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

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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

Return to the Wichitas, Part 1: Hiking Elk Mountain and Little Baldy in Oklahoma’s rugged Wichita Mountains

Brian checks out the views on the way up Elk Mountain.

Oklahoma is a prairie state. That’s its identity, and for the most part it’s accurate. But that also discounts the fact that the state contains wooded hills, desert-like terrain and in its southwestern reaches, rugged, ancient crags we know as the Wichita Mountains.

They’re not lofty by any stretch. Having stood for over half a billion years, you’ll forgive the effects of erosion over time. The Rockies, the Appalachians and the Ozarks are babies by comparison. But the venerable Wichitas still stand, popping up from the flatness of the Southern Plains between the military towns of Lawton and Altus. They’re out of place: craggy, alien forms that don’t match the sweeping plains dominating this part of the state. You might say there’s a geological generation gap going on there.

I’ve spent a decent amount of time there, hiking the wide valleys and rocky slopes inside this range, sharing the space with buffalo, elk and other prairie wildlife that call the Wichitas home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees and wildlife refuge here, and within that refuge is one of the state’s few true wilderness areas. It’s not big, but it’s definitely wild.

I moved to Tulsa seven years ago, and since arriving, I haven’t been back to the Wichitas. A real shame, because that’s the place I spent time hiking and climbing in preparation for bigger adventures in the Rockies. What I’ve learned is that the Wichitas are a fine destination of their own. I missed this place, my Oklahoma happy place, and yet hadn’t set foot there in some time.

That changed recently. I have a friend who had never been there, someone breaking into the world of hiking and backpacking and eager to test his gear and his legs somewhere. After spending some time on the trails of northeast Oklahoma, he was willing to give the Wichitas a try.

The plan: drive to the refuge, make camp, and hit a few of the easier highpoints before calling it a night. Then get up the next day and do a deeper dive into the wildest patch of the range.

After seven years, I just hoped I wouldn’t get us lost.

A.T. OR BUST

I met Brian Hoover a few years back, probably at one of the races his company puts on. He got into trail running several years ago, began organizing events, and eventually TATUR Racing became one of northeast Oklahoma’s bigger race sponsors and chip timing providers.

More recently, backpacking and bushcraft has captured his interest. Being a goal-oriented fella, the lure of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail hooked him hard. He’s done a lot of research and beefed up his gear stash with his eye on attempting the AT in the not-too-distant future.

When I put out some feelers on social media about going to the Wichitas, he was keen to do it. The plan, in his mind, was to see a new place, don his new gear, and test it out. He also wanted the extra burden of loading his pack and doing our day hikes with the same gear he intended to carry on the AT.

The drive from Tulsa to the Wichitas was a quick three hours. We’d hoped to get a backcountry camping permit, but the refuge intentionally keeps permit levels down. Ten were issued, and that was all they could take. We settled for the established campsite at Doris Campground, which was fine by me. I joked that this meant we could use an outhouse rather than pooping in the woods.

After setting up camp, it was time to hit some trails.

ELK MOUNTAIN

There are loads of hiking and climbing areas throughout the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Most of the trails, while scenic, are also easy walks. The gateway to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area – the most rugged part of the range – has long been the Sunset trailhead at the foot of Elk Mountain.

Looking at the Sunset Massif on the way up Elk Mountain.

The mountain itself looks more like a broad mesa from a distance. It’s only when you get up close that the mountain’s rugged nature is revealed. Its southern face is steep, slabby and in spots sheer, and rock climbers can find numerous technical routes there. The northern slopes are gentler, and that’s where the Elk Mountain Trail goes. It ascends several hundred feet to Elk Mountain’s broad summit, where commanding views of Mount Lincoln, Sunset Peak and numerous other high points in the wilderness play out.

Looking north on Elk Mountain.

I opted for a day pack, but Brian went ahead and hiked in his full backpacking kit. Practice makes perfect, and there were going to be plenty of places on the AT where you’d gain hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of feet uphill on any given day. May as well get used to it now.

Bouldery terrain at the top of Elk Mountain.

The trail ends atop Elk Mountain, but doesn’t hit the summit. That would require more off-trail hiking and a little boulder hopping west, toward the steeper cliffs on the south and west sides of the mountain. Stiff, chilly breezes greeted us and a few other hikers on the hill that day. Curiously absent: wildlife. Aside from a few birds, Elk Mountain was quiet.

Brian records some video and sound on the summit of Elk Mountain. Wind is noisy.

West views from atop Elk Mountain.

Brian checks out an overview looking east.

Summit view, looking east.

We headed back down, but still had some daylight to kill. One more minor summit would do.

LITTLE BALDY

Away from the wilderness area but still in the refuge is Little Baldy, a minor summit that guards over the dam at Quanah Parker Lake. Unknown to me at the time, but there’s a trail that leads from where we camped on the other side of the lake to Little Baldy, but I don’t think we would have been able to complete that hike before sunset.

Quanah Parker Lake as seen while hiking up Little Baldy.

Anyway, the dam is this cool concrete structure that looks like a miniature version of the Hoover Dam, built high in a ravine to impound the waters that now make up the lake. We parked at the dam, then hiked up the trail to the granite dome that is Little Baldy.

For such a small point, it commands excellent views of the refuge and the lake. I opted to take a tougher scramble to the top; Brian wisely chose not to, seeing that he was hiking in his bigger pack (Brian would do a lot of smart things on this trip without any prompting from me).

Looking northwest from the top of Little Baldy. This is a low-commitment, high-payoff summit hike.

Little Baldy’s breezy summit and the lowering sun cued us to hike down and make some dinner before turning in. I’m a night owl, but when I’m camping the setting sun is my sign to hit the sack.

After scarfing down dinner, we stayed up a bit, chatting about hiking, running and gear. I brought a six-pack of beer, a nice after-dinner treat to enjoy with the conversation (Shiner black lager – yum).

With that, we turned in. It would be a cold night – and quite memorable – to set the stage for a more ambitious outing in the morning.

Our camp was on the lake shore, and we had these fellas as neighbors. They were cranky when we got too close.

In the next installment: Brian and I wake up to bitter winds, cloudy skies and a busy day hiking through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area.

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 on Elk Mountain: From the Sunset parking lot, cross the first bridge to the Elk Mountain Trail. The trailhead is well-marked, and the trail itself is easy to follow. Class 1, about 2.2 miles round trip.

About the route on Little Baldy: From the Quanah Parker Lake Dam parking lot, follow the paved walkway to the dam and walk across the dam to the trail. The trail is mildly defined from here, and going to the top is a matter of easy route-finding to the top. Route length is 0.6 miles round trip. Class 1, with some minor boulder hopping close to the top.

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.

Bob Doucette

Sooner State scenery: My favorite images from Oklahoma

 

Fall views of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Fall views of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve posted some of my favorite photographs from certain areas: The San Juan Range, the Sawatch Range, the Front Range — all from Colorado — and so forth.

But while I grew up in Colorado, I don’t live there. My home state is Oklahoma, a place outside our borders that is not seen as one of those “outdoorsy” states. I realize it will be a hard sell to change minds. We’re more known for prairie vistas, big oil, college football and so on. But if you’re not from here, you’d be surprised at what you’ll find. So here goes, a sampling (there is so much more I haven’t seen or documented) of my favorite scenes from the Sooner State…

These first few are from close to home, Natural Falls State Park.

Natural Falls.

Natural Falls.

Mossy oak.

Mossy oak.

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

A creek running through Natural Falls State Park.

On the other side of the state is another state park, Glass Mountains State Park. Far different scenery from a much different ecosystem.

Glass Mountain on a December day.

Glass Mountain on a December day.

Even farther west are the remains of ancient lava fields that now make up the Black Mesa area of the far western Panhandle. Mesas, hoodoos and more.

Hoodoos near Black Mesa State Park.

Hoodoos near Black Mesa State Park.

No tour of Oklahoma’s natural scenery would be complete without  heavy dose of the Wichita Mountains, some of the oldest mountains in the world and a patch of earth known for wildlife, hiking and rock climbing. Unbelievable scenery here.

Looking into the Boulder Field near Elk Mountain.

Looking into the Boulder Field near Elk Mountain.

Bison graze near Sunset Peak.

Bison graze near Sunset Peak.

Weathered cedar atop Sunset Peak.

Weathered cedar atop Sunset Peak.

Treasure Lake seen with Elk Mountain in the background.

Treasure Lake seen with Elk Mountain in the background.

Mount Mitchell, one of the remotest peaks in all of Oklahoma.

Mount Mitchell, one of the remotest peaks in all of Oklahoma.

 

Even within the city limits of Tulsa, there are some great scene of natural beauty. Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness is a hilly, wooded paradise for trail runners and mountain bikers, and there are even some good bouldering crags inside Chandler Park.

Crags in Chandler Park.

Crags in Chandler Park.

So there you have it. Just a sampling. Not pictured are the Kiamichi Mountains and the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma (some of the most beautiful countryside you’ll see), Little Sahara and the sweeping natural tallgrass prairie that dominates much of the land.

Come on down. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

Bob Doucette

Alone time: A case for going solo

There are days where you wish you never would have gotten out of bed.

Most of the time, those days pass. The sun rises the next day, you breathe easier and chalk up one bad day as something you have to go through every now and then.

But there are times when those days run back-to-back. Or maybe they run on for a week. Or several weeks.

I’ve had a few of those stretches. Personally, I’d like to forget most of 2010-2011. But more recently, it goes something like this…

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

There is, legitimately, a lot of angst over this little guy.

I wake up in the morning and check the headlines. Ebola has made it to the United States. Elsewhere, some crazy, well-armed maniacs are making a case for beheading people they don’t like. And according to one group, the rainbow flag is now the new “sign of the beast.”

Add to that a few long, stressful shifts on the job, and let me tell you, I’m ready to escape. I’m ready to be away from people. I’m ready to see no one, hear nothing, and just be still for awhile.

Funny thing. I was involved in a Twitter chat recently where the topic was solo travel. It got me to thinking about those times when I hit the road for some serious alone time.

Back when I was in college, my family was spread out all over the world. At one point, I had a sister in west Texas, a brother in Colorado, another brother in Germany and my parents in France. I was attending courses at a small Baptist liberal arts college smack in the middle of Oklahoma.

I was cool being on my own. I liked school. I had good friends, things to do and a certain feeling of, dare I say, “accomplishment” for making it on my own. Never mind that I had my parents’ gas card and plenty of help along the way. But I digress.

When the holidays rolled around and campus cleared out, I’d often make my way to my sister’s place in Midland, a small west Texas city built on the petro-riches found deep underground in the Permian Basin. The routine: Load up my duffle, slip on a thick hoodie and a jacket, and buy a pack of cheap cigars as my truck rolled southwest to the flattest land in all of Texas. That’s an eight-hour drive, boring as hell and I loved every minute of it.

Probably not your idea of a good time, but hear me out. After a semester of communal living, tight class schedules, high stress and all that other business, those eight hours on the road — blowing cigar smoke out the window as the sound of the engine, the tires on the road and the music on the radio droned on — was just the release I needed. The yellow, orange, red and purple glow of sunset over the horizon was a pretty sweet bonus.

I’m sure the trip would have gone by faster with some company, but then I wouldn’t have been able to burn all those cigars, wouldn’t have been able to sing all those songs a full volume, and wouldn’t have had all that time to decompress.

Going solo is often about just that – decompression. The time alone without distractions to just drink in what’s going on around you without having to satisfy anyone else’s agenda but your own is exactly the tonic I need when life gets a little too crazy for a little too long.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

A rainy day in the Wichita Mountains. This was taken on a different outing, but the visual effect is the same.

Those couple of years that went awry (I mentioned 2010-2011 earlier) was also a time when I had one of the most amazing and memorable outdoor experiences of my life. A solo hike in the Wichita Mountains of southwestern Oklahoma included a near-miss with a charging buffalo, a record-setting torrential rain storm and some absolutely incredible scenery – ancient granite peaks shrouded in rain and fog, transforming the appearance from sandy, beige granite into icy hues of pewter, silver and white.

When I tell people about that hike, they wonder aloud what would have happened to me if that buffalo would have gored me (self-rescue would have been a serious issues), or how I could possibly enjoy being soaked to the bone for hours on end.

But being alone allowed me to really pay attention to my surroundings. When you’re solo, your senses are heightened to a point where every sight, smell and scent is much more intense than it would have been if you had shared it with others.

It also gave me time to think. And believe me, I had a lot on my mind.

But in also focusing on the task at hand – navigating wilderness with no one else there to help – it also allowed me to escape. Maybe not forget. But even if for a day or two, just to not be where all the world’s troubles were, where all my problems were –  yes, that is an escape. As hostile as the conditions, and maybe the wildlife, were, that place at that time was a refuge not unlike the smoke-filled cab of my little pickup motoring down a west Texas highway.

More recently, a group climb in northern Colorado got washed out by bad weather, forcing me to make a choice: Go solo in a drier part of the state or go home. I chose the former.

I camped at the trailhead parking lot, which was dark and empty, nodding off to sleep to the mellower tunes I had on my phone before waking up in the pre-dawn hours and setting off on the trail up Missouri Mountain.

When you're walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain's summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

When you’re walking into this misty void alone, the experience is visceral. This is on Missouri Mountain’s summit ridge, just shy of 14,000 feet.

I suffered a bit on that trip, and the weather was dodgy the entire ascent. The only voice I heard was in my head, telling me to turn around and pack it in. But that same sense of heightened awareness I experienced in the Wichitas returned as I plodded my way up past 13,000 feet, and ultimately an amazing time where, for the first time in my life, I had a high summit to myself.

Hours later, I was back in my car headed toward civilization. As it turned out, I missed the news of the day – a mass shooting at a Navy station that ultimate kicked off another predictable social media shoutfest over guns.

At that point, I wished I was back in the bosom of wilderness, and away from the angst and outrage of “the real world.”

After the week I just had, I feel that pull pretty bad. The world can be a noisy, angry place. When I’ve had my fill of that, the quiet indifference of the wild, taken in on my own, sounds like paradise.

Bob Doucette

Hiking, climbing and mountains in Oklahoma? Yep. A tour of the Wichitas

A lot of space on this site has been dedicated to mountains and places outside of my home state, and lately, it’s been pretty run-heavy. One might think the only outdoorsy thing to do in Oklahoma is to go run trails or ride mountain bikes.

You’d be mistaken.

Sometime in the future, I’ll give you a full outdoors tour of the state. It’s much more diverse than the prairie image you might have in your head. But that’s for later. For now, I wanted to focus on one place, and give you a greatest hits tour.

The Wichita Mountains make up a small range in southwestern Oklahoma. Most of the range is within the confines of a wildlife refuge. Walk in their midst and you’re in one of the oldest ranges in the world, older than the Appalachians by a good number of years. Some geologists say these granite domes date back about 600 million years. By contrast, the Rockies are about 70 million years old; the Himalayas, among the youngest, are about 20 million years old.

Anyway, here are some sights and a few words about them…

elk

Elk Mountain: This is one of the more accessible mountains in the range, just past the visitor’s center and a gateway landmark into the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. It’s a one-mile hike to the summit, with incredible views into Charon’s Garden. The hike is Class 1 on a well-marked trail that never gets too steep. For the more adventurous, the more sheer south face has plenty of technical rock climbing routes of varying degrees of difficulty. Route description

boulder

Boulder Field hike: From the same trailhead to access Elk Mountain’s summit trail, you can also hike into the Boulder Field, which is really a route that winds its way through the ravine between Elk Mountain and Mount Lincoln, as well as several smaller peaks. You don’t get a lot of elevation gain or loss, but this is a rugged 6-mile trip that includes a lot of boulder hopping, a few short scrambles and sights that include a waterfall during the wetter spring months. You can do an out-and-back to Treasure Lake, or just park a car at the other end, then pick up your other ride when you’re done. This is a classic Oklahoma hike and one you have to put on your list if you’re exploring the Wichitas. Route description

crabeyes

Crab Eyes: One of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire range, Crab Eyes is a small peak with two delicately placed boulders perched atop its summit. This is a fun and pretty easygoing hike that ends with a pretty sweet perch to take in the sights. If you’re feeling more energetic, you can do  short, exposed scramble to the summit. This includes shimmying upwards between two rock slabs and a highly exposed catwalk – or crabwalk, if you choose – to the top. There is also a challenging crack climb on the peak’s west face. There are some bolts installed, but some lead climbing experience would help. Route description

sunset

Sunset Peak: Another great hike is to Sunset Peak. You’ll take the same trail into Charon’s Garden that you do for the Boulder Field and Crab Eyes, but you’ll turn west to the far end of the wildlife refuge and do a tiny bit of off-trail hiking to get to this long ridge and its two peaks. The approach hike is a little long, but the hike and scramble to the top of short and direct. If you’re feeling energetic, make the traverse to the north summit and tag ‘em both. Route description

mitchell

Mount Mitchell: The wildest peak in the range, getting to the top requires, at a minimum, a Class 3 scramble with a highly exposed hop to the summit block. Tougher routes, Class 4 and 5, are also available. The peak may be the most remote in all of the range, and perhaps the most remote locale in all of western Oklahoma. You’ll find every route up to be mentally engaging and the summit one of the most rewarding in all of Oklahoma. This is my personal favorite. Route description

granite

Twin Rocks Mountain and Granite Mountain: I put these two together because they are neighbors, and summiting both on the same outing is very doable. From the Treasure Lake parking lot, hike west and through a scenic gorge that takes you to the foot of both mountains. Twin Rocks is mostly a Class 2+ scramble with maybe a short Class 3 section near the top. Granite is more demanding, with Class 3 and 4 routes to gain its upper slopes. Both peaks’ west faces are more sheer and go from Class 4 to Class 5. They are some of the most rugged in the range, taking a back seat to Mount Mitchell, of course. But the views of Elk Mountain, Mount Mitchell and deeper into Charon’s Garden is nothing short of amazing. Route description

There are, of course, many other peaks and sights to see here. The Wichitas are filled with wildlife, the most famous being a herd of buffalo. But deer, Elk and a host of other creatures are all over this place. I have yet to go there and not see buffalo. If you go in the fall, take special care not to get too close; they’re very twitchy during rut and can be quite aggressive. For that matter, don’t get to close any time of year. You don’t want to piss off a 1,500-pound animal with horns.

Oklahoma is often envisioned with the words of the famous Broadway song of the same name – winds sweeping down the plains. But if the Wichitas prove anything, the state has plenty of rugged, rocky and wild places within its confines. Hikers and rock climbers should take note and make plans to visit the Wichitas. It’s about a 2-hour drive from Oklahoma City, 3 hours from Dallas.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Oklahoma climbing: Quartz Mountain Fall Gathering is weekend of Nov. 1

Quartz Mountain, also known as Baldy Point.

Quartz Mountain, also known as Baldy Point.

If you’re in Oklahoma or north Texas and interested in rock climbing, save Nov. 1 on your calendar.

That’s the day of the Quartz Mountain Fall Gathering. Quartz Mountain is a small granite peak in southwestern Oklahoma that has some pretty fantastic climbing routes. Quartz Mountain, also known as Baldy Point, is the most prominent peak on the western edge of the Wichita Mountains. You can find great rock climbing throughout the range (slabby granite is pretty much the rule here), but many believe the best walls are on Quartz.

Here are some details about the Gathering, which I gleaned from the event’s Facebook page:

– Cost is $3 per person per night covers camping fees and showers (available at the Nature Park camping area a short drive away).

– Parking is at the foot of the climbing area, which means short approaches to climbs and quality tailgating between.

– Open campfires are not permitted. If you plan to cook out, bring a stove.

– Help protect this pristine area and the privilege to gather here by minimizing your impacts. Please disperse your tent sites, make use of the restroom facilities, and carry-out all trash. By doing so, you will insure that Baldy’s natural resources are protected and that the Park continues to grant the climbing community a special use permit for future events.

Also, please note Quartz Mountain Nature Park’s rules and regulations for the event:

1) No liquor or drugs. Beer is permitted.

2) No firearms.

3) No mountain bikes.

4) No campfires.

5) No tree cutting or trimming.

6) Pets must be on a leash at all times.

7) Barbecue grills are permitted in the parking lot.

8) Bivying and tent camping are permitted 100′ east of the parking lot.

9) Sleeping in your vehicle is permitted.

10) Carry-out and dispose of all trash and waste.

Getting there: (Directions via Summitpost.org) Baldy Point is located in extreme southwestern Oklahoma 17 miles north of Altus and 45 miles south of Interstate 40. From I-40, exit 66 at Clinton/State Hwy 183. Drive 45 miles south to the town of Hobart. At Hobart, turn west on state highway 9 for 10.2 miles to the town of Lone Wolf. Just before Lone Wolf, turn south on state highway 44 and drive for 9.5 miles to the entrance to Quartz Mountain State Park on the right. From Dallas/Ft. Worth, take U.S 287 northwest to Vernon, Texas. At Vernon, go north on U.S. 283 to Altus, OK. In Altus, 283 changes to state highway 44. Go 17 miles north of Altus on state hwy 44 to entrance of Quartz on the left.

At the entrance to the park, drive north for 1.4 miles on 44A until coming to a “Y” intersection. A sign will be there for “Baldy Point.” Go left (west) at the “Y”, following the sign, and continue on new paved road for about a mile until passing Baldy Point on the right and reaching an intersection. If you cross a new bridge, you have gone too far. Turn right (north) at the intersection and drive on a paved road for 1 mile until reaching a dirt road aligned with telephone poles on the right. A sign will be on the right for “Baldy Point.” Turn right (east) on the dirt road for .4 miles. The road will Y….go right, then a left shortly after to the parking lot.

For more information about the peak, check this link.

So there’s the scoop. For more information about the Wichita Mountains Climbers Coalition, check out the coalition’s website here.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088