I always find driving through Oklahoma a bit worrisome. I check the weather forecasts; read up on what to do should we encounter ominous conditions—in short, I obsess about tornadoes. The logical part of my mind recognizes that we are highly unlikely to encounter a tornado, but knowing that central Oklahoma suffers more tornadoes per square mile than any other place on earth makes me look suspiciously at any gray cloud looming on the horizon.
To play it safe, we avoid traveling through Tornado Alley in the volatile spring months. Not only do we want to avoid tornadoes, but we also want to stay away from the intense lightning and hailstorms that plague the area (hail the size of baseballs? Our insurance company would disown us!) Fall, however, is probably safe. Which is why we paid a visit to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in mid-November.
One does not usually think of mountains in Oklahoma. But one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world resides in the southwest corner of the state. Some people would argue that the Wichita don’t qualify as mountains (they’re not spectacularly tall—the highest point is just shy of 2,500 feet). They once were much taller, but at an estimated 540 million years old, they’ve lost a bit of height over the millennia. They are nonetheless lovely, especially in the fall when the native oaks turn red and the prairie grasslands are a sea of shimmering gold.
The refuge was a perfect stop in our journey along Interstate 40. An island of native oaks, mixed grass prairies, lakes, and picturesque rocky outcroppings, the refuge became the first federal big game preserve in 1905, paving the way for the National Refuge System as we know it today. Almost 60,000 acres were set aside for the protection of native species that teetered on the brink of extinction—most notably bison, Merriam elk, and giant bronze turkeys.
When the refuge was created, only 550 wild bison were left in North America. President Theodore Roosevelt and other forward thinking conservationists realized the bison were on a fast track to extinction, and made plans to protect them. In 1907, 15 bison from the New York Zoological Society were crated and shipped by train to the refuge. They arrived to a welcoming party that included the great Comanche chief Quanah Parker—braves on horseback and their families journeyed to honor the enormous shaggy animals that had provided meat, clothing, and teepee skins for generations of their ancestors. These were the first bison to set foot on the Southern Great Plains in three decades.
The reintroduction was a resounding success, and today surplus bison are sold to maintain the herd at about 650 animals. Although the Merriam elk never recovered, Rocky Mountain elk were successfully introduced. Texas longhorn cattle roam the preserve, too—they’re not native, but have long been part of the landscape. Prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and river otters have also been reintroduced, and everyone seems to be thriving.
The refuge is beautiful; more than 15 miles of hiking trails traverse grasslands, mixed prairie, lakes, and rocky paths that lead to expansive views. I’d love to visit in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom—but I doubt that we will, since that’s also prime tornado season. Just last May a tornado tore through the group campground at the refuge, flattening the tents of the Boy Scouts staying there (fortunately, they all escaped unharmed thanks to a vigilant wildlife officer).
While in the area, we took a stroll through historic Medicine Park, located just outside the refuge. The vintage resort town was built on the banks of Medicine Creek from red granite cobblestones unique to the Wichita Mountains. During the town’s heyday (between the teens and the 1930’s), Medicine Park was hailed as the “Jewel of the Southwest,” and attracted wealthy, famous, and notorious individuals, including President Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Quite a mix.
About the campground: Doris Campground offers camping within the refuge. It’s dark and quiet, unless you happen to be there when there’s a Scout Jamboree (yep, we were). Seventy first-come, first-served rustic sites in the oak woodlands; 23 sites with electric hookups ($20), the rest are dry camping ($10). It’s a bargain at half-price with the Senior Pass. Verizon is decent. Get there early if possible; some of the sites have views of the lake (but honestly, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a prime site because the campground is so popular with locals).
We discovered another close-by campground at Lake Lawtonka, run by the city of Lawton. Robinson’s Landing is a lovely spot, with 28 sites with picnic tables, 30 & 50 amp electrical hook-ups, water connections, restroom and shower facilities, and an RV dump station. The lake looks like it would be fun to kayak. Once again, all sites are first-come, first-served, but the city assured me that sites are always available in the fall. It’s about 10 miles to the refuge from the campground. I think that’s where we’ll stay next time. In the fall, of course.
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