When one thinks of Oklahoma, it is understandable that wilderness, let alone seldom traveled, rugged, granite canyons would not instantly spring to mind. One trip into the Wichita Mountain’s Styx Canyon would remedy this misconception. Cutting through the heart of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness, Styx Canyon is one of the remotest corners of an already remote corner of the Whichita Mountains. A lack of visitors in no way indicates a lack interesting features and beautiful scenery. On the contrary, this is one of the most striking parts of the Wichitas. The canyon has many of the best features that define the Charon’s Garden Wilderness: high granite cliffs, massive granite boulders, lush meadows and small creeks and sweeping vistas that take in scenes both dramatic and far reaching. Though certainly not quite the same magnitude as the Elk Mountain area, this is still section of the Wichita Mountains that is extremely rugged, with the luster of seeing very few visitors pass through.
Styx Canyon, not quite 1.5 miles in length, is the longest and largest canyon in the Charon’s Garden Wilderness. The canyon has two very different portions. The upper canyon, beginning just over a ridge from the infamous Crab Eyes, extends about 0.6 miles to the southwest. This section of the canyon is very narrow and filled with massive truck sized boulders. This portion is similar to, albeit more ragged than, the Valley of Boulders that is traversed by the Charon’s Garden Trail. The massive rocks make for interesting route finding and it is not uncommon to go a fair distance before coming to a 20 or 30 foot drop-off, often necessitating a bit of backtracking. Where the boulders do not choke the upper canyon, one finds small groves of post oak and juniper. Small tanks often fill these areas. Although it is not very deep at the canyon’s headwall, by the time it passes beneath Twin Rocks Mountain upper Styx Canyon is about 400 feet deep, with high, sheer granite walls, particularly on the east side.
The lower portion of Styx Canyon stands in stark contrast to the upper section of the canyon. Where the upper half was a narrow, boulder clogged fissure, the lower half is a broad, lush valley, nestled between the towering Twin Rocks and Granite Mountains on the east and Charon’s Garden Mountain in the west. Unnamed, high granite walls complete the encirclement of this isolated vale. A small, seasonal creek drains the valley, flowing out into the farmland at the foot of the mountains. A few tanks are nestled into the grassy terrain. A fire burned through the Charon’s Garden Wilderness in September 2011. Although its mark was left on parts of the upper canyon, lower Styx Canyon felt the conflagration’s touch. Burned junipers and ghostly trunks offer testimony of the fire’s presence.
Despite the lack of human visitors, Styx Canyon still sees its share of bison, the nearly ubiquitous denizen of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The probabliity to see these giant beasts set against the backdrop of the tortured pink granite of the domes and crags is a thrilling prospect. Of course, the opportunity for climbing on the granite walls, particularly those at the north end of the lower canyon, and scrambling on the massive boulders is an additional inducement. However, the chief attraction of Styx Canyon is the chance to lose oneself in a seldom seen, beautiful landscape in the midst of the surrounding plains.
Styx Canyon can be approached from three directions. One can enter the lower canyon from the west, coming from Charon’s Garden Mountain and from the east, climbing over Granite Mountain. The third approach is from the north, climbing over the ridge that stands just south of the Crab Eyes. The western approach is the longest and is most seldom used, simply because it is impractical. An epic loop covering much of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness can be constructed by combining the northern and eastern approaches. This would include hiking to the Crab Eyes and then entering Styx Canyon at the north. After passing through the upper canyon and then hiking through the lower canyon, one then climbs over Granite Mountain, coming within feet of the summit, and easy deviation from the route. After descending the east side of the peak, one links up with the Charon’s Garden Trail and returns to the trailhead. More information is available here.
Getting ThereFrom I-44 take Highway 49 (exit 45). Go west 10 miles to the Refuge gate. Proceed through the park, past the visitors and turn right at the stop sign. Continue west and turn left into the Sunset Picnic Area.
If coming from Highway 62, take Highway 115 (Cache exit) north to the Refuge Gate. Proceed north. The road will turn west and continue until turning left into the Sunset Picnic Area.
Camping in the wilderness is by permit only. These can be obtained for $2.00 at the visitors center or by mail. Permits are issued for a maximum of ten people in the backcountry at one time. Only the northern portion of the wilderness is open to camping and no fires are permitted. Watch out for bison and longhorns, since they tend to wander through this area.
Doris campground is a few miles away and is a good option if you do want to sleep in the backcountry. Another great option is the group campground on the eastern border of the wilderness. It is much cheaper than the Doris campground and you can head up into the wilderness directly from there if you do not mind some bushwhacking.
Department of the Interior
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
R.R. #1 Box 448
Indiahoma, OK 73552
Refuge Camping Site
Styx Canyon is located in the Charon's Garden Wilderness Area of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Unlike most wilderness area, this one is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). No permits or fees are required to climb, but camping is by permit only. Wilderness rules and ethics apply.
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge,
Route 1, Box 448,
Indiahoma, OK 73552