Oklahoma State Parks: Lake Thunderbird State Park

By Laci Jones

Norman, Okla., may be the home of the University of Oklahoma, but thistown is also home to one of 33 state parks. The recorded history of Lake Thunderbird State Park, located east of Norman, dates to 500 B.C.

During the 18th century, Spain, France and England clamed Oklahoma. As part of the Louisiana Territory, the territory was eventually awarded to Spain. Many explorers traveled the land during this time including French explorer Pierre Mallet and American explorer Stephen H. Long. In 1832, Washington Irving, author of “A Tour of the Prairies” and “The Adventures of Ichabod Crane,” among other explorers, toured the area where the state park sits.

“The purpose of Irving’s tour was to see ‘the last of the redmen and wild game before these things were pushed beyond the reach of civilized man,’” according to the Lake Thunderbird State Park historical essay titled, ‘Lake Thunderbird State Park History, 500 B.C. to Present.’ “Descriptions of the Little River area given by Irving parallel those of the present in various aspects.”

According to the essay, the land was overgrown and rugged and had wildlife including buffalo, bears, elk, deer, wild horses and turkeys. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Five Civilized Tribes settled in Indian Territory. The Choctaw Indians were the first to settle into the area, later sharing the land with the Seminole tribe in 1842.

“By 1850, the Creek tribe moved to another part of the Indian Territory, leaving this area to the Seminoles,” according to the essay. “In 1866, this area was ceded to the United States by the Seminoles, which became known as the Unassigned Territory.”

The Land Run on April 22, 1889, opened the land for settlement, designating the area as Cleveland County a year later. The land was used for farming as well as oil and gas production, according to the essay.

Norman city manager, R.E. Clement proposed the idea of a reservoir to the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1945. Congressional approval of the lake was given 15 years later. The project for the dam began in 1962, finishing three years later. Construction of the dam cost more than $18 million.

The lake has a surface area of 6,070 acres with 86 miles of shoreline, said Sherman Johnson, assistant park manager of Lake Thunderbird State Park. The name “Little River State Park” was proposed in 1965, leading to the development of a committee to decide the name of the lake.

“A woman won the contest, basing the name on the Native American legend of the mythological creature, the Thunderbird,” according to the essay. “The bird was thought to have carried water in its wings, which sounded like thunder when flapped, and lightning bolts would shoot from its eyes.”

Several buildings were constructed including the park office. A survey was later conducted in 1997. The survey showed the public did not associate the area as a state park, recognizing it only as Lake Thunderbird, according to the essay. The survey resulted in a name change to Lake Thunderbird State Park.

Johnson said the close proximity to Norman city limits has helped the state park see more than a million visitors each year. Visitors enjoy boating, skiing and fishing on the 6,000-acre lake.

“We get a lot of visitors because we are so convenient,” Johnson added. “Visitors don’t have to drive two or three hours to come out and enjoy the recreation in the park.”

To enjoy the recreation, there are two marinas at the state park. Visitors can rent boat slips as well as rent boats at one of the marinas. Both marinas have stores for visitors to purchase gasoline and other necessities. The state park currently has more than 200 RV sites and 100 designated tent sites. Visitors can also visit the nature center located at the state park.

“We offer bow hunting for white tailed deer during designated hunting times,” Johnson said. “It gives the public a close place to come to recreate. If they want to hunt, they can.”

Lake Thunderbird State Park hosts several events throughout the year, kicking off on Jan. 1 with the statewide First Day Hike. The purpose of the hike is to help citizens kickstart their new year’s resolutions to get active. The state park has several trails for beginners to advanced hikers.

In September, the state park hosts Catch a Special Thrill (CAST) for Kids, for kids with disabilities. The event gives kids who do not get the privilege of catching a fish an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, he added. The state park hosts their Fall Festival at the lake, where they have different vendors dressed in costume handing out candy to trick-or-treaters.

They also hosted their first car show in May and will be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Oklahoma State Parks by hosting different clinics. The state park also offers volunteer events for students at the University of Oklahoma. Students pick up trash for a day during their annual Trash Off.

“They come in and pick up trash during the morning, about four hours, and then we feed them lunch,” Johnson added. “This event has been going on at least 20 years and really helps us clean the lake.”

With the help of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, Lake Thunderbird State Park is currently working on a day-use area with eight day-use shelters with tables and grills. The project also includes a new ADA-accessible fishing dock and a bathhouse. Johnson expects the project to be completed by fall 2017.

For more information on Lake Thunderbird State Park, call 405-360-3572.

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