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. Therefore, we paid a visit to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in mid-November.
Mountains In Oklahoma
Although I assumed Oklahoma was nothing but flat plains, 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. This paved 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.
Creating A Refuge For Wildlife
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 shipped by train to the refuge. They arrived to find 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.
Click on any photo for a larger view
Historic Medicine Park
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 1930s), Medicine Park was hailed as the “Jewel of the Southwest.” It 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 during 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.
What a beautiful spot… wonderful fall colors. Too bad it is tornado country. I grew up in Ohio and avoid tornado prone areas like the plague:-)
Thanks for sharing!
Bettina, I think you have a lot of company! But if you’re ever traveling this way in the fall, I think you would enjoy it. And we’re supposedly safe then. (Fingers crossed.)
I’m glad I’m not the only one phobic about tornadoes….I feel like I squeeze my eyes closed and cross my fingers when we have to travel through tornado alley – probably miss all kinds of neat stuff in the process!
Ticks….another thing I’m phobic about, but that’s another story!
Haha, that sounds like me, Sue! Nonetheless, there’s a fascinating Western museum in Oklahoma City that I’d really like to visit….
Beautiful photos, I especially like #1 of Eric
and # 17 of the sign in the bath area – where it
says No Profanity… I am all for a more polite
and civil society. It is great to see pictures of an
area we don’t usually see too. Special…
Peggy, they had more than one “No Profanity” sign posted — I wonder if it has anything to do with the wild past of the town! Glad you enjoyed the tour.
Who knew? Very nice pictures. I agree about the tornados. This summer we were in the Midwest and had several nights of tornado watches. The lightning that came with it made me more afraid of going to the shelter than staying put and hoping we weren’t in the line of fire. Safe travels
Debbie, that sounds so scary! We’ve been in some intense lightning storms, but fortunately have never experienced a tornado watch — and I don’t want to!!
Looks like Oklahoma has a very good thing here! That prairie dog is adorable!
Lisa, I thought of you when I posted the photo of the prairie dog! This was our second visit to the refuge (the first was about 10 years ago) and we really like it.
Looks like pretty country, but probably a state we’ll continue to avoid. I grew up in Illinois and have seen first hand the devastation a tornado can cause. Scary stuff especially for those of us living in tin cans.
Ingrid, you’re not alone — it seems that many people who grew up in the Midwest avoid tornado prone areas — especially those of us living in tin cans, as you said! We don’t plan to spend a lot of time there, and never in the spring!
I will have to keep track of this one. We have camped at a lake somewhere along the 40 in Oklahoma, and it is quiet and remote and we like it, but this one looks like even more fun. Usually we are simply looking to get across the state as quickly as possible, for the same reasons you mentioned.
Sue, you would really enjoy the refuge and the diverse landscape. We don’t want to hang out for a long time in Oklahoma, but it’s nice to have a different route for traveling to Florida.
I share your skepticism about traveling in Oklahoma. We were there when we had to take cover from a tornado, twice, in two separate parks. Our original plan for full timing was to see all the National wildlife refuges. That’s a tall order for sure but it got shoved aside when we found out they don’t have campgrounds, so I’m surprised to see this one. You just always show me or teach me something I didn’t know.
You had to take cover twice?! That would probably cure me of ever setting foot in Oklahoma again! This is a wonderful refuge, though, and if you’re traveling through in the fall, I highly recommend it, Sherry.
What a great stop! We will have to keep this in mind if we take the southern route east again. Fall seems like the beautiful time of year to be there. Nice hiking:) Aren’t the cobblestone buildings and houses just the coolest. Love them. Great prairie dog photo!
Pam, definitely put this one on your list for when you make the trek east next year. It will give you a bit of hiking before you hit the total flatlands of Florida. :-)
I agree with you Oct/Nov would be the right time to drive into that state. As you may recall we were on the northeastern side of Oklahoma and it was beautiful then for fall colors.
Love all the pics but # 9 and 14 are my faves.
Glad you enjoyed the photos, Mona Liza. We definitely will return to OK — we need to explore some of the area where you were. But only in the fall!
Looks like Oklahoma mountains are similar in elevation to Alabama mountains. Oklahoma is a state I have yet to visit. Hope the Florida weather is cooperating with you. It has finally warmed up here in Yuma.
Loretta, we need to spend some time in the Alabama mountains — maybe you can show us around! It’s been a bit chilly here in north Florida…but better than in most of the rest of the country. :-)
I’m even hoping to avoid the high winds of March in New Mexico – and definitely not OK in the Spring! Love Medicine Park, such a cute place (I’d really have to watch my mouth). The views in the rocks are amazing.
Jodee, we got a good laugh out of the sign, especially because a guy was standing in front of it cussing up a storm. You’re right, high winds aren’t fun in an RV.:-(