All hail the emergence of spring

Green emerging everywhere.

Spring feels a little different for me. Living in the Southern Plains, it’s a reminder that it won’t be long before the death heat of summer arrives. We get big storms down here. High winds. For allergy sufferers, spring looks pretty but feels awful. And it means I have to start cutting the grass again.

Notice that all of these things have nothing to do with what I see when I get out of my neighborhood and hit the trail. When I do that, my whole mindset changes. The forest tells me that spring might be all those things I mentioned above. But it also means new life.

I hike often in the fall and winter. Even this far south, winter has a quieting effect on the woods. Aside from the breezes in the trees, you don’t hear much of anything.

In the spring, that all changes. Scurrying underfoot. Bird songs in the air. Even the wind in the forest canopy sounds different as it blows by leaves and not barren limbs.

Singletrack ahead, new life all around. Welcome to the green tunnel.

Ample rain has fallen this year, so normally dry seasonal creekbeds are flowing. On a recent hike, I looked down into one of these deeper channels, and in its depths I could see it: dozens of tadpoles, creatures soon to join their elder kin in adding to the song of the woods.

Biology textbooks could probably explain where all these creatures go in the colder months, but my wonder at the process of seasonal life wouldn’t abate. Not one bit.

So green.

So yeah, summer will be here before we know it. Triple-digit temps are probably on the way. I’m sure there will be tornado warnings, pollen warnings and days when the winds are blowing out of the south faster than I can ride my bike. But some time in the woods can alter perspectives.

Spring is a wondrous time. If nothing else, it reminds us of the miracle that our planet is. We move to and fro with our busy lives, our incessant blathering, our overall nonsense that amounts to little. But the Earth’s beat goes on — renewing, enduring, waning, and then coming back to life once again, just like it has for eons, long before we were here to take note of it. Call it respect, or awe, or whatever, but the time I spent in the woods was a pleasant reset, pollen count be damned.

Spring is a miracle.

Bob Doucette

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Ales for Trails: Have a brew, eat some ‘cue, listen to tunes and support our trails

Here’s one for the local gang, and especially for those who care about taking care of our trails. We’ve got a shindig coming up in a week, and this will be something you’ll want to attend.

I’m talking about Ales for Trails, a fundraiser for the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition. We’re doing this from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18 at Dead Armadillo Brewery, 1004 E. Fourth Street in Tulsa.

Here’s what’s on tap:

Mmmmm. Tasty.

First up, your ticket gets you a couple of fine brews from the brewery. I’ve sampled more than a few of their offerings, and I can tell you that they do good work here, whatever your favored flavor of beer might be. Dead Armadillo is a great example of Tulsa’s growing craft beer scene.

You’re also going to be fed. Eagleton BBQ has fed TUWC volunteers at some of our trail work days, and once again, you’re talking about the good stuff here. Great food and drink? Count me in.

Live music and a silent auction will also be on hand, and the list of auction items is solid. A lot of friends from the area wanted to pitch in for this one, so there is a good chance you can walk away from some great swag while supporting a good cause.

So why are we doing this? As it turns out, a lot of the work we do comes with a cost. The TUWC carries insurance for our trail work days and cleanup days, and it’s not free. Other costs incurred to keep this organization going are also an ongoing need. Out membership dues are super cheap (just $5 for an individual membership), so it’s not like we’re floating in a sea of money.

The TUWC serves an important function in northeast Oklahoma. We’re the main go-between for the public and the government entities that maintain trail systems where people hike, bike, run and ride. We’re the group that organizes volunteers to repair damaged trail sections and clean up litter that creeps up in places like Turkey Mountain. We help with conservation education efforts. And through the TUWC website and social media sites, we keep trail enthusiasts up to date on issues that are important to them. We got our start by fighting a proposed outlet mall on Turkey Mountain’s west side, and even though that threat has passed, we’re still active in advocating for trail users across the area.

A view from the outside of Dead Armadillo Brewery. (Dead Armadillo Brewery photo)

That said, Ales for Trails is going to be a good time, and a chance to meet up with old friends and meet new ones. It’s a chance for the trail user community to come together for a fun night. Tickets ($40 each ) are still available, and if you haven’t bought yours yet, there’s still time. Click this link to get yours, and I hope to see you there!

Bob Doucette

Some thoughts about a master plan for Turkey Mountain

Turkey Mountain, as seen from the east bank of the Arkansas River.

Turning back to my home front, there is some news. Tulsa’s River Parks Authority held the first of several public input meetings to discuss what people would like to see in a master plan for the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, a go-to place for hiking, biking and trail running right in the middle of the city.

The effort also includes an online survey for people to give their views. Between that and the discussions at these meeting, RPA will have an idea of what the public wants to see.

This is a long way from where we were just a few years ago. We had one rich fella tell us that God told him to build an amusement park on the banks of the Arkansas River, and to cut into acreage on Turkey Mountain’s southeastern flanks. That went nowhere, but in 2014, Simon Properties wanted to build an outlet mall on the far west side of Turkey Mountain’s woodlands. That was a closer call, but intense public pressure against the move eventually sent Simon looking for space elsewhere. What followed by a rapid, concerted effort from public and private entities to secure the land and fold it into a unified parcel that now represents a much larger wild green space than what RPA originally managed.

That leads us to the present. It seems from the first meeting, the consensus is to keep Turkey Mountain as wild as possible. At least, that’s what I gathered from reading this story from the Tulsa World.

I figure I have this electronic space for a reason, if nothing else than to spout off on whatever outdoorsy subject suits me at the time. So you can take my opinions how you see fit. But also keep in mind that I’ve been a regular visitor of its trails for the past eight years, have hiked or ran almost all of its trails and invested no small amount of time cleaning up trails, repairing damaged trail sections and generally advocating for Turkey Mountain’s wellbeing. So while these are just my thoughts, they are informed by some depth of experience as a user and stakeholder. So here ya go, my thoughts on what should guide the creation of a Turkey Mountain master plan…

Hi Chi Trail, Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness, Tulsa.

Generally speaking, Turkey Mountain should be left alone. What makes the park special are not all the bells, whistles and amenities that other  parks have. It is the lack of these man-made add-ons that attract people to its earthen paths. Where else in the middle of the city can you experience woodlands in their natural state? Nowhere, really. Aside from the trails, some trail blazes and four signs tacked up for safety reasons, Turkey Mountain is devoid of artificial enhancement. You are forced to slow down and take it in at its own pace, or at least at a pace powered by you alone. It’s not climate-controlled, there are no handrails, and if you want to see a specific place, you have to walk/run/bike/ride there yourself. That has an appeal to a lot of people, to the tune of 20,000 to 25,000 visitors a month. If you’re looking for a park with swing sets and ball fields, they exist elsewhere, all over the city. Want a cup of coffee in a lodge setting? Go to Gathering Place. Zip lines? I hear Post Oak Lodge is great. None of that stuff, as great as it is, is needed at Turkey Mountain. It’s a unique place that offers something the rest of the parks cannot – mostly unsullied nature.

Most trails at Turkey Mountain, like this one, are in decent shape. Others plagued by erosion need to be rerouted or closed altogether.

Some trails need to be rerouted, and maybe even closed for good. The trail system was created by mountain bikers decades ago, mostly with the idea of what would be fun to ride. Little thought was given to how well these rough-hewn paths would hold up under human usage and weather-induced erosion. All these trails will need to be looked at with an eye toward sustainability, and that will mean altering their path so they don’t wash out. If that’s not possible, some might have to be closed off for good. I know that might chap some folks, but we want these trails to hold up without washing out a chunk of a hillside. That almost happened on the steep portion going up the Yellow Trail. It’s been mitigated for now, but that and other problem areas remain. Expert trail management will need to be consulted here.

Wintry sunset scene on the west-side trails at Turkey Mountain.

Speaking of expertise, it would be a good idea if Turkey Mountain had its own superintendent. RPA has a decent sized inventory of park land outside of Turkey Mountain, and much of its attention is focused on paved trails and festivals at River Parks Festival West. The needs at Turkey Mountain are much more about land management (forestry, wildlife conservation, trail user safety, etc.) than any other park in town. Having someone in charge of the place – a face that stakeholders could interact with – could help with a number of things, such as coordinating races, conservation efforts, public safety and volunteer work. Yeah, it’s an extra expense for RPA. But I think it would be worth it.

A glorious view on lands recently reclaimed from commercial development for natural preservation purposes. Setting aside this acreage for wild green space was a case of Tulsa doing things right.

Thoughts should be given toward potential expansion of the park, or finding similar places in the city and county where wild spaces can be preserved. Turkey Mountain is being hemmed in by development. Thinking of wildlife, those critters need room to move. Their habitats have a range that is a little bigger than most folks realize. When it gets surrounded by development, those creatures can be living in something akin to a slow-burning siege. Likewise, lots of people love Turkey Mountain, and in some ways, it’s being loved to death. Multiple wild green spaces would alleviate some of that crowding, and given the proven community value Turkey Mountain has shown, more would indeed be better. Green spaces are an increasingly important quality of life factor for people and employers looking for a place to put down roots. Economic diversity is sorely needed here; giving people reasons to give us a look needs to include quality of life amenities that are crucial for community development.

Pedal power? Sure. Motorized? Never.

Lastly, no credibility should be given to making any part of Turkey Mountain open to motorcycle or ATV usage. It’s not safe, it’s bad for the trails, harmful to wildlife and would detract from the user experience. Motor sports aren’t allowed there now, and that’s a prohibition that needs to be maintained permanently.

I’m sure I could think of other ideas, and in time, I might jot those down. But I think these make for a good start. I care about this place. In many ways, I wouldn’t be the same person today if not for Turkey Mountain, and there is a large number of people who can say the same thing. Let’s go about this master plan wisely, remembering what makes Turkey Mountain the great place that it is.

Bob Doucette

Running, and, er, power hiking, the Post Oak Challenge

Body built by burritos. (Phillip J. Davis/Post Oak Lodge photo)

If you remember, a couple of weeks back I confessed to falling off the wagon as a trail runner. It had been awhile since my feet ran on dirt, and I expected the price for my sins to be high at last month’s Post Oak Challenge. I signed up for the 10K on a course that’s known for being difficult, regardless of distance.

I also mentioned that the forecast for the weekend’s races looked like rubbish – lots of rain, which would make a course known for holding water that much tougher.

Boy, was I right on that one.

It was a rainy January and February – Tulsa is already a couple of inches of rain above normal for the year, and the folks at Post Oak Lodge had to cancel Sunday training runs at the site because the trails were too muddy. And then it rained the week before the races. And then on each of the first two days of the three-day race series, including a nice dump the morning of my race.

Post Oak’s course runs through a series of dirt-and-grass trails that undulate on the sides of hills and in the bottoms of valleys and ravines of the Osage Hills northwest of Tulsa. Toward the end of the race, you make two climbs – one that goes most of the way up Holmes Peak (the highest point in a four-county area), then another that meanders up and down what’s dubbed as the Hill from Hell. We’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve run here before, so I know how muddy it can get. Well, at least I thought I did.

Things started well enough. Everything was nice and runnable. The route took us downhill, things got muddier, but we all plowed through it. Somewhere down there was a creek crossing. No big deal.

And then it started. For the next couple of miles, the trail consisted of a viscous mix of mud and water that resembled lubricant. It wouldn’t stick to your shoes, but it gave you little to no traction. Suddenly this “run” turned into a hike.

There were briefs moments of respite: a dried-out section here, rockier trails there, even a farm road that drained nicely and actually allowed me to run. But then we’d head uphill, the slop would resume, and it was three feet forward, two feet back. Power-hiking resumed.

This wasn’t true for everyone. Fleet-footed runners ahead of me somehow found a way to keep surging ahead, and one of my coworkers in the race actually won the damn thing while clocking in at an 8:30 pace. How, I don’t know.

I groused to myself every now and then, complaining about what had turned into an $80 hike, but eventually got over it and made the best of things. I ran where I could. I hiked when needed. I chatted up fellow sufferers and kept things moving.

Probably my favorite part of the race started on a long downhill on the side of Holmes Peak. I shortened my steps (some of us call it “logrolling”) and zig-zagged downhill, piecing together a nice, long, enjoyable stretch of technical trail running that made me feel like I wasn’t a lost cause after all. But eventually we bottomed out and the slop-fest resumed.

The Post Oak Challenge pins its reputation on another one of its big hills, the Hill from Hell I mentioned earlier. I vaguely remembered its trials, but I figured the worst of it was behind me.

At the base of the hill was the last aid station, where local trail legend Ken “TZ” Childress was serving up Fireball along with the more traditional water and Gatorade. Usually I don’t slam booze during a race unless I’m tanking hard. Just Gatorade for me, being the serious runner and all.

Anyway, the Fireball was particularly tasty. We clicked plastic cups for a short toast and I rumbled up the hill to tackle the last of it.

What I remember of the Hill from Hell is that you meander uphill a ways, then go downhill, and regain all that precious lost elevation one more time before you end the race. The reality is you go up the hill, back down some, up a little, down some more, back up, top out, then do down, circle its upper flanks and finally emerge from the woods to go run in the grass, around a pond and across the finish line.

Making things more fun was the trail was about as slick and treacherous as anywhere else in the race. I bit it hard once, landing on my butt with a heavy splat before regaining my feet and sliding my way forward. Running/hiking in conditions like this looks hilarious because your body is twisted one way while your feet are going somewhere else. It’s a great core workout for sure. But utterly absent of grace or any other appearance of athleticism. Or maybe that’s just me.

When I left the horrors of the hill behind and started the last grassy loop toward the finish, I surmised that now I’d finally be able to run again, but was somewhat disappointed to find that the grass was mostly a shoe-sucking bog that, again, undermined any attempt at speed.

The race ended with 80-something people finishing ahead of me, 60-something folks behind. In my age group, I finished 19th out of 22.

Ouch.

It could have been worse. I had one friend who fell hard enough that she thought she may have busted her jaw. And I did accomplish both of my goals: to finish and not finish last.

Success!

I look like someone who just got away with something.

Post-race, we all gathered for free grub and a couple of beers while talking about the race, the trail conditions, and the strategies used to cope with it all. I was informed by perennial Post Oak competitors that the course conditions were actually worse the year before.

So I suppose the trail gods did show me a little mercy. My long absence required penance, but it could have been more severe.

And I got the last laugh. Despite the conditions, my miserable finish time, the over-abundance of power hiking, the mud caked in all the wrong crevices, I had fun. You heard me right. This was a good time. I embraced the suck and was rewarded not with hardware, glory or any sense of achievement, but with something simpler – a grin on my face akin to a little kid who did something wrong and got away with it.

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

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