Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Drive one of many roads leading to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and you’ll almost be convinced that you are in another region of the country. Ascending from surrounding plains and flatlands, we climbed into an island-like world of post and blackjack oaks, rocky outcrops, remnant mixed grass prairies and an assortment of manmade lakes many find excellent for bass fishing.
My husband, Mike, and I arrived in May to the 59,020-acre refuge, the largest refuge in The Sooner State. Unlike most wildlife refuges, this one permits camping, thus allowing for multi-day visits and time to enjoy the trails, lakes and wildlife.
Located in southwest Oklahoma, the region was originally set aside as a forest preserve in 1901. Later, in 1905, it was deemed a game preserve. Today it is the oldest managed refuge in the United States. There are 553 refuges in the United States comprised of 150 million acres of habitat dedicated to preserving native American wildlife. Ironically, hunting is allowed on many of the refuges, including Wichita Mountains where there are elk and deer seasons.
Visitors to Wichita Mountains often come to see the American bison, or buffalo, as they are often called. Once estimated at 60 million — the largest mass of land animals to ever exist — the bison were almost extinct by the late 1800s. The federal government intervened, along with concerned conservationists, and herds were rebuilt.
Wichita Mountains saw the return of the bison in 1907 when 15 animals were sent to the refuge from the New York Bronx Zoo to roam and breed. Current herd size is kept at approximately 650 animals. Each fall excess bison are sold at a live auction to maintain herd size.
In addition to bison, man also slaughtered the Merriam elk and giant bronze turkeys that once lived in the region. Today, after being successfully introduced, there are about 700 Rocky Mountain elk and many wild turkeys roaming the refuge.
Texas longhorn cattle also roam the preserve. In 1927, 30 head of longhorn cattle were introduced to the refuge to form a federal herd. Today, the herd numbers around 300 longhorns. Look for the longhorns as you drive and hike through the park.
More Than Mammals
The refuge is also home to a gravely endangered bird known as the black-capped vireo. The tiny bird breeds in a narrow area of the south-central United States and north-central Mexico. The refuge and adjacent Fort Sill provide proper habitat for the vireo and thus an expanding vireo population.
The Oklahoma Audubon Council recently recognized the refuge as an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs range from just a few acres to thousands of acres, and provide necessary habitats for one or more species of birds. The refuge is home to more than 240 species of birds, and it supports the second largest breeding population of black-capped vireos in the world. Other species that helped qualify the site for designation include the painted bunting, northern bobwhite quail, red-headed woodpecker and chestnut-collared longspur.
During our visit we hiked many of the trails searching for birds, mammals and wildflowers, as well as rattlesnakes, copperheads and lizards. There are more than 50 species of mammals here, 64 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, 36 different fish species and 806 plant species.
Not every refuge can boast of a National Recreational Scenic Trail, but Wichita Mountains can. If you have the time to hike only one trail, I would highly recommend the Dog Run Hollow National Recreation Trail. Also known as the “Bison” trail, there are metal bison markers indicating the loop. The trail provides much variety and passes by French and Lost lakes and many drainages in between. One minute you’re hiking through the trees, the next you are in the open and then you’re boulder-hopping from one granite rock to the next.
During our hike we nibbled on snacks; watched people fishing; longhorns grazing and mating; bison chewing their cud; and we listened to turkeys gobbling. We also saw collared lizards lounging in the sun and chasing butterflies, a garter snake swimming, and we almost stepped on a millipede laying in the trail. In addition, turkey vultures soared, wild turkeys rested in the shade, coyotes howled and we marveled at all that is Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
There’s no doubt that hiking is a popular pastime at the refuge. There are 15 miles of designated hiking trails winding through grassy prairie, scrub oak forest, and across jagged mountains that are more than 500 million years old. Amazingly, the Wichita Mountains are among the oldest ranges on the earth. You can enjoy some of the old rocks by hiking up the Elk Mountain Trail where there’s a wonderful view of the surrounding refuge. The trail continues for more than a mile and goes 590 feet up Elk Mountain.
A key to viewing wildlife is to search early and late in the day when they are busy foraging. We highly recommend driving park roads during the wee hours of the morning and in the late afternoon prior to sunset.
During the day it is possible to watch the antics of prairie dogs at the prairie dog town off the main road. Closer to dusk and dawn look for elk, white-tailed deer, longhorns and bison. Also, as you drive along a refuge fence that serves as a safe haven for wildlife that don’t want to be around park visitors, check for singing dicksissels and scissor-tailed flycatchers sitting on it. Scissor-tailed flycatchers, Oklahoma’s state bird, are hard to miss with their extremely long tails.
When you visit the refuge it’s best to plan on camping at the Doris Campground. Better yet, get there early and you can choose a spot near Quanah Parker Lake. While exploring around the lake we saw a beaver swimming and we witnessed an osprey flying over with a fish in its talons.
The campground is open year-round with 70 sites for RVs and tents, some with electric hookups. Sites range in size, but there are many for big RVs. Sites are $18 with electricity and $10 without. There is no entrance fee. You’ll find picnic tables, fire rings and fire grates at all sites. A central restroom/shower complex is closed in the winter. Drinking water, chemical toilets and trash dumpsters are located through the campground. A sanitary dump station is located at the entrance to the campground.
Camping is first come, first served. Limited group camping is available by reservation only; contact the refuge for more information. Those with an America The Beautiful Senior Pass (62 years and older) will receive a 50 percent camping discount.
From the campground you can enjoy a short hike up Little Baldy. A mere 200 feet to the summit, it’s a good 360-degree view from there to Quanah Parker Lake and places beyond. You can also cross a bridge over the lake to visit the trails near the Environmental Education Center, in addition to hiking, boating and fishing.
In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed 15 concrete dams for permanent water areas. Today, fishing is permitted in all refuge lakes which are home to largemouth bass, sunfish, bluegill, crappie and catfish.
Mike and I had our mountain bikes with us, but found that bikes aren’t permitted on most trails. But we had fun riding the paved roads and found a bike/hike trail with views of Mt. Scott and Lake Lawtonka on the east side of the refuge. The moderate trail offered up some challenging ruts and rocks to ride over, but it made for a fun 10.9-mile loop. We rode in a clockwise direction, starting at the unmarked trailhead about 1.2 miles north from the junction of Highways 49 and 115 off Highway 115, which leads to Meers. We rode the trail, connected with paved road Highway 49 and rode it back to the trailhead.
When you’re at the junction of Highways 49 and 115, know that you can continue a short distance north on Highway 115, past the trailhead, to the small town of Meers. Once a booming town of 500, today there is one family of six, their pets and their restaurant and store. The Meers Restaurant is known to some for making the “Best Burger in Oklahoma” using beef from Texas Longhorns. We didn’t eat there so I can’t vouch for them, but we heard that the burgers are everything from great to just OK.
Another place just outside the park that you may find worth visiting is Medicine Park. Located at the main entry (east end) of the park on Highway 49, the picturesque town is known as America’s cobblestone community. The Plains Indians were very familiar with this quiet oasis, but that was long before the town was originally founded on July 4, 1908, by Oklahoma Senator Elmer Thomas. It was Oklahoma’s first planned tourism resort. Medicine Creek flows through the area with Medicine Park Trail, a solid surface pathway lined by cobblestones, paralleling the creek.
Most refuge visitors make it a point to visit The Holy City of the Wichitas, located in the heart of the wildlife refuge. Open all year, it is the site of The Prince of Peace, the nation’s longest running Easter passion play. Admission is free. There’s a gift shop, restrooms and the World Chapel, which is available for weddings. The Wallock Memorial Museum displays the history of the play’s 1926 beginning to the present.
You’ll find plenty of information at the Quanah Parker Visitor Center, located near the campground and north of Cache, near a more southwesterly junction of State Highways 115 and 49. A wonderful visitor center with exhibits displaying the four major habitat types — rocklands, aquatic, mixed-grass prairie and cross timbers — a bookstore and restrooms are open seven days a week. You can call the visitor center at (580) 429-2197.
For more information, visit www.fws.gov or call (580) 429-3222.