Exploring Oklahoma’s Gloss Mountain State Park

An overlook at Gloss Mountain State Park.

I love a good road trip. Pack up the car, drive long miles, see places you’ve never been and make some memories. Heck, I’ve written a book in which most of the settings came by way of road trips out west.

But sometimes you don’t have time for that. And in that case, a day trip will do.

Not quite six years ago I was driving west to go to Black Mesa, home of Oklahoma’s highest point in the far western Panhandle. On the way there, I ran into a surprise bit of scenery. Between the northern Oklahoma towns of Enid and Fairview is a group of mesas that have become known as the Gloss Mountains. They rise suddenly out of the otherwise flat northwestern Oklahoma prairie, and I found them so scenic that I had to pull over, whip out a camera and snap some pics before continuing my drive. I knew one day I’d need to come back for a closer look.

Another outcrop, with a commanding view of the northwestern Oklahoma prairie.Within this range is Gloss Mountain State Park. It’s a small unit of the state’s park system, built for day hikers and casual visitors to check out the unique formations of this area.

Let’s get into a little geological history. How did these things get here? This may surprise you, but the existence of the Gloss Mountains is connected to the Rocky Mountains much farther west.

A look at Lone Peak, as seen from Cathedral Mountain.

At one time, Oklahoma and much of what is now the American West was at the bottom of a prehistoric inland ocean. The continental collision that gave rise to the Rockies also caused the flat seabeds to the east to rise with it, giving birth the the Plains. What was once underwater is now dry land.

In parts of the sea bed, gypsum and selenite deposits settled in with the rest of the sediment. When the sea bed rose, time eroded softer soil and rock away, leaving behind sturdier rock formations that have better resisted the powers of natural erosion. The mesas of the Gloss Mountains are the result.

A better look at the scope of Cathedral Mountain, with Lone Peak in the distance.

The park itself is small, encompassing Lookout Mountain, Cathedral Mountain, the Sphinx and Lone Peak, the highest mesa in the range. There are more formations to the north and west, but those aren’t part of the park.

In the park is a parking area, a couple of shelters where you can grab lunch in some shade, and a small monument bearing the U.S. and Oklahoma flags. It’s easy enough to see where the park is by spotting the flags from the highway.

As seen from Cathedral Mountain, this pointy little spire is called the Sphinx.

A trail leads to the top of Cathedral Mountain. You have to climb about 150 steps to reach the top (it’s fairly steep), and then you have a small network of trails at the top, most with great overlooks of the range and the surrounding prairie. The total trail length, round trip, is about 1.2 miles. If you’re bringing children or dogs with you, mind the parts of the trail near the edges of the mountains; there are some dropoffs where care is needed.

U.S. and Oklahoma flags flying near the trailhead, with Cathedral Mountain in the background.

It’s not a huge hiking day, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I spotted people hauling camera equipment to the top, looking for just the right place to shoot. Others brought lawn chairs to find a quiet spot near the cliffs’ edges to hang out, enjoy a bite and maybe something cold to drink. Overall, it’s a chill place to hang out and enjoy some time outdoors without the huge commitment of other destinations.

One of the things I enjoy about Oklahoma is that within all that prairie are little surprises like the Gloss Mountains. And I’m fascinated by how this place is linked by a massive mountain range hundreds of miles away.

As a day trip, I dig it. Here’s to finding more fun spots like this in the future.

A thunderstorm blooms in the northwestern Oklahoma sky near Gloss Mountain State Park.

Bob Doucette

Trails, hikes, museums and more: Exploring Bentonville, Arkansas

Hilly, wooded goodness awaits near Bentonville, Ark.

It seems a lot of my free time and time off is spent charging away at some trail, or hunkering down in a backcountry campsite. To be clear, I like it that way.

But not every getaway for yours truly is like that. And that’s a good thing. There is something to be said about mixing up some natural beauty with a more relaxed – and comfortable – break from the daily grind.

Earlier this fall, Bec and I did just that. Seeing how fun my last venture into northwest Arkansas was, a return visit seemed worthwhile. We made a bunch of stops: a huge lake, an incredible museum, some solid places to eat and, of course, a little time on the trail.

The locale this time was in and around Bentonville. Most people know the town as the headquarters of Walmart. And while this is true (and having a massive corporation anchor your city has its perks), there’s quite a bit more to be had. Bentonville and the surrounding towns have all benefited from the wealth a big company provides, but in many ways, this corner of the state has maintained some of its earthier flavor. And that, my friends, is also good thing.

Some of the highlights…

BEAVER LAKE

Beaver Lake and dam. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

At more than 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is massive. There are 12 parks located around the lake with 650 campsites. We stayed at a cabin near the lakeshore, and had easy access to boat docks. The lake is prime for fishing (it’s biggest draws are trophy smallmouth bass and stripers), water skiing and boating, and I imagine would be a great place to explore in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.

CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s not unusual for smaller cities to have museums, but Bentonville punches above its weight with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Funded by philanthropic endeavors of the Walton family, it’s a facility of jaw-dropping architecture, with airy, sunlit buildings laced together around a small lake. Glass walls let in natural light, and once inside, the collection of works from American artists dating back to the 1700s is impressive. Landscapes, portraits, sculptures and more modern pieces fill its galleries. My guess is any major American city would be all too happy to boast being home to a place like Crystal Bridges.

The museum has special exhibits, outdoor art, and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. The house was deconstructed from its former New Jersey site, moved to Crystal Bridges and rebuilt. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, and maybe my favorite part of the visit.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Bentonville’s paved trails link Crystal Bridges to the rest of the city, and a walk from there to downtown isn’t too far.

One of the best parts of the museum is its free admission. There are paid, ticketed exhibits, but the main collection comes at no cost to visitors. The museum has a full-service restaurant and coffee shop on-site.

WAR EAGLE MILL

War Eagle Mill and Bridge.

This popular tourist destination is a working mill that dates back to 1832. The mill has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but it has persevered as an important site for nearly two centuries.

The mill itself still functions, powered by a paddlewheel that turns with the flow of an adjacent river. You can buy milled products there (as well as any number of touristy wares), and a café on the third floor is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

HOBBS STATE PARK

Arkansas does its state parks right, and Hobbs State Park and Conservation District is a glowing example of that. The park is host to a number of trails and looped routes through heavily wooded hills, some with overlooks of Beaver Lake.

The trails are great for hiking – they’re well-marked and maintained. Some portions might include some elevation gain and steep stretches, but for the most part, you can hike these routes whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a just beginner.

They’re also very runnable. Trail running enthusiasts train and compete here regularly. If mountain biking is more your thing, you’re in for a good time. Long, flowy stretches of singletrack await. Northwest Arkansas is becoming well-known as a mountain biking Mecca, and now I know why. I’m definitely bringing my ride next time.

DOWNTOWN BENTONVILLE

All that corporate affluence has made downtown Bentonville quite the scene, especially on weekend evenings. Several high-quality restaurants are located there (we tried Fiamma Ristorante and were not disappointed, and Table Mesa Bistro gets rave reviews). If that’s not your thing, an armada of food trucks is usually parked around the town square, and live music abounds. If you’re curious about the history of the world’s biggest retailer, a Walmart museum is also located here.

That’s a real quick overview of the area, and there is a lot we didn’t get to see. But I think you can get the gist. You can get your outdoor fix, clean up, and enjoy fine dining or a night at the museum if you please. Or just hang out at the lake. Either way, it might not be quite what you’d expect to find so far from a big city or more traditional resort town.

Bob Doucette

Oklahoma is a case study in why you can’t cede federal public lands to the states

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a developing big-win story for conservation efforts in my hometown of Tulsa. I was feeling pretty good about that, able to block out the signs that there was going to be plenty of bad news on the conservation front coming soon. For now, though, we celebrate. Good vibes all around.

And then one day later, the other shoe dropped. Budget-makers at the Oklahoma Legislature asked the state’s tourism department to come up with a plan to accommodate a 14.5 percent budget cut the next fiscal year.

The answer, in short: Close 16 state parks.

I could write an entire post about how lawmakers’ reckless tax policies over the past decade or so led us to this point, making the state especially vulnerable during difficult economic times. Schools, health, public safety and child welfare have taken huge hits in Oklahoma over the years, in economies both good and bad. But I’ll let others discuss that. Instead, I’ll focus on what the Sooner State could lose if this plan becomes reality, and what this says about the national movement to turn over federal public lands to the states.

Here’s a list of parks and facilities Oklahoma could lose:

  • Talimena State Park
  • Great Plains State Park
  • Cherokee Landing State Park
  • Natural Falls State Park
  • Red Rock Canyon State Park
  • Great Salt Plains State Park
  • Lake Eufaula State Park
  • Lake Wister State Park
  • Alabaster Caverns State Park
  • McGee Creek State Park
  • Foss Lake State Park
  • Osage Hills State Park
  • Greenleaf State Park
  • Lake Texoma State Park
  • Grand Lake State Parks
  • Boiling Springs State Park
  • Grand Cherokee Golf Course

I haven’t been to all of these, but of visited several of them. Greenleaf State Park is an awesomely hilly, wooded and wild place in eastern Oklahoma that’s long been a favorite for the outdoorsy set. Alabaster Caverns State Park features great caves to explore, is one of the few places you can go caving, and is prime habitat for bats. Osage Hills State Park is a hidden gem, nestled in wooded hills northwest of Tulsa. Red Rock Canyon State Park offers prime rappelling.

Last summer, I made a point to explore another one of these places, Natural Falls State Park. I wrote about it here. Here are some scenes from Natural Falls:

Natural Falls.

Mossy oak.

A stretch of rugged trail at Natural Falls State Park.

 

All of these could face closure if these cuts become reality in the state’s next budget. Needless to say, this would be a huge loss for the state, its residents, and the tourism industry that Oklahoma is promoting on its new license plates. The irony is pretty thick with that one.

The plate encourages drivers to “explore Oklahoma” and visit the state tourism department’s website, travelok.com. But there might be less to explore really soon.

The larger point: Oklahoma is showing why you don’t want to hand over federal public lands to the states. Oklahoma is just one of many states to pursue the Kansas-style form of tax policy, that lowering taxes will increase job growth and eventually lead to higher revenues. That hasn’t happened in Kansas, and it sure isn’t happening in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and many other states that are experimenting with this. Instead, it’s leaving states unable to fund even basic, core functions of state government.

In Oklahoma, we can’t pay our teachers enough to compete with surrounding states, and they’re leaving in droves. Our state troopers can only drive so far from their headquarters to patrol the highways. Our prisons are staffed at 65 percent with underpaid guards who often have to resort to food stamps to feed their families. Is there any doubt that Oklahoma could not handle the added cost of taking over its part of the Ouchita National Forest, or the entirety of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge? How much greater would this burden be on cash-strapped western states where the federal public lands inventory is much larger?

And maybe that’s the end-game, to give public lands back to the states, who, when forced to carry that burden, have no choice but to sell it all off. We know where that ends: Wide-scale privatization, which means loss of forest, loss of grazing lands, and loss of public access. The list of those who lose — hunters, anglers, hikers, backpackers, climbers, cyclists, ranchers, tourism businesses and more — is lengthy.

Oklahoma’s budget process is still in the early stages, and it’s not certain what will become of its parks. There is already a petition going around to save the parks. But in the big picture, Oklahoma is the canary in the mine when it comes to public lands and land management policy for federal lawmakers and policymakers. Voters favor longstanding public lands policy that preserves national parks, forests and other federal holdings for use by the people. Adopting a policy of divestiture in favor of state control will do exactly the opposite of what the majority of the public wants. And by looking at what’s happening in Oklahoma, we know what the end result will be: a rapid loss of public access to treasured natural spaces in favor of the highest bidder.

Bob Doucette