Hiking the Wichita Mountains

March 28-30, 2024.

Photo album

Tucked away in the southwestern part of Oklahoma, past flat lands and wind farms and ranches, lies the beautiful Wichita Mountains. Its granite outcrops, rolling prairies and winding waterways make it a perfect haven for wildlife, notably elk, bison, deer and Texas longhorn. Within the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, visitors will easily spot “The Big Four” from the car. We were delighted to see so much wildlife among a spectacular backdrop in this part of the country.

But I had to get out of the van and explore.

Little Baldy

Our visit began at the ranger station, where I got some hiking recommendations. We also enjoyed the many exhibits on native flora and fauna. I was getting really excited to see more of this area, having knowing almost nothing about it before we arrived. We checked into our reserved campsite at Doris Campground, then wandered off for a hike just before sunset. I saw people standing on top of a bald summit just outside camp, so we walked in that general direction.

We tried our best to stay on trail, but there was such a web of braided use paths that it didn’t really matter which way we went. I followed the best wildflowers and Aaron played ground is lava by hopping from rock to rock. My attention flittered from cactus to rock to water to sky to flowers and back again. With everything being so unfamiliar, each item felt like a new discovery. We eventually made our way to the rocky top, where we looked over the lake and watched turkey vultures soaring below us.

From there we took a small detour to a beautiful old dam, then followed the water’s edge back to the campground road. On our way, we stopped upon hearing a crashing through the forest. A longhorn was battling its way through the underbrush, its horns getting caught on all the vegetation. I bet he won’t take that shortcut again!

Charon’s Garden to Elk Mountain

I wanted to see as much diversity in the park as I could while Aaron was at work. Not to be deterred by the poor advice I got at the visitor center, I decided to carry out my south-to-north traverse, starting from the Treasure Lake Parking area. As I took my first steps out of the van, I felt like I had been transported to Joshua Tree National Park. Granite boulders lay in lumpy piles all around me. Bird song filled the air. Cactus grew determinedly in every crack and crevice.

Again, I tried my best to stay on trail. But the proliferation of user trails leading in every which direction made that a futile effort. This place could use some trail funding! I used my map to help me stay roughly on route, stopping to visit the (unsurprisingly disappointing) Post Oak Falls on my way through the boulder jumble. Based on the volunteer’s description yesterday, I thought I’d be doing a lot of scrambling through this section, but there was almost none. My guess is that he got way more confused by the user paths and ended up way off trail. My navigation skills kept me on the tamer sections of the trail, boo hoo. Perhaps I should have done more exploring.

I counted at least 20 species of birds (that I could identify) on my way to the Elk Mountain trailhead. I knew I was close when I began seeing other hikers. Once there, I detoured toward the broad peak. Here as well, the trail followed a tangle of sinuous paths. I picked the least crowded ones that led me toward my destination. The trail actually doesn’t go toward the summit. Once I reached the vicinity of the top, I rambled around the long slabs and boulders making up this massive rock feature. The wind blew so hard that I put all my layers on to stay warm. It whipped up tiny whitecaps in the pools of water left by snowmelt or recent rains. The place was an absolute playground; if not for the relentless wind, I could have wandered around there all day.

After eating my lunch, I bailed back downhill to a place that had a view of the mountain suitable for painting. Then, I finished the hike and waited for Aaron to pick me up.

The Narrows

We had one more hike to do. I like to find short, big-bang-for-the-buck walks to do after work so Aaron can enjoy the places we visit during the week, too. We drove to the Boulder picnic area and followed the Narrows trail past Boulder Cabin. We rock-hopped across the creek, climbed up a steep hill on the other side and topped out at a gorgeous viewpoint above a horseshoe bend in the river. Northern rough-winged swallows soared and dove for bugs swarming above the creek. Rock climbers calling “on belay!” echoed through the canyon. The sun sat low in the sky, calling the day to a close. But our visit wasn’t over yet.

Mt Scott

The refuge is unique in that it offers just as much sightseeing by vehicle as it does by foot. Our last drive brought us to the top of Mt. Scott, where we got panoramic views over the surrounding area. It was full of visitors taking selfies, enjoying time with their families and scrambling up the little rockpile to the official summit. We walked the perimeter of the parking area watching for any new birds or wildflowers. It seemed a great spot to wrap up our visit here.

While staying in developed campgrounds and driving to popular lookouts is not typically my jam, I happily made an exception for the Wichita Mountains. It’s a remarkable place with stunning beauty, interesting geological formations, a plethora of wildlife and a spectrum of colorful flowers. I highly recommend putting this place on your bucket list!

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