A Gem in the Middle of Nowhere: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

After the disappointment that we won’t name for our last outing…we will just call it Turner F. (no that’s too obvious…T. Falls)…Whiskette and I were stumped about where to get our outdoors fix. Oklahoma City is more pleasant that I anticipated but when it comes to nearby outdoors sites it pales compared to Austin. Even Houston has that little thing called the Gulf of Mexico right next to it. Stuck in the middle of the plains and unsure what to do I started looking elsewhere in the state. The Arbuckle Mountains might have been a tourist trap disappointment but the Ozarks and the Ouchita Mountains seep into Oklahoma along the Arkansas border, the state isn’t lacking in rivers, and if we were feeling particularly adventurous New Mexico and Colorado are a day’s drive away. So naturally we went deeper into the middle of nowhere plains.

Rising out of the middle of the plains in the southwest corner of the state around Lawton lies the Wichita Mountains. It’s a small mountain range and perhaps the term “mountain” is being generous when in reality many of the peaks look like a collection of weathered boulder piles. The range has many similarities with Big Bend in that the mountains are primarily the result of ancient volcanic activity with the earliest formations being formed over 500 million years ago. Many of the mountains are red rhyolites and granite. Like Big Bend as well, millions of years of weathering has led to conglomerate land forms where many of the peaks, cliffs, and tors look like jumbled piles of boulders.

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Whiskette and I decided to make the trip after seeing good reviews on All Trails and extensive Googling to make sure we weren’t falling into another trap. Not only were we not disappointed but we were taken aback by the beauty of the place. The mountains aren’t tall, Mount Pinchot checks in at 2,476 feet tall, but they are impressive jutting up abruptly from the rolling grasslands. One thing that stands out is the wildlife, after all this is a National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge has herd of 700 elk, 300 Texas longhorn cattle, and 650 American bison. This is all in addition to all of the reptiles, bugs, and birds you could want.

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Gobble Gobble Gobble

Driving to the visitor center and casually seeing bison wandering around is certainly a unique experience.

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Hanging with my buffabro

Whiskette and I have made two trips to the park so far this fall. On the first we climbed the Elk Mountain Trail and on our last trip we drove to the top of Mount Scott and followed part of the Dog Run Hollow Trail System from the Lost Lake Trailhead.

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Doesn’t look so lost

Elk Mountain isn’t tough, the climb took two hours and that is with a generous rest at the top. The trail is clearly defined, especially when it starts winding through trees on the upper slopes. The views from the summit are incredible, surpassed only by Mount Scott; but the solitude at the top makes the summit of Elk Mountain my personal favorite in the park.

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Escape from Elk Mountain

Mount Scott is the tallest peak in the park accessible to the public (Pinchot is located in a non-accessible wildlife management area) and its also the most accessible with a paved highway winding to parking lots and viewing areas on the summit.

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This isn’t even the view from the summit

The road to the top can get packed and you have to be careful driving up but 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps stone walls keep you from careening off the road and plenty of pull over parking is available for pictures. At the top you can park your car and enjoy the views while also wandering the boulders at the top of the mountain. Whiskette actually went sliding into a pit while looking for a good picture and had to shimmy herself back up to where wiser people had stayed.

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At least for the picture, the slide was worth it

The CCC visibly has a huge impact on Wichita. The refuge itself was founded in 1901 as a Forest Reserve by William McKinley, just prior to settlement. Theodore Roosevelt re-designated the area as Wichita Forest and Game Preserve. Congress finally designated the park what it is today in 1936 as the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Over the years the bison (1907), elk (1908), and longhorn (1927) herds were established and helped to increase leading to the sizable herds within the park today. During the Great Depression the CCC built roads, trails (a marker at the top of Elk Mountain brags about the trail to the top the CCC created), walls, and the many dams to create permanent water areas in the refuge.

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Dam it

The Dog Run Hollow Trail system is a designated National Recreation Trail System. On a tip from some nice bikers we met at the top of Mount Scott (I love parks), we pulled in at Lost Lake and followed a trail system along a small canyon, through some woods, along the side of Elk Mountain, before finding the Boulder Trailhead. We followed the shorter Kite Path since it was late in the day but there are Buffalo and Elk Paths that offer much longer hikes.

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The trails get hard to find at times, and at one point Whiskette and I blazed our own trail when we accidentally took a drainage gully instead of an actual trail, but if you follow the canyon and stay oriented you shouldn’t get lost.

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I think this is the right way?

It’s off the beaten path and it doesn’t have the name recognition of a national park but I can’t recommend this place enough. Gorgeous boulder strewn landscapes, peaks with fantastic views, rolling plains, and all the wildlife you can ask you.

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Making friends in Wichita

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