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By Sandy Pantlik
One Day, Four Okies, Three Natural Wonders
If you are lucky, there are places on this earth that pull you to them. For me, northwest Oklahoma is one of those. Like many of my Oklahoma brethren, home is where you see the biggest piece of sky. Throw in a little red dirt, and I am giddy. Northwest Oklahoma has all of the above, including some natural wonders not found anywhere else on earth.
Spring is kind to this corner of the state; providing the perfect mashup of light dancing off red canyon walls on to verdant green wheat fields, bodacious sky and mind blowing openness. That’s what inspired me to take my two nieces and mom on a whirlwind tour to three northwest Oklahoma bragging rights.
The artery to and through northwest Oklahoma is highway 412, also a designated scenic byway. Just a few miles outside of Enid, the landscape begins to evolve from Great Plains to high plains just a few miles west of Enid. Red Buttes and mesas appear on the scene, mixing with sage and the occasional tumbleweed if you are lucky. On the horizon we see our first stop of the day, the sparkling Gloss Mountains. The “mountains” title might be a bit of a stretch, but what these beauties lack in height, they more than make up for in bling. Their high selenite content graces them with a shiny glass exterior that will definitely lure you off the highway. This is a state park, so you will be treated to picnic areas, restroom facilities and of course hiking trails to explore the area. The ascent to the top of Cathedral Mountain is up a stairway with many (thankfully) opportunities to rest and enjoy the view along the way. Once on top, you can hike across the mesa and be treated to one of the most spectacular views in Oklahoma. The climb can be challenging, but everyone in our party of four made it.
Next, it was time to get dirty as we headed to the Great Salt Plains near the tiny but mighty towns of Cherokee and Jet. A prehistoric ocean once engulfed this area, leaving behind an expanse of salt that stretches for miles. From April to October, the Great Salt Plains Wildlife Refuge opens up the salt laden flats for crystal digging. Just a few inches under the crusty surface hide chunks of selenite bearing an hour glass figure in their center. The Great Salt Plains is the only place in the world to find these treasures, and, outfitted with buckets, shovels and sunscreen, we intended to claim our bounty. There is an eeriness here as you trek across the barren plain wondering how it can support your weight, let alone your vehicle. But all is well, and we finish the expedition loaded down with crystals and covered in mud. Luckily there is a comfort station nearby so we can rinse off and change clothes for the next leg of our journey. If you chose to stay longer in the area (and I highly recommend it), Great Salt Plains State Park offers cabins, camping, picnic areas and a variety of activities. Before moving on, our hungry travelers wanted to stop at the Dairy Mart in Cherokee where we indulged in one of the best homemade shakes I’ve had in awhile.
To add some geological balance to our day, our next stop took us underground to Alabaster Caverns State Park and a tour of the largest natural gypsum cave in the world open to the public. Daily guided tours are offered from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and each tour can only accommodate a limited number of visitors. Our tour guide led us through the underground labyrinth like he was giving us a tour of his childhood neighborhood, providing tidbits of information on early cave explorers and history. The best part of caves is bats, and there are five species who call Alabaster Caverns home. There is a small fee for the tour and quite a long and steep walk to the cave entrance, but well worth it. The cave temperature stays around 50 degrees, so it’s nice to have a jacket. If you want to add a little spice to your trip, wild caving or spelunking is also available in the park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You will definitely want to come prepared for this as it requires a permit and equipment.
We ended our big adventure at a Boiling Springs State Park cabin just a short drive from Alabaster Caverns near Woodward. It was the perfect, peaceful place to roast marshmallows, count our crystals and be treated to one of those amazing northwest Oklahoma sunsets.
For more information on these Oklahoma destinations and more, go to www.TravelOK.com.