The Wichita Mountains, April 2021

On April 23 & 24, I took my first post-vaccination trip as an overnight getaway to the Wichita Mountains. These are a fascinating set of granite and quartz mountains in southwestern Oklahoma, between the towns of Lawton and Altus, and present a completely unexpected landscape, rising dramatically out of the flat plains, in some cases towering over a thousand feet above the surrounding terrain.

I had had this area on my radar for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to going until now. I had been thinking about making the trip in April of 2020, but then of course COVID happened. Spring and fall seem like the best times to go, both for weather’s sake and for wildflowers in the spring, and indeed I saw gorgeous carpets of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and pinkladies on the drive up. I wonder if the leaves would be pretty in the fall; they probably would be.

This trip represented a great example of the necessity of improvising while traveling, even though I like to plan my trips in great detail. First, I decided on rather the spur of the moment to go, and I had planned on camping for two nights: one in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, and one in Copper Breaks State Park back in Texas. However, I discovered that due to COVID restrictions the NWR was only open for RV camping, not tents, and due to flooding in Copper Breaks, only one campground was open and it was completely booked. So, I decided to forego Copper Breaks and spend just one night, taking a gamble (that ended up paying off, more on that later) on a cheap motel in Altus.

Once I headed out Friday morning, the weather necessitated more improvisation! It had been forecast to be cloudy but then clear in the afternoon… but after I got to Medicine Park (about which more in a bit) and we had a brief cloudburst, the clouds just kept hanging around: low, thick clouds, threatening rain, with a little mist and terrible visibility. It lent a very cool atmosphere to the landscape, almost reminiscent of the Highlands of Scotland or something, but lousy for admiring the scenery.

I had been planning to thoroughly explore the Wichita Mountains on Friday before heading further west to Altus and then seeing Quartz Mountain State Park on Saturday, but there was clearly no point in trying to do much sightseeing outdoors on Friday. So I decided to do only a few things outdoors on Friday that didn’t require good visibility, as well as a couple indoor things, like visit the Medicine Park Aquarium, then swing back through the Wichita Mountains the next day and hope for better weather.

Medicine Park, by the way, is a neat, picturesque little town on the eastern edge of the Wichita Mountains, touristy (it was a resort town) but in a pretty natural setting and with unique architecture. It almost reminds me of a Texas Hill Country town like Glen Rose or something.

As you can see, the (traditional) houses are made of cobblestones, which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, are naturally occurring red granite ones unique to the Wichita Mountains. Very unusual style for this part of the country. Even the modern houses look very nice along the river.

Also got these two good flower pics; the one on the left is a fringed bluestar and the one on the right I believe is a bearded iris.

Mount Scott, elev. 2464 ft/751 m, towers over 1000 ft/305 m over Medicine Park… or at least it does when it’s not overcast.

While in Medicine Park, it started raining, so I ducked into the aquarium. It’s quite good, if not very big, though several displays were temporarily “out of order.” I did get to see electric eels (maybe a first) and river otters though! They even had an aviary full of literally hundreds of plump little quails. I’d never seen one this close (I’d barely seen them at all), and I could have reached out and touched any number of them.

Once I entered the Wichita Mountains proper, one thing I did do in the poor-visibility conditions was walk around the so-called Parallel Forest. It’s just a bunch of straight trees growing in parallel lines, but it was atmospheric in the mist nonetheless. The edge of it reminded me of the edge of Mirkwood from The Hobbit movies.

There is also the Holy City of the Wichitas, which I at first thought was a Native American site of some kind, but actually turns out to be a (fanciful) recreation of ancient Jerusalem for an annual Passion Play – the longest-running in the U.S. It makes no pretensions to historical accuracy, but it’s a cool site to see nonetheless.

I had seen all I could in the Wichita Mountains NWR given the weather, so I headed west toward Quartz Mountain SP hoping for better. I ran into dense fog and dodged heavy rain (there was even a tornado south of me in Texas). The heavy clouds showed no signs of letting up until right when I got to the crossroads where I either had to turn north to Quartz Mountain or give up on the day and head south to my motel in Altus. Suddenly, to the north, a small break in the clouds appeared! That gave me hope, so I headed north, and sure enough, as I drove, the air lightened – the sun didn’t come out, exactly, but the thick, low-lying clouds that obscured visibility rolled out, and I was left with lighter, high-elevation clouds that gave a dramatic if somber look to the evening landscape.

Suddenly I saw large mountains emerge out of the mist. I cannot emphasize enough how abruptly and dramatically these mountains jut up out of the flat plains. Coming upon them is a huge surprise.

I want to emphasize, too, that these are real mountains, not the barely-glorified hills that we call “mountains” in non-West Texas. I mean, they’re no Rockies, or even Appalachians, but they’re far more prominent than anything in the Texas Hill Country. They’re probably about equal in prominence to the Ouachita Mountains in southeast Oklahoma, but whereas those are long, narrow ridgelines, these are isolated peaks, so the effect is greater.

Entering the state park, I came across Lake Altus-Lugert, which was quite striking in the evening light. Something about the semi-arid landscape and granite-filled hills reminded me of Spain.

I was in a race against the sunset, so I left the lake and did a bit of hiking around the secluded Cedar Valley. Had to pay to park there, but didn’t see another soul there.

Finally broke away and drove to my motel in Altus, the Friendship Inn. It’s an old mom-and-pop place and was VERY cheap – so cheap that I was concerned about cleanliness and sketchiness, based on experiences I’ve had before. But it was decently rated, so I took a chance on it – and it far exceeded my expectations! Very basic, but the bed was comfortable and the room and bathroom were clean, and free WiFi. If you’re ever passing through Altus, Oklahoma, and just need a bed and don’t want to pay a lot for it, stay here.

The next morning, I stopped by a real hole-in-the-wall country place, the Warren Cafe, for a delicious breakfast. My eyes were way bigger than my stomach and I ordered pancakes and biscuits with gravy (I thought it would be like two small pancakes and one biscuit, but no, it was two HUGE pancakes and two biscuits). Of course like a glutton I ate almost the whole thing, then rolled out of there and didn’t eat anything else the whole rest of the day 😛 Despite the huge portion, I got out of there for $10 including tax and tip! Be warned; they are cash only, and the nearest ATM is in Blair, about 15 minutes away.

Caught this lovely morning light just outside the restaurant.

On my way back east to the Wichita Mountains, I came across this dilapidated (but still picturesque) farmstead. Buildings like this make me wonder when they were built, and how long it’s been since anyone called them “home.”

Despite predictions, it was still overcast, windy, and chilly. But it was no longer threatening or misty, so once I was back in the Wichita Mountains proper, I got a much better view of the land.

I had to decided to hike up Elk Mountain, which upon pulling up to it turned out to be quite an imposing mountain with the trail leading straight up the side! The trail was actually quite difficult to follow in spots, but once I found it there were superb views from the side and top.

Like I said, it was chilly (52 F/11 C) and very windy!

Spectacular panorama from the peak of Elk Mountain:

By the time I got back down to the bottom, the clouds were finally starting to clear.

I then hiked around the other side of Elk Mountain to a place called Charon’s Garden. Charon, if you don’t know, was the mythical boatman that ferried souls across the River Styx in Greek Mythology, so naturally his “garden” would not a pleasant place to hang out. It turned out to be, to quote Gimli in the Fellowship of the Ring, “a twisted labyrinth of razor-sharp rocks.” Well, maybe not razor-sharp, but certainly large boulders piled haphazardly on top of each other.

There is no path through them, and the only way to the other side of the boulder field is an unexpectedly intense, potentially dangerous, scramble up and over them. The only other place I’ve seen anything like it is in Joshua Tree National Park in California. These pictures gives just a little hint of the roughness of it:

After extricating myself from Charon’s clutches (running into a couple of trumpet majors from Dallas along the way), I drove along and did a short but fun hike up a small hill called Little Baldy. The sun was fully out by now, so it was warm, but the hill is in a valley right in the midst of the mountains, so the panorama from on top was great.

A glimpse through the mountains of the flat plains to the south:

Then for the final stage of my trip, I drove the long, spiraling road up to the top of Mount Scott. Unlike most mountains, the road does not wind its way up one side in a series of switchbacks, but coils around the entire mountain three times like a snake. On the way, you ascend from 1400 ft/427 m to 2400 ft/732 m. While the top is very flat and broad, meaning there isn’t really one “peak” from which you can get a 360-degree panorama, the mountain towers above its surroundings in every direction (you can see it from almost 40 mi/65 km away), granting breathtaking views from every side.

Here’s looking south…

…and west…

…and selfie looking east over Medicine Park, 1200 ft/366 m below me.

Dallasites, you really should check out the Wichita Mountains! I feel like people from the Metroplex are always going to the Hill Country, or to Lake Broken Bow/Hochatown, which are fine, but drive the same distance northwest and you’ll find something completely different! I will be back!

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