the city’s most popular tourist draws on any given weekend.

So we know there are more users of the park. But we also know that there are more people willing to invest their time and energy not just in enjoying it, but caring for it. This speaks well of the city’s residents and the future of conservation in northeast Oklahoma. It also points toward a continuing mission that goes far beyond an opposition campaign. I have to say, I like that trend.

Bob Doucette