In addition to heat and humidity, Oklahoma summers also offer a tremendous variety of natural destinations which highlight the diverse and beautiful terrain of the Sooner State. This summer, treat yourself to one or more of Oklahoma’s stunning state and national parks, lakes and wildlife refuges.
“The diversity of our state park system in Oklahoma is pretty remarkable,” says Oklahoma Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell. “From the Wichita Mountains to Grand Lake, to Little Sahara State Park, it’s about as diverse as it gets. You will also see a lot of upgrades across the system – particularly at Quartz Mountain Lodge. This summer is the perfect time to explore our parks.”
Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge
As the oldest refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge has been a favorite for nature lovers since 1901. Near Lawton and Ft. Sill, the refuge spans approximately 60,000 acres.
The varied landscape includes mixed-grass prairie, 500 million-year-old mountains, freshwater lakes and streams. Home to bison, white-tailed deer and Texas longhorn cattle, the refuge also hosts the largest herd of Rocky Mountain elk in Oklahoma.
Wichita Mountain Refuge is home to popular summer activities including fishing, bird watching, photography, hiking, camping and kayaking. Visitors can travel the winding road to the summit of Mount Scott, where they can see the entire refuge.
Barely six miles from Davis in south-central Oklahoma is the popular Turner Falls Park. Oklahoma’s oldest park is named after Scottish immigrant Mazeppa Thomas Turner who discovered the falls over 150 years ago.
The 1,500-acre recreational area is at the foot of the famous Arbuckle Mountains, at the point where Honey Creek plummets seventy-seven feet into a natural swimming area. Turner Falls Park has been a place for outdoor recreation since 1868 and features picnic areas, nature trails, caves and other geological attractions, like two natural swimming pools.
Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees
Originally envisioned as a source of hydroelectric power for the Cherokee Nation, Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees boasts 1,366 miles of shoreline and is one of Oklahoma’s largest lakes. Located in northeastern Oklahoma’s Green Country, Grand Lake is known for fishing, boating and other on-the-water sports. It offers picnic and camping sites, group shelters, playgrounds, swimming beaches, boat ramps and even a 9-hole golf course.
Another popular attraction of Grand Lake is the Cherokee Queen Riverboat, which presents a sight-seeing tour on a vintage, 67-foot paddlewheel riverboat. Just below the Pensacola Dam are campgrounds that offer tent sites, group shelters and amenities ranging from pit toilets to a full comfort station with showers, and RV sites replete with hookups and electrical service.
Little Sahara State Park
Little Sahara State Park (also known as Waynoka Dunes) is located in northwest Oklahoma’s Woods County. The park is a well-known destination for ATVs, motorbikes, Jeeps and dune buggies, which can traverse the more than 1,600 acres of sand dunes – some of which are 75 feet high. Visitors can either bring their own ATV or rent one at a nearby business. The cost is $10 a day for all drivers and passengers 10 years of age and older.
The park also offers RV and tent sites, showers, picnic areas and seasonal concession areas.
Black Mesa State Park and Nature Preserve
Black Mesa State Park and Nature Preserve is located in Cimarron County in the panhandle. The park and the preserve combined stretch from Oklahoma into Colorado and New Mexico, and boast Oklahoma’s highest point at 4,973 feet above sea level.
The nature preserve is a bird watcher’s dream destination, featuring golden eagles, red-tailed hawks and black-billed magpies. Home to numerous wildlife including black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, the Black Mesa State Park is also a popular locale for star-gazing due to its remote location and dark night skies. The park is located right beside Lake Carl Etling, which offers boating and camping as well.
Quartz Mountain State Park
In southwest Oklahoma, considered to be the gateway to the Wichita Mountains, Quartz Mountain State Park contains more water than land in its 4,540 acres. Although the original Quartz Mountain Lodge is no longer standing, the new lodge complex includes over 100 guest rooms, plus cabins, a restaurant, a performing arts center and retail shops.
The park hosts the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, which has provided Oklahoma teens with an extraordinary opportunity to study with well-known artists since the late 1970s. Quartz Mountain State Park features five camping areas with both primitive and RV campsites, and cozy cabins along the shores of Lake Altus-Lugert.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area
South-central Oklahoma’s Chickasaw National Recreation Area was once called the “Peaceful Valley of Rippling Waters” and is known primarily as a water destination.
Travertine Creek and Lake of the Arbuckles offer traditional water activities such as fishing, swimming and boating. The park offers scenic trails for hiking and multiple sites for camping. The Platt District (formerly Sulphur Springs Reservation and then Platt National Park) contains popular freshwater and mineral springs. In the 1970s, this area was combined with the Arbuckle Recreation Area to become the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
The Salt Plains
The Great Salt Plains Area in northern Oklahoma’s Alfalfa County includes The Great Salt Plains Lake and the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge and covers more than 32,000 acres. The lake spans 8,700 surface acres and is formed by a dam on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River. Hike the Sandpiper Trail along the edge of the salt flats for wildlife and nature observation, or drive the Harold F. Miller auto tour spanning 2.5 miles between the nature center and Highway 11, where you may just spy a bald eagle, along with other waterfowl.
Another popular activity is digging for selenite crystals as well as camping, fishing, swimming and hunting.
Pinnell recommends downloading the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department’s free State Park app to help plan trips this summer.