By Michael Newell
As a Biologist, I value diversity. It measures the health of an ecosystem.
There might not be any other state that has the diversity that we have in Oklahoma. Make it a point to get outdoors this year and see some of the unique offerings that the Sooner State has to offer.
It is extremely difficult to pick out the top things to experience, but here are the top 10 things for you to put on your list for the new year:
- Swamps of Southeast Oklahoma – Step into a world that resembles Jurassic Park as you head to the far southeast corner of the state. Red Slough is an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) wildlife management area, located six miles south of Haworth, that more resembles the marshlands of Florida or Louisiana than Oklahoma. 2,400 acres of wetlands are home to more than 312 species of birds, such as the roseate spoonbill, that can be seen nowhere else in the state. It is also a home to a good population of American alligators and other swamp-like creatures. There are viewing platforms scattered across the area to give birdwatchers a better vantage point. Package this trip with a stay at the cabins at Beavers Bend State Park for a great weekend getaway.
- Be a spelunker – Or just immerse yourself in the past of the wilder time when outlaws like the James Gang and Belle Starr hid out in the caves of Robbers Cave State Park, just outside of Wilburton. Climbing, caving, hiking or rebelling all await this adventure in the Sans Bois Mountains. Cabins are available for rent and the lake and fall foliage are postcard worthy.
- Medicinal mineral springs – In 1092 the U.S. Government purchased 33 mineral springs near Sulphur from the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations to create a national park. The springs are cold-water with high levels of sulphur, bromide and iron and stay a refreshing 65 degrees even in the hottest summer heat. Be sure to pack the swim trunks and take a refreshing dip in the crystal clear pools. The Chickasaw National Recreation Area, as it is called today, boasts over 18 miles of paved hiking trails with beautiful scenery.
- Mountains in the prairie – Back before Oklahoma was a state, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law creating the first “Game Sanctuary” located in the Wichita Mountains. Home to American bison, elk, deer and other game species, today the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge encompasses nearly 60,000 acres of mixed grass prairie and granite mountain outcroppings. 240 species of birds, 50 species of mammals and 64 species of reptiles and amphibians, including the “mountain boomer” the official state reptile, can be seen here, along with a strain of Texas Longhorn cattle to preserve the cultural and historical legacy of the breed. Located just 20 minutes north of Lawton, stop by the visitors’ center for maps and static displays.
- Surf the sand dunes – One of the craziest sights is driving north toward Waynoka and all of a sudden, a desert appears in the middle of the prairie. The Little Sahara State Park is so named for its resemblance to the Sahara Desert. 1,600 acres of sand dunes, some of which rise 75 feet, greet visitors and offer some of the best ATV riding in this part of the country.
- Going batty – Looking for a summer excursion to take the kids? Then just head to northwest Oklahoma to Freedom and the Selman Bat Cave. Every evening during the summer more than one million Mexican free-tailed bats exit the cave in search of insects. The tour provided by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife gives information about the bats as well as transportation from Alabaster Caverns, which I recommend touring, to the secret location. But the tours fill up quickly, so register early. Combine this stop with a tour of Alabaster Caverns State Park, one of the largest natural gypsum caves in the world. Daily guided tours are offered
- Can you dig it – Great Salt Plains State Park is one of Oklahoma’s most unique state parks. The barren landscape of the nearby Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of salt leftover from an ocean that covered Oklahoma in prehistoric times, and the saltwater lake in the park, Great Salt Plains Lake, is about half as salty as the ocean. The selenite crystal dig area is located southwest of the lake in the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, and access roads are available six miles west of Jet or three miles south of Cherokee. The crystal digging area is open from April 1 to October 15 from sunrise to sunset. Located just under the surface of the salt plains, these crystals usually form into an hourglass shape. Oklahoma is the only place in the world where the hourglass-shaped selenite crystal can be found. While searching for crystals, look for some of the over 300 species of protected birds that live in and can be seen in the refuge. In the fall, ducks, geese and cranes use Salt Plains as a rest stop on their migration. It’s not uncommon to see more than 100,000 of these migrants in one viewing, as well as bald eagles and other bird species.
- Mountains of glass – While they are not truly made of glass, the Gloss Mountains, just outside of Fairview have that appearance due to high selenite crystal content. While you cannot dig these crystals like at Salt Plains, you can see some beautiful vistas and spectacular scenery. Horseback riding, hayrides, hiking and fishing are all available at this small but unique state park.
- Grass as high as an elephant’s eye – well maybe not an elephant, but certainly a buffalo, and you will find tall grass and buffalo at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie preserve just north of Pawhuska. Nearly 40,000 acres of protected tallgrass is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and they use bison and “patch-burn” fires to protect this unique and disappearing ecosystem. The preserve is open to the public and has a 10-mile bison loop with hiking trials and scenic turnouts. The preserve has a visitor center/gift shop, and you can find out about the research initiatives and more than 180 publications in scientific journals that have been published about the preserve.
- Oklahoma’s tallest waterfall – If you have ever read “Where the Red Fern Grows,” the images that the book conjures up might have come from Natural Falls State Park. In fact, the 1974 movie was shot here. Formerly called Dripping Springs, this state park, located about as far northeast as you can go while still being in Oklahoma, features a 77- foot waterfall cascading through rock formations and creating a hidden, serene atmosphere at the bottom of a narrow V-shaped valley. Hiking and nature trails are available, and for a unique experience rent one of the park’s five yurts to stay in.
We hope these ideas have been enlightening and helped you to realize the great abundance of outdoor activities all around us. But the key for any of these is to get outside. Grab the family, load up the SUV and introduce them to the great diversity to be found in Oklahoma.
Read more in the January 2020 issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.