Turner Falls And Chickasaw Natl’ Recreation Area: A Let Down And A Solid Park

We’ve had a pretty good run. Big Bend, Palo Duro Canyon, even Enchanted Rock and Pedernales Falls (which will get retroactive posts at some point)…this year has been filled with great outdoor experiences. Gorgeous vistas and landscapes coupled with relative isolation from the busy outside world (including complete isolation in parts of Big Bend) were the defining assets of these parks. Enchanted Rock and Palo Duro got a little crowded but that’s a good thing. After all the inconvenience of crowds is trumped by the benefit of more people getting outside and seeing these great places.

But it appears the streak is over and it ended at Turner Falls in Oklahoma.

Let me get this disclaimer out of the way first. In the past I’ve been…well let’s just say “critical” of Oklahoma. But I’m a professional. I can look past meth jokes, lack of cellars in the middle of tornado country, and college athletes choosing to go north rather than help elevate their home state schools. Honestly, so far during my time in Oklahoma City it’s been pretty good. It feels like a smaller version of Houston just as the gentrification was beginning in the early 2000’s. There are several cool areas in the city, the people are nice, the lack of humidity is a big plus, and the bike trail system might actually surpass Fort Worth on my top list of best cycling trails (blog on this one coming soon). And I would never judge a God-given landscape for the sins of a man-made university’s athletics program.

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Turner Falls is 77 feet of falling water after 1000 feet of tourist trap. 

The problem with Turner Falls is simple: mankind screwed it up. Every park needs a modicum of development. That’s what separates a “park” from pure “wilderness.” The trick is to balance the development with the conservation of natural wilderness. This is the entire point of the national parks system. Europeans came over to America, saw the overdeveloped tourist trap that Niagara Falls had become, and mocked us. We, being red-blooded Americans, didn’t take well to that noise and started setting aside our spectacular pristine wilds to be protected and enjoyed by the people. But parks need things like ranger stations, trail heads, access roads, and camping areas. That’s what makes them accessible and enjoyable to the people as a whole. However, there comes a point where development crosses a line and mars a beautiful landscape. We’ll call this the Turner Line and yes that’s a reference to the dubious Mendoza Line.

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Looking down the river from the top of Turner Falls

The actual Turner Falls itself is very pretty, like a combination of a traditional waterfall and the elongated falls similar to Pedernales. But its overdeveloped to a fault. When Whiskette and I arrived we paid $26 to enter the park for the day, passed by a small village of stores and visitor centers, then countless cabins and lodges. We parked in a lot that flanked the entirety of a small creek that featured gorgeous clear water and lots of garbage, ranging from fast food bags, to a tire, to broken lawn chairs. To the park’s credit they had a crew out removing the trash later in the day but that only tells me people treat this patch of Earth like their own personal landfill on a daily basis. We prepared for what we thought would be a decent hike to the falls but from my truck to the first view of the waterfall was…three minutes? Maybe less. All down a concrete path with bridges crossing the creek leading to yet more camp sites. The falls were pretty but it’s flanked by picnic tables and grills. The clear blue natural pool the falls pours into is marred by buoys no different from one marks off the deep end of the pool. I’m not crass, the place is frequented by families and is obviously intended to be a place for camping, BBQ’s, and drinking…so precaution is warranted to keep people/idiots off slippery rocks and drowning in a waterfall. But caution can still mar a great landscape. Pedernales is frequently visited by children and families, and it includes danger signs, but the rocks and pools aren’t roped off. There simply is an inherent danger to being in a wild area. Climbing boulders can lead to falling off boulders. Swimming in any body of water whether it be a pool, a pond, or the ocean comes with a risk of drowning. I don’t blame Turner Falls park for taking extra caution to make sure the crowds that frequent it stay safe. I do blame Turner Falls park for taking a gorgeous part of the Arbuckle Mountains and turning it into a cheap tourist trap.

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Looking down onto the pouroff.

The actual waterfall is really is pretty. It’s a two tiered waterfall with the main falls being a 77 foot drop into a pool. On top of the mountain just before the pour off a smaller waterfall dumps into a small pool and before that waterfall sits a large rock riverbed with crystal clear water marching towards the pour offs. Unfortunately for us we couldn’t truly enjoy it. After a brief hike to the top of the falls we had the opportunity to climb down and follow the rock formations and river a ways but by then it was raining and our path down wasn’t too clear. We decided we had already paid enough with the $26 entrance fee and slipping and dying on a rock in Oklahoma isn’t my ideal way of going out. We poked around a little while longer, enjoyed a small cave system but even the top of the mountain was full of camping sites and parking lots and we found the trail system lacking. So having spent $26 to be in the park less than an hour we snagged a pin for the backpack (no one was at the shop but we finally got an attendant before calling the whole ordeal) and decided to continue the morning at nearby Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

And for the record, this wasn’t just one bad experience. I checked and apparently we got lucky our experience was good as it was.

Chickasaw does everything right where Turner Falls did everything wrong. The park doesn’t feature any spectacular scenery like some of the western parks, nor does it feature a memorable hike, but its a solid well-developed park. The entrance fee is zilch which was a welcome respite from the thievery we experienced earlier. It has some campsites and family areas but they aren’t as in your face as they were at Turner Falls. The park is divided into roughly three zones.

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Little Niagara Falls along Travertine Creek in Chickasaw National Recreation Area

The first is right next to the park’s northern entrance in the town of Sulphur. This part is heavily forested and follows a creek and a series of waterfalls to several natural springs. This area is known as the Travertine District but also known as the Platt Historic District as it was once the old Platt National Park. Platt National Park was one of the first national parks created during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt but abolished in 1976 when the national recreation area was expanded to the existing park. Platt Historic District was originally designated as Sulphur Springs Reservation and designed to protect 32 natural springs in 1902. In 1906, a year after Connecticut Senator Orville Platt’s death, the reservation, which was created from legislation he introduced, was elevated to a national park and named after him. It was the seventh and smallest national park in the system, but was among the most popular parks with new rail lines being created to link Sulphur to the rest of the country.

In the 1970’s the park was expanded into the national recreation area which included the Lake of the Arbuckles, now the centerpiece of the park. In the 1980’s the City of Sulphur donated the Veterans Lake area to the park. These areas make up the other two areas of the park. The Rock Creek area contains an enclosed Bison Pasture and Veterans Lake, a smaller compliment to the larger Lake of the Arbuckles. We hiked around Veterans Lake which has a nice roughly three mile paved loop trail but weren’t able to see any bison in the viewing area.

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Panorama shot of Veterans Lake

The third area is the largest and is the Lake District which contains Lake of the Arbuckles. We didn’t feel like driving to see a lake or taking a ten-mile round trip hike down Rock Creek in the rain so unfortunately I don’t have any first hand accounts of this lake. Presumably its a large lake that you can boat and fish on. See the Veterans Lake pictures and think bigger if you really need the visual.

After circling Veterans Lake we decided it was time to head back to Oklahoma City. We had redeemed the mornings disappointment from Turner Falls but had never been “awed” at any point in the trip. I’m not laying blame on Oklahoma for that, that’s on us. This past year we’ve climbed two mountains, seen a huge Texas Hill Country waterfall, jumped into a freezing cold karst at Jacobs Well, hiked the second largest canyon in the country, and rafted down the Rio Grande in Big Bend…we’re spoiled…sue us! I do lay blame on Turner Falls park for overdeveloping an otherwise gorgeous waterfall but unfortunately for us we are jaded and a lake and a natural spring just doesn’t get the blood flowing like looking down on the Chihuahuan Desert from the Chisos Mountains. But our problems shouldn’t detract from the landscapes. If I had to give grades, I’d say Turner Falls and Chickasaw are a D and a B respectively. The actual geography of Turner Falls is nice but the crowds and development are fatal flaws. That being said if you live in Oklahoma City or DFW, have four kids, and a drinking problem…by all means pack up your 1997 Ford Windstar, ice down a cooler, and get to this waterfall as fast as you can. Chickasaw National Recreation Area is very nice, the facilities are good, and everything is just solid…but it’s not “spectacular” and without that added sense of grandeur it can only score so well. A solid place for camping and boating, or a day trip to step away from the city, but lackluster for hiking and really getting away from it all.

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