Whether you’re looking to teach your little one about fishing, explore a hiking trail or go wildlife viewing, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Mother Nature in the Sooner State. If you’re looking to get outside with the kids, here are some ideas for you to get your hands dirty.
Some of the best and most accessible nature centers are found in Oklahoma's state parks, and they are all open to the public whether you’re planning an overnight stay or not. Over at Tenkiller State Park in Vian, the Driftwood Nature Center conducts a variety of activities like kids’ fishing clinics and fall festivals. At Greenleaf State Park in Braggs, visitors can participate in pontoon boat tours of scenic Greenleaf Lake, hay rides and astronomy programs. Children can learn about the plentiful wildlife surrounding Beavers Bend State Park in Broken Bow as they enjoy hay rides, train rides and hiking in the park.
While the greatest variety of such activities is available during the warmer months, some, such also feature planned activities during the winter. Lake Murray State Park in Ardmore conducts weekend family programs in December and January including candle making, building bird feeders, watching movies and an array of nature programs.
American Bison Viewing
Watching animals in the wild can be both fascinating and educational. One of the most intriguing species to observe is one that was once synonymous with the Great Plains, the American Bison, also known as the buffalo.
Standing six feet high at the shoulder and weighing up to a ton, the American Bison once numbered more than 30 million and roamed North America in magnificent herds before being brought to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century. Today their numbers have rebounded to roughly 500,000 worldwide, and many of these animals are part of Oklahoma herds.
One of the best places to see the buffalo is at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, located in Osage County near Pawhuska. The Oklahoma Nature Conservancy has reintroduced these animals to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve – the largest remaining tract of protected tallgrass prairie remaining on Earth – realizing that buffalo are a vital part of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Bring the entire family to this awe-inspiring landscape to enjoy some exercise and fresh air.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve has a 10-mile Bison Loop, allowing you to drive and locate the roaming herds of buffalo. Along the way, there are several scenic turnouts where you can get out of your car to admire the view. The staff at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve recommends bringing a pair of binoculars to view distant bison and also advises remaining in your car if the buffalo are nearby. Being wild animals, they are unpredictable.
Other locations where you can view buffalo include the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur and southwest Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Chickasaw features a small herd, which can be viewed in the designated area right off U.S. 177, near the south side of the park.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Lawton maintains a herd of 650 bison, but they’re scattered all over the 60,000-acre refuge. Because it is difficult to predict where the buffalo will be on any given day, it is best to inquire at the visitor center once you arrive.
Hiking and Rock Hopping
Hiking itself is a great way to get the entire family outside to enjoy some exercise and fresh air. Throw in some boulder hopping or rock climbing and it becomes a challenging and intriguing activity, especially for children.
One of the best places to combine these activities is at Robbers Cave State Park near Wilburton. Along with its namesake cave, which kids love to explore, the Robbers Cave State Park Trail System boasts several miles of hiking trails. Some of the most intriguing points are those along the Robbers Cave Trail. This is a fairly easy, ¾-mile loop around the cave and rock-climbing areas, where you can branch off and enjoy some hiking through rock formations.
Another excellent area is the Charon’s Garden Trail located at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Lawton. Start by finding the trail at the Sunset Picnic Area, which leads you to the Valley of the Boulders. At this point, you can make your own trail, as you’ll have to climb, hop and crawl over, under and around these irregular features. Don’t feel like you have to hike a certain distance to be successful. This is a very slow journey, and the enjoyment comes from the process of negotiating these obstacles.
Seeing the state from the back of a horse is not only an authentic way to enjoy nature with your children, it’s also very fun. Best of all, stables and equestrian trails are found in all corners of the state.
At Sequoyah State Park, 300 acres of open and wooded areas virtually guarantee the family will spot a deer. Horseback riding for children and adults is available at the Sequoyah Riding Stables on Fort Gibson Lake. Kids ages six and older can ride their own horses, and younger children can either ride double with their parents, or the stables can provide them with their own ponies. These rides take about an hour and cover roughly four miles.
Other Kid-Approved Activities
Some destinations, such as Turner Falls Park near Davis, may not conduct organized activities, but their unique and intriguing attractions make them fun to visit. Home to a 77-foot waterfall, the park provides summertime fun with its natural swimming pool beneath the falls. Kids will enjoy swimming in this cool, clear, spring-fed pool, especially when the temperature reaches triple digits.
Natural Falls State Park at West Siloam Springs in eastern Oklahoma is also home to a 77-foot waterfall. Descend the trail and 47 steps to the base of the falls, where you can view and photograph this breathtaking feature from an observation deck. A total of 1.5 miles of hiking and nature trails are also available.
Alabaster Caverns State Park near Freedom is the place to explore a cave. You can take a guided tour through a lighted cavern, or you can obtain a permit and explore these caves by yourself. Either way, the kids are going to love it here. If you choose the latter, bring along the proper equipment, including a hardhat, flashlight, water bottle and boots above the ankle.
Quartz Mountain State Park in Lone Wolf offers the Eagle’s Roost ATV area on the north shore of Lake Altus-Lugert. This sandy, ATV-dedicated area is a great place for kids to ride, and during summer, you can park the ATVs on the beach and go swimming in the lake. You will have to bring your own four-wheeler or other ATV and helmets, as the park does not provide rentals.
There is also hiking and rock climbing at Quartz Mountain, featuring trails appropriate for all skill levels. Hiking is not restricted to the marked trails in the mountains so you can boulder hop or scramble almost anywhere you like in the park. The hiking trails going up into the mountains are moderate to strenuous, while those skirting the base are easy to moderate. Next door at Quartz Mountain Fun Park kids of all ages will enjoy fun summertime attractions like water slides, go-carts and arcades.