Previewing the 2018 Route 66 Marathon

The Sunday before Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. For a bunch of us, that means running the Route 66 Marathon.

This race is where I cut my teeth on the marathon, and I’ve run the half marathon a number of times. So of course I’m running it again, as are thousands of you.

What you’re going to get is the same great event as always, But there are going to be some course changes, and from what I see, they are for the better.

So the purpose of this is to go over the course, and maybe give you a few observations before you toe the line on Sunday.

The marathon and half marathon follow the same initial loop right up into the 13th mile, when marathoners head out of downtown for their second loop. Here are some things you need to know…

Don’t be fooled by that first mile. It’s mostly downhill, so it’s fast, and the excitement of the race will amp up a lot of people’s paces. Soon after reaching 15th Street, you will meet a really big hill. You’ll climb part of it, then turn off into a neighborhood by Maple Park. Then it’s back east on 21st and a sizable hill. It will be the biggest incline you face until you hit Mile 11.

The hill gives way just before Utica Avenue, but the hilliness of the course won’t stop for a while. Running through the neighborhoods near Woodward Park is scenic, but there is a lot of up-and-down between Mile 2 and Mile 7. Pace yourself accordingly.

The hills will relent as you go through Brookside, then turn west on 41st Street. Turning north on Riverside will remain flat. The big change in the course happens here. In the past few years, the course ducked back into the neighborhood and a long, gradual climb on Cincinnati Avenue. The detour was made because of construction at the Gathering Place park. The park is open now, and so is Riverside Drive all the way to downtown. Runners will enjoy a flatter stretch through the park, and that should help with people’s times. It will also help you save some energy as you get ready to head into downtown and into Mile 11. And then it gets real.

First, you’ll turn west and cross the Arkansas River on the 11th Street bridge, a stretch that is part of the historic Route 66. At the end of the bridge, you’ll turn around and run back into downtown.

At Southwest Boulevard, you will begin the climb back into downtown, and it’s not small, lasting the better part of a mile, comprising of two hills. Just past Mile 12, you’ll turn north at Denver Avenue and start heading north and downhill toward the Tulsa Arts District. Marathoners will turn back east at Second Street to begin their second loop while those doing the half will continue north on the last mile — one more short climb, then a mostly flat finish.

For those going the full 26.2, it’s another trip out to midtown, but in different areas. You get to avoid the hills of 15th Street to start, instead eventually making your way south on Peoria between Mile 13 and Mile 15. Here, you’ll turn back east on a familiar road, south past Utica Square, but then farther east into different neighborhoods. I’ve found these areas not as hilly as Maple Ridge, but that will change soon enough. The mellower grades continue from Mile 15 through Mile 18 as you head north toward the University of Tulsa.

You hit one small but steep climb on 21st Street, then a long, gradual uphill slog toward the university between Mile 18 and Mile 20. The uphill continues through the school, then relents a bit as you leave and go back south on Delaware.

And then, my friends, comes the biggest mental test of the full, at least in my estimation. Just before Mile 22 begins, you hit 15th Street (also known as Cherry Street), and its sizable hills. Between Delaware and Peoria, they are big and somewhat steep.

Just when you think another huge hill awaits, you turn north back on Peoria (between Mile 23 and Mile 24) to start the trek back downtown. Fortunately, the hills of midtown are behind you. If you have any gas left in the tank, you can make some time here. If you don’t, at least gravity won’t be devouring you the entire way there. A slight grade up takes you from Mile 24 to Mile 25, then a gradual downhill on First Street to Denver Avenue lets you coast.

If you want to do the Center of the Universe Detour, it pulls off the course in the middle of the First Street stretch. It’s a party up there, and they give you a commemorative coin for your trouble. Back on the main course, you go downhill fast on Denver Avenue, under a bridge, then one last, short uphill climb to the Tulsa Arts District and the final, mostly flat portion of the course to the finish.

Marathon starting line stoke: It’s real, man. (Kirk Wells/Route 66 Marathon photo)

Last few observations…

First, I hope you did some hill training. Though only a few of the hills are big and there are some sizable flat spots, this is not a flat course. At all.

Second, expect good course support. Organizers have lots of aid stations along the way, well-stocked and well-manned.

Third, watch the weather forecasts. It’s going to be a cold start, with gun-time temps about 28 degrees. The high is expected to top out at 42 degrees, and it will be cloudy with a north breeze. Dress accordingly, and keep watching the forecast. Weather in this state can be fickle.

Fourth, the start corral has a different format. It will be a spoke corral to work around a construction site on Main Street: A and B corrals will be on Main Street south of Fifth while the C and D corrals will be on Fifth Street on either side of Main. And I’ve been told to tell you all that you have to enter each corral from the back – no hanging out at the roundabout fountain at Fifth and Main and jumping in another corral will be allowed.

Last, enjoy it! I’ve run this one a few times, and it stacks up well with any race I’ve done. The course is scenic and challenging, which always makes for a good time.

Bob Doucette

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So I wrote a book… and you can read ‘Outsider’ now

In this post, a little bit of news.

I’ve been writing on this site since 2011. That, in itself, is hard for me to believe. Nearly eight years of writing about the outdoors, running, fitness and whatever else strikes me, I suppose. Before that, there were a couple more years on the blogosphere at the new-defunct Out There blog on newsok.com.

In the midst of all of this, I’ve been working on another, longer-term project, one that’s finally ready to be read. It’s a book, titled “Outsider: Tales from the road, the trail and the run.”

I’ll dispense with the more cliché descriptions of what this work means to me. And yeah, I’ve had a hard time coming up with an elevator speech to describe what it is. But I’ll give it a shot here.

When I was young, I loved the outdoors. I can recall many adventures in the mountains, at camp and in a cabin that cultivated a fascination with the mountains and other wild environments. Growing up, I let that stuff slide. But eventually it came back to me, and boy, I needed it.

The book details it pretty well, but I hit a spell when my normally in-control life was anything but. How I pulled out of that nosedive was heading outside, running downtown streets or wooded trails, hiking in the hills, climbing mountains and taking road trips across the West. I learned a lot about myself, about life, and about God in those times. I wrestled with some tough questions. And I met some fantastic people along the way, each one of them making my life that much richer.

Scenes for this happen in my hometown, in the High Plains and in the Rockies, among other spots. All of them hold a special place for me, and there are some specific moments that will be burned into my memory for as long as I live.

I think a lot of you will be able to relate. How many of you use running to battle personal demons? Or head into the wilderness to quiet your mind, sort things out and recharge? If that describes you, we’re birds of a feather, my friend.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hope you buy it, read it and enjoy it. Hopefully we can start a few conversations. You’ll read my stories, as well as those of some folks I know. Maybe you can give me a few tales of your own.

“Outsider” is available in paperback and on Kindle. Pick up a copy, have a read and tell me what you think. And thanks – not only for giving a book a read, but for being here on this site through the years. We’ll see ya out there.

Bob Doucette

Friday distraction: Some of my favorite summit views

Man, this has been a bummer of a week in the news. We could all use a short distraction from the horrible headlines and gloomy predictions, so this is my contribution. I went through some of my older images and found a few of my favorite summit views. So sit back, forget the angry world outside and relive some alpine goodness with me.

1. North Eolus

Looking deep into the Weminuche Wilderness from the summit of North Eolus.

The mountain itself is sort of an afterthought of the four big peaks that rise over Chicago Basin. But I found this view from North Eolus particularly impressive. I love the San Juan Mountains, and this view of a sea of wild, jagged peaks exemplifies the range’s rugged nature. “Awe-inspiring” is an understatement.

2. Mount Sneffels

The view west from the summit of Mount Sneffels.

Sticking with the San Juans, this view from the top of Mount Sneffels is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mount Sneffels is, by itself, an impressive peak, but it’s joined by a family of high mountains that add to the ridiculously scenic area around Yankee Boy Basin. To date, climbing Mount Sneffels remains one of my favorite days in the mountains.

3. Missouri Mountain

Looking into Missouri Gulch Basin from the summit of Missouri Mountain.

I’m a repeat customer at Missouri Gulch Basin, and I know I’ll go back. Five years ago, I did a solo climb of Missouri Mountain and was rewarded with this dramatic summit scene. The basin is beautiful, but is particularly impressive from the south end, guarded by the wall of rock that is Missouri Mountain. An unforgettable fall day.

4. Wetterhorn Peak

Looking north from the Wetterhorn Peak summit.

Back in the San Juans, Wetterhorn Peak remains my favorite mountain. It’s got all the goods for hikers and climbers. No less impressive is the payoff at the top. A summer solstice climb revealed a range still clothed in snow, and looking north from Wetterhorn’s summit gave me this lasting memory of 13,000-foot peaks that guard the northeast flank of the San Juans.

5. Mount of the Holy Cross

Holy Cross Ridge from the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross.

There are so many great views from Mount of the Holy Cross, but this one of Holy Cross Ridge hits the mark. It’s a striking ridge, made even more so by the presence of snow contrasting with the dark coloring of the rock. The peak’s Cross Couloir is its most famous feature, one that has captured imaginations for well over a century. But there’s more to this mountain’s beauty than its namesake scar.

6. Uncompahgre Peak

Northwest view from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak.

Back in the San Juans, there’s no shortage of excellent views from the highest peak in the range. This one got my attention, giving you a decent perspective on the height of the mountain and the expanse of the kingdom it oversees. The San Juan Mountains are captivating.

7. Sunset Peak

A unique view north from Sunset Peak’s southern summit.

I couldn’t finish this list without at least one summit view from my home state of Oklahoma. The Wichita Mountains make up a collection of ancient crags and domes that are out of place in the surrounding Southern Plains. While not as lofty as most North American ranges, they still pack a lot of punch. The gnarly cedar remains of a tree on Sunset Peak’s southern summit caught my eye and is one of my favorite mountain images I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, I have a lot of other memories of great summit views from dozens of other mountains. But these rank as some of my favorite photos from any given mountaintop. Hopefully you can get out and make a few mountain memories of your own and, for a few hours or days, forget about the bad news floating around right now.

Bob Doucette

Welcome to the neighborhood: Cyclists, racing and a city’s biggest block party on Cry Baby Hill

Cyclists race by as crowds cheer – and drink – at the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough on Cry Baby Hill.

When I got up Sunday morning, the parade was already started. Out my window, lines of people were strolling down the hill, coolers and lawn chairs in hand. Some were in costume. Most were dressed for the heat. Some were already half-tanked.

A typical Sunday morning for the third day of Tulsa Tough, an annual cycling race series and festival that has bike enthusiasts from across the country descend on T-town with all the spandex anyone could ever want. Crowds gather for all three days of Tulsa Tough, but it’s the third day, on Cry Baby Hill, that folks really get revved up.

And it happens in my neighborhood.

A little about my ‘hood: it’s tough to define. It’s older, right on the edge of downtown Tulsa, and built on the banks of the Arkansas River. It’s a mix of people, from bohemian to bums, families and retirees, living in stately older homes, shotgun houses, or in open fields not yet developed. It’s a place where you can watch incredible sunsets from your porch, or view transients stumbling down an alley. I feel perfectly safe here, but sometimes there are police helicopters and searchlights. Typical urban neighborhood, I suppose, and the site for the Riverside Criterium of Tulsa Tough.

So let’s talk about Tulsa Tough. This was the 13th year for the event, which attracts top cyclists from across the country and the world. For three days, they race through different courses downtown, and as the years have gone by the crowds have grown. There’s also a gran fondo ride that goes well outside the city and a townie ride where anyone with a set of wheels can take a more leisurely trek.

The climax of Tulsa Tough is the Riverside Criterium. It’s the toughest course, with steep inclines on every lap. I’m sure that’s something cyclists can appreciate and dread, but for most people, the Riverside Criterium is all about the scene that is Cry Baby Hill. It draws the biggest, most raucous crowds of the entire weekend, and I’d say most people are there more for the party than the races. Folks show up by the thousands.

It wasn’t always that way. When Tulsa Tough started, people in the neighborhood gathered at a house or two to watch the races, guzzle some beer and cheer them on. One legend has it that regulars at the Sound Pony, a downtown dive bar frequented by cyclists and other endurance athletes, started making the Sunday Tulsa Tough races a thing. However it started, someone built this party scene, and man, did it grow.

Today, the Riverview neighborhood is choked with Tulsa Tough spectators and revelers. There’s lots of skin, vats of beer, weird costumes and creepy baby-doll heads on sticks. There are a bunch of whistles and people in referee uniforms helping the crowds “mind the gap” so cyclists can actually freely race without fear of running into errant fans. It’s grown so big that the food truck cabal decided to come, and live music on a stage popped up. Debauchery of all sorts happens, though most people keep it in check. I think. Anyway, I tell people that Cry Baby Hill is an annual excuse to get drunk on a Sunday morning, and I think that’s mostly true.

Some of the cyclists get into it. If they’re not concentrated on actually winning, they’ll slow down and take a brew from the crowd before continuing. Cops are there in droves, as are paramedic crews. It’s hot out there, and sometimes the combination of a 12-pack of Natty Light and high heat/humidity doesn’t work out too well.

You might think the description of my neighborhood, the event, and the crowd is negative, but let me shut that down right now: I dig this scene. Endurance sports don’t get a lot of love, so when the hordes arrive to cheer on the competitors, I’m all for it. Come on down, invade the ‘hood for a few hours and have a good time. Too many parts of town (any town, really) are too buttoned down, becoming regimented to the point of lifelessness. My neighborhood is a trip pretty much every day, and I guess it’s fitting that Day Three of Tulsa Tough is sort of a holiday of weirdness for my weird little place.

That all of it surrounds cycling hits home, too. I don’t race, but I spend a decent amount of time in the saddle these days. I chose where I live so I could bike to work. It’s also close to a paved trail system that’s great for longer rides. I’m not a racer, but I get these people even if my ride costs less than the accessories they attach to theirs.

So how did all this go down for me? Well, as the crowds clogged my streets, I mowed my yard. Picked up a half-empty can of Coors Light kindly donated to my lawn. I dumped the rest out, recycled the can, then jumped on my bike and rode to the center of the action.

While recording part of the race from a more “family friendly” part of the course, a half-baked spectator noticed by Denver Broncos ballcap and proceeded to talk smack. Turns out, he was a Chiefs fan. They got us twice last year, but I reminded him that the Broncos have three Lombardis in the case to Kansas City’s one. He was forceful at first (I was hoping that this wouldn’t turn into a real fight), but chilled out long enough to have a more nuanced discussion about how the AFC West was going to play out. His girlfriend got bored, so we bro-hugged and they left.

I rode to a few more spots, taking pics and taking in the scene. Everywhere I went, the streets were lined with people, sometimes ten deep. Whistles would blow, a chase vehicle would zip by, and then a couple of cyclists would follow. Behind them, the whirring gears of a few dozen more cyclists, bunched up in the peloton, breezed by. The crowd cheered, yelled, rang their cowbells and took a swig from coozy-lined cans and red Solo cups.

This scene repeated itself for several hours until the last pro races were done. Podiums were mounted and trophies awarded. Fans eventually stumbled back into their houses, or toward their cars, and not a small number of them took the next day off.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure about the origins of Tulsa Tough. There’s a healthy cycling community in Tulsa, but not more than any other mid-sized city. Even so, Tulsa Tough is a huge success, an international draw, seemingly getting bigger every year. That an obscure endurance sport can become so huge here is encouraging, even if half the appeal is just showing up for the party. It’s a weird, geared-up and beer-soaked thread in a community tapestry that might otherwise be mildly bland.

Come next June, we’ll do it all over again. See ya next time for Year 14 of Tulsa Tough. Cry Baby Hill awaits.

Bob Doucette

Omens abound: A cold snap, an earthquake, and the worst 5K finish ever

I’m not sure earthquakes, snow flurries and running mix all that well.

Call it the convergence of the weird. Maybe an omen. I don’t know. But it ended painfully.

I’ve been on this 5K kick lately, and it continued last weekend in the Tulsa suburb of Jenks. Jenks is home to, of all things, a sizable aquarium, and the venue uses an annual half marathon, 10K and 5K event to raise money and awareness.

That’s all good, you know, but I was attracted to the flat-as-a-board course it offers. Surely a good day here would get another PR.

I woke up and did my usual pre-race ritual: Eat a small breakfast, hydrate a little, foam roll, dress for the race and head out.

But this would be no ordinary day.

For starters, it was cold. As in record-setting cold. April in Oklahoma will more often see high temperatures in the 90s before it sees lows in the mid-20s. But that’s what greeted us, along with a dusting a snow and strong north winds that pushed the wind chill down to 16 degrees. April is supposed to be known more for tornado warnings rather than freeze warnings. But here we were, feeling like it was mid-January.

I can shake that off OK. You can dress for cold, race hard and never overheat. I’m good with that.

But as I munched on breakfast, Weirdo Thing No. 2 occurred: an earthquake.

Sitting on my couch, I heard the window rattle and felt the wave-like shakes that are now familiar to me. Years of wastewater injection drilling associated with oil and natural gas production has made Oklahoma one of the most seismically active states in the country. It wasn’t too long ago we had a quake hit a magnitude of 5.8. Saturday’s quake was a mere 4.5 – big news and a novel experience pre-2011, but in 2018, it registered little more than a shrug. I’ll be more interested when we hit a 6.0 or bigger.

I mentioned the term “omen” earlier. I don’t put much stock in such things, especially when it comes to how weird things can get in the Sooner State. We coined the phrase “quakenado” (that happened on a day when we had tornadoes and a quake), and even the “tigerquakenado” (when we had a tiger escape from an exotic animal shelter the same day there was an earthquake and a tornado). We’ve got a two-week-long teacher strike still going on because, blast them, they don’t like having to work side gigs and take welfare just to get by, and they prefer to have functioning classrooms open more than four days a week with textbooks that don’t predate the second Bush administration. I’m sure I could go on with more oddities of my home state, but you get the drift – unusual things here don’t faze us. We’re used to weird, sad or ominous things. So off I went to my race.

It went well for the first 2K, but I think I went out too fast. I dialed it back a little, hoping for a kick toward the end.

When I passed the last water stop, a gal was holding signs pointing which way for the 5K and 10K runners to go. She told us “just go under the bridge and you’re done!” Sounded good to me, and as soon as I passed that bridge, I sped up. A PR was in sight.

And then about 200 yards from the finish, stinging pain seized my right foot. Not a sprain, not an Achilles tear. Just sharp pain from my heel through my arch. I slowed again, hoping to let it chill out so I could speed back up, but no dice. I was run-hopping the rest of the way, bad wheel and all, just hoping I wouldn’t have to stop dead in my tracks.

The end result was a time 25 seconds off my PR. I ran-limped for 200 yards, and had this blowout happened any earlier in the race – say halfway – I probably wouldn’t have finished at all.

And now I’m hobbling around, wishing I had a set of crutches. As it turns out, this is a nasty case of plantar fasciitis, and it’s not going anywhere. I’ve had a few running nicks and dings through the years, but nothing like this. I doubt I’ll run at all this week. Maybe longer.

And maybe now I’ll give pause to the next pre-race convergence of the strange. Maybe omens are real. Maybe the next time unseasonal weather coincides with the trembling of the earth I’ll just skip the race and sleep in.

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