A Loop of Elk Mountain, Apple and Pear, and Valley of Boulders
North face of Elk Mountain.
My son Curtis (cdoiron) was on spring break and we decided that we’d take a trip to hike in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. I’d been wanting to climb Elk Mountain, and he wanted to revisit Apple and Pear, which are two large boulders on its western edge. So, we drove the Jeep down that morning, arriving to start our hike about 9 a.m. at Sunset picnic area in the refuge.
We started on the class 1 Elk Mountain Summit Trail.
Typical scrambling on Elk Mountain.
Carved from local rock (of which there’s plenty – it was the heavy presence of these rocks that kept farmer’s plows from intruding into this mixed-grass prairie after the Oklahoma Land Run in the late 1800s), much of it is built like a stairway. It’s a gentle grade, and on this day there were many flowing rivulets from the heavy rains a couple of days earlier. We saw about a half-dozen other folks hiking that morning. While the wind was blowing (20-30 mph), the temperature in the mid-60s kept things quite comfortable.
After about 35 minutes we reached the top of the mountain near its southeast flank. The summit is best described as a long, L-shaped expanse that stretches hundreds of yards from southeast to northwest, then back to the southwest. Here, the trail petered out and became more a series of animal trails, mostly from the longhorn cattle that occasionally find their way up here. We also spotted elk scat in a few places. The actual summit wasn’t obvious. There were several large rocks that were several hundreds of yards apart. We climbed one on the northern edge of the expansive summit, and another one that was farthest away, to the south, and across a deep gorge, appeared to be another 10-20 feet higher. And, since SP says it’s a 5.9 climb to the top of the summit rock, we decided to just keep heading generally to the west, searching for the drop-off to Apple and Pear.
Headed down to Apple and Pear.
After about another 15 minutes we spotted Apple and Pear below us. From where we were, the descent was across large granite slabs that make this area popular with technical climbers.
The arch, with Apple and Pear in the background.
Fortunately for us, we were able to pick our way down slopes of 30-35 degrees until we reached the area just above Apple and Pear where a small arch exists. We then continued making our way down to Apple and Pear. This was definitely class 2 work, with some class 3 moves required. It was about 1 hour and 15 minutes after departing the parking lot that we reached Apple and Pear. We ate a GORP snack, took a few pictures, and then continued on our way to Valley of Boulders directly below.
Curtis had descended from here before, and said that we needed to find a small creek to the south of Apple and Pear, and that we could follow it down to the valley below.
Western face of Elk Mountain just north of Apple and Pear
This area is full of large boulders on a face that is probably 60 degrees. It took some pretty serious moves (for me, anyway) to reach that creek – definitely class 3 work, possibly with even brief class 4 exposure (okay, I might not have died, but I’d be seriously injured had I slipped and there were a couple moments I wished I had a rope). The reader might be interested in my most used move down those wide-open, steep granite slabs. I call it the BS maneuver – the butt slide maneuver; ‘nuff said. We found the stream in short order. Mostly we scrambled from one boulder to another, but twice that wasn’t possible, so we found a path along the creek and under some of the huge boulders.
Scramble down from Apple and Pear.
After about 30 minutes we reached the valley below. From there we headed up the Charon’s Garden Trail, through Valley of Boulders, and back to the Jeep. Upon arriving back at the parking lot, we were surprised how full it was.
When you can't go over or around ...
Indeed, there are actually two parking lots, one allegedly for hikers (more distant from the trailheads, which are by the picnic area), and one for picnickers (where most hikers park anyway). Both lots were full. We hadn’t really thought about it, but there is a well-known passion play held at Holy City, which is located in the refuge, and this was Easter week. Undoubtedly, many of the visitors were here for that, and just happened to wander out to the Elk Mountain trailhead. Fortunately, except for a half-dozen during the first hour of the day, and another dozen during the last half-hour, we’d been by ourselves. Interestingly, several of the folks we’d see during the latter part of the day we know from Scouting. We’d introduced them to Charon’s Garden a few months earlier during a Scouting event, and now they were out there with their family for the third time. It’s a great place to spend time when in Oklahoma, and we topped it off with a burger at the famous Meers Store. Oh, and remember those BS maneuvers? Well, I’d managed to rip out the seat of my REI zip-offs doing that. Fortunately, taking my T-shirt out let it cover most of the damage during our meal in a very popular and packed restaurant!