Oklahoma's central location means the state is a crossroads of 11 different ecosystems, each offering unique opportunities for you to get outside.
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When I hear someone refer to the American frontier, I immediately think of Oklahoma’s Southwestern Tablelands. This sparsely inhabited area features buttes, canyons, mesas and fields of little bluestem grass, which are forever leaning from the perpetual winds.
Oklahoma is home to 11 different ecoregions, and features the nation’s most diverse landscape per square mile, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What is an ecoregion? The Nature Conservancy defines an ecoregion as a large tract of land and water that contains geographically distinct natural communities.
Since Oklahoma is located in the center of the United States, the state is a unique spot where ecoregions converge and create one-of-a-kind landscapes and scenery. As you travel the state, you’ll find everything from Rocky Mountain foothills and swampy lowlands to tallgrass prairie and pine forests.
Become a bona fide eco-tourist and take a trip through Oklahoma’s swamps, Ozark hollows, wind-swept mesas and desert sand dunes. It’s time to change your pace, and space, by exploring Oklahoma’s eco-diversity.
If you want to get away from the crowds and see what 19th-century settlers saw when they came to Oklahoma, this is the part of the state you want to visit. The Southwestern Tablelands are found in northwest Oklahoma and the panhandle, a strip of three Oklahoma counties in the far northwestern section of the state.
Any trip to the region should include a stop at Black Mesa State Park and Nature Preserve. At an elevation of 4,973 feet above sea level, Black Mesa is Oklahoma’s highest point. This is a terrific vantage point from which to view the panhandle’s sparse, rugged landscape of buttes, juniper/pinyon woodlands and shortgrass prairie. It’s also a great place for bird and wildlife viewing. Some of the species you may see include the golden eagle, scaled quail, pinyon jay, mountain lion, mule deer and the swiftest animal on the plains, the pronghorn antelope.
Similar to the Southwestern Tablelands ecoregion, the Western High Plains, also in Oklahoma’s panhandle, is a remote location steeped in the look and feel of the frontier. Highly photogenic, this smooth landscape of buffalo grass and sand-plum thickets is open and vast, and acts as a transition zone between the Rocky Mountains of the west and the Great Plains of the east. It is home to some of the United States’ most extensive prairie dog towns, along with some unusual features which are, literally, for the birds.
Bring your camera and a few lenses to explore the playa lakes near Guymon. Playa lakes are very shallow, clay-bottom basins that hold water only after rainfall. These unique features are highly important to migrating waterfowl and other wildlife. And because they are bone-dry much of the time, they make great photographic subjects. Place your camera on a tripod, use a wide-angle lens and snap a few shots just after sunrise or before sunset, taking care to vary your exposure times.
For photographing wildlife, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens. In this part of the country, a 300mm lens is not too long, and a 400mm is even better. Be prepared, you might see an American Avocet, a badger or a swift fox. The telephoto lens will also work nicely for photographing the prairie dogs you’ll see. Break up the day with a picnic lunch at nearby Optima Lake, but keep the camera handy. This large but shallow body of water is highly attractive to shorebirds and waterfowl.
Oklahoma’s largest ecoregion is the Central Great Plains. Encompassing most of the western half of the state, this region features a rolling landscape dotted with scattered trees and shrubs. During spring, the vast fields of prairie grasses can be a green oasis, but the summer sun and limited rainfall quickly change the landscape into subdued shades of beige and brown highlighted with Oklahoma’s vibrant red-clay dirt. The Central Great Plains is also rich in natural wonders, making it ideal for a variety of outdoor pursuits.
How about some spelunking? Alabaster Caverns State Park, near Freedom, boasts the world’s largest gypsum cave that is open to the public. Daily guided tours of the three-quarter-mile cavern are available, and wild caving is allowed with a permit. Afterwards, unwind by driving a dune buggy or ATV through the sand dunes at Little Sahara State Park near Waynoka.
Another option is to hit the links at the Roman Nose Golf Course, near Watonga. Roman Nose State Park is one of Oklahoma’s seven original state parks, and offers the state’s only canyon-style golf course.
“I love the natural beauty of the canyons and springs, the history [of the Civilian Conservation Corps] and the Indian heritage, which combine to make this park stand out and apart from the rest of western Oklahoma,” says Betina King, clerk at Roman Nose State Park.
Some of the state’s most breathtaking terrain is found in north-central Oklahoma, with its rolling hills of big bluestem and switchgrass known as the Tallgrass Prairie. Once covering 142 million acres across 14 states, the Tallgrass Prairie has been considerably reduced due to its conversion for agricultural use, suppression of natural wildfires and suburban sprawl. Fortunately, Oklahoma’s Kay and Osage counties support some of the greatest remaining vestiges of this special landscape.
So take the kids to see a bison at the 39,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, or go saugeye fishing at Bluestem Lake – one of my favorite Oklahoma reservoirs. Or, you can rent a cabin and unwind at Osage Hills State Park.
Osage Hills is situated in wooded, rolling hills and features dedicated hiking and mountain-biking trails. It’s also great for fall-foliage viewing, and occasionally hosts bald eagles during the winter.
The Crosstimbers ecoregion comprises a large sector of central Oklahoma, extending roughly from Bartlesville to Ardmore. This is a transition zone where eastern deciduous forest meets the western prairie. The landscape here is characterized by rolling hills, deep lakes and open fields framed by thick forests of oak, hickory and hackberry trees. One moment you’re walking through a rocky field of knee-high prairie grass, and the next you’re listening to a gurgling clear-water stream as it flows through a hardwood forest.
Begin your exploration of the Crosstimbers ecoregion with a visit to Lake Texoma, where you can hire a guide to take you fishing for striped bass. If you’re a golfer, check out the course at nearby Chickasaw Pointe, which is rated as one of the nation’s 10 best public golf courses.
Should you just want to get outside and explore, don’t miss Turner Falls Park located near Davis. Unwind here with a dip in a spring-fed pool, hike through the Arbuckle Mountains or relax with a picnic lunch.
The nearby Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur is a great place for hiking and bird watching. “With the central flyway overhead, over 200 bird species can be seen in the park,” says Park Ranger Eric Leonard.
Some of Oklahoma’s most scenic woodlands and lakes are found in the Caves & Prairie ecoregion in the state’s northeastern corner. This is an enigmatic region, hilly and densely wooded in some reaches, while others are open tallgrass prairie. Even the region’s lakes vary widely, as some are large, open bodies of wind-swept waters, while others are deep, clear-water lakes insulated by thick forests.
Located on the shores of Fort Gibson Lake is Sequoyah State Park, which has boat rentals, a golf course with pro shop and trails for horseback riding and hiking and The Lodge at Sequoyah State Park. Mountain bikers can ride the trails at the nearby Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area in Tulsa. During the winter months, head to scenic Greenleaf Lake for bald eagle viewing or to fish. Summer offers a stunning array of activities at Greenleaf State Park, one of Oklahoma’s most charming parks.
Oklahoma’s Ozark Highlands ecoregion consists of rolling hills of oak, hickory and pine forests, plus lots of water. Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees and its surrounding ten state parks are the region’s most popular attractions, and the lake itself is the place for boating, swimming and water-skiing.
Natural Falls State Park, near West Siloam Springs, is home to a 77-foot waterfall and was used in the filming of Where the Red Fern Grows. Naturally, this is a great place to bring your camera or to visit, just to say you’ve been there.
Another option is to take a float trip on the Illinois River. The Illinois is one of Oklahoma’s most popular canoeing and rafting rivers, and it has numerous campsites along its course.
If you have a crowd to entertain, take a stroll through the Lendonwood Gardens near Grove. This six-acre botanical garden features more than 1,200 different types of plants and six distinct gardens with unique themes and atmospheres.
Oklahoma’s Ozark Forest ecoregion, also known as the Boston Mountains, features a heavily forested and hilly landscape of oak and hickory. While it’s primarily a wooded region, you’ll find isolated cornfields growing in fertile fields near the ecoregion’s many rivers and streams. Tall rock bluffs and wooded shorelines surround some of Oklahoma’s most scenic waters.
This region is home to the Lower Illinois River – one of only two Oklahoma year-round trout streams – while Lake Tenkiller is a favorite for boating, water-skiing, swimming, birdwatching and scuba diving.
Get off the beaten track and go camping at Brushy Lake Park near Sallisaw, or visit the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian. Here, visitors can grab cameras or binoculars and walk the one-mile Horton Slough Nature Trail where they may catch a glimpse of wood ducks, herons or egrets. Or, for a more leisurely tour through the refuge, stay in your car and take the six-mile auto tour route. This self-guided tour takes you through wetland and agricultural habitats, where you may see bobcats, river otters or white-tailed deer.
Oklahoma’s first visitors are thought to have viewed the Hardwood Forest ecoregion before any other. Heavener Runestone Park celebrates these early travelers and offers educational programs about the runestone, a stone on the property that features runic inscriptions, as well as opportunities to explore and hike the region’s wooded ridges and valleys. While the Hardwood Forest ecoregion is thickly wooded, it is a less hilly terrain than the Ozark Forest to the north.
Lake Eufaula, the largest lake in Oklahoma, boasts excellent fishing, swimming, camping and water-skiing. It is also noted for its wintertime bald eagle viewing. Visit Robbers Cave State Park and explore the hideouts of former outlaws including Belle Star and Frank and Jesse James. The park’s rocky bluffs offer excellent climbing and rappelling, and its forested hills make it a popular destination for fall foliage viewing.
The Ouachita Mountains ecoregion could possible boast the state’s best scenery. With rolling, pine-covered hills and remote, wilderness-like sections, this southeastern Oklahoma region also offers some of the most diverse recreational opportunities in the state.
Beavers Bend State Park and Lodge is situated on the shores of Lake Broken Bow, which is legendary for its scenic qualities. You can enjoy driving the pine-framed fairways at the 18-hole Cedar Creek Golf Course, walk the park’s nature trails, go canoeing or take a fly rod and fish for rainbow and brown trout on the Lower Mountain Fork River. (NOTE: The Cedar Creek Golf Course is closed through November 2020).
The Glover River, just west of here, is the state’s last major free-flowing river. As the jewel of Oklahoma’s waterways, the Glover is a wilderness stream known for canoeing and kayaking during the spring. It is also home to a unique strain of smallmouth bass found nowhere else in the world called the Ouachita-strain smallmouth bass, as well as the endangered leopard darter.
During autumn, don’t miss the 54-mile Talimena National Scenic Byway for some of the best fall foliage viewing in the region. It’s also a great drive during the spring. And for a real change of pace, go hang gliding at Buffalo Mountain near Talihina.
Known locally as the “piney woods,” this ecoregion was once home to vast stands of oak and hickory forests, but is now primarily covered in loblolly and shortleaf pine. It also features Oklahoma’s cypress-studded swamps and sloughs, which look much like those you’d find just a bit farther south in Louisiana. This part of the state is generally much warmer than the central and western sections. In fact, on a recent January trip to the vicinity, the temperature was 80 degrees and my son enjoyed swimming.
Wildlife abounds here, so don’t miss the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area, where you could see a black bear, river otter or an American alligator. Red Slough is also one of the state’s premier birding destinations, offering the opportunity to see such varied species as the roseate spoonbill, white ibis, wood stork and, during winter, the golden eagle. To stay for a while, rent a cabin at Hugo Lake State Park and go hiking, biking or bass fishing.