A Traverse of the Three Summits of Sunset Peak in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife RefugeIt started with a private message from Alan Ellis: Was I interested in a mini-SP reunion in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Goal would be to hike a little, perhaps out to Sunset Peak. I’d never met Alan, but knew enough from what he posted on SP to realize that he was a much more capable climber than I; I don’t do technical. However, he did say hike, and that was certainly right up my alley. And, I’m always looking for an excuse to visit the Wichita Mountains, the crown jewel of a state that is better known for its flat, uninspiring landscape. So I accepted the invitation. We agreed to meet at Sunset Picnic Area between 9 and 9:30 in the morning. I would receive a couple more PMs updating me that everyone else could not make it, but he was still going. If I made it, I’d recognize him by his red Jeep. I replied I was still going, and that he could recognize me by my Green Jeep. I already liked this guy.
I drove the Jeep down to arrive well before sunset. The Wichita Mountains are a very photogenic area, and I was always eager to add to the work already on SP from this area. So, I spent that time wandering both around the eastern side of Lake Latonka to take some photos of Sunset Peak, and within the refuge to take some photos of Bat Cave Mountain. The refuge also hosts large herds of bison and longhorn cattle, as well as a large elk population. So, I kept my eyes open for any opportunities to photograph these large mammals as the morning progressed. In the meantime, I also struggled to keep myself warm, because I didn’t have a full top on the Jeep, it was pretty cold, and the wind was whipping through the open rear. Fortunately, Jeeps are well-known for having high output heaters, and mine was getting a good workout on this blustery morning.
As I was driving in I was followed by a red Jeep Cherokee. I wondered if this might be Alan, but the driver appeared much younger than I expected Alan to be. Also, there was a passenger. They followed me for a couple miles until I saw a nice photo opportunity of Mount Sheridan. I did a quick U-turn, spent a few minutes back down the road taking a few pictures, then proceeded on my way to Bat Cave Mountain. A couple miles further I passed the Cherokee, which was stopped as its occupants were running around with cameras taking a picture of who knows what (okay, I’d later learn it was an Elk). I stopped in several places to photograph Bat Cave Mountain, as well as the setting moon, which made an interesting juxtaposition with Elk Mountain, some geese, and various rock formations in the area. It was just past 9 a.m. and, as is usual for me, I was having so much fun photographing that I was reluctant to give it up temporarily to go meet with someone. But, I did want to meet and hike with Alan. Here are a few of the images I shot that morning (before beginning the hike):
I drove the Jeep to Sunset Picnic Area and looked for a red Jeep. There was that Cherokee again. And right next to it was a red Jeep Wrangler TJ. So I parked next to it and the owner came up to me and said, “When you said you’d be in a green Jeep, you didn’t say it’d be a four door JK!” “You must be Alan?”, I said with a big grin. I’d quickly learn that the occupants of the Cherokee were The Lower Marmot (Sam) and his friend, Collin. And I also met Scout, Alan’s white lab (and as the day wore on I’d realize he was the most disciplined lab I’d ever seen). Alan asked if everyone was ready, which we were, so we set off at about 9:20.
Sunset Peak has three significant summits, as well as a couple significant rock outcroppings that some might tag as sub-summits. We decided to go for the southern-most rock outcropping that we could see (one more being hidden behind it). We hiked up to the saddle between that rock outcropping and the southern summit (which is the Sunset Peak high point). It was during this part of the ascent that we stumbled on a bull elk. He was about 50 yards away on an adjacent slope. He scampered off through the brush. We waited a few minutes, hoping he’d reappear so that we might get a few pictures, but we never did see him again.
We continued hiking to the saddle, then along it to the base of the rocky outcropping. Because the last few feet involved some minor bouldering, Alan decided to remain behind with Scout as Sam, Collin and I struck out for the summit. I was first there and decided that it was much too windy to stand up on this small rock surface. I waited for Sam and Collin to reach the summit, we admired the view, then I headed back down.
Here we ran into a little more bushwhacking, but nothing too much. Once again it seemed like only a few minutes before we reached the rocky summit. We noted that there was a small party of folks over on the north summit. We hadn’t seen them hiking out across the plain below us, so we figured they’d parked their vehicle just below the summit and hiked straight up. Alan’s observation: “What’s the fun in that?” It still being quite blustery, we took a respite just below the summit and had a little snack. About fifteen minutes later the other party was gone (presumably they hiked directly back down to their waiting vehicle). So we struck out for the north summit.
SP’s climber’s log is replete with comments about the difficulty of this bushwhack. And that’s no kidding. Although it was late fall, the foliage was very dense. It wasn’t until we were just below the immediate summit that a few rocks were exposed, permitting us to scramble the last few feet without being attacked by the trees. We spent a few minutes relaxing on the top, taking a few pictures of the beauty that surrounded us. Here are a couple of mine:
Looking down the east face, it appeared we were in for a very tough return directly to the plain below. And, appearances did not deceive. It was necessary to bushwhack on this face for the entire decent. Alan commented that in the growing season it’s even worse: Poison ivy and greenbrier are everywhere, as are ticks and mosquitoes. Sure enough, we’d get hung up now and then on the greenbrier. And we did find a few ticks on us here and there, which was surprising considering that it was pretty cool. After about 30 minutes we reached the plain, where the hiking became much easier. We did not see any more of the large mammals until we neared the streambed that cuts across. There, we stumbled on another bull elk that, once again, was much quicker than our cameras.
It wasn’t very long before we scrambled up a small embankment and were on the Charon’s Garden Trail, just a few tenths of a mile from the trailhead. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived back at the parking lot. We spent a few minutes in pleasant discussion, shook hands, and parted ways. Although it had been a cool, windy day, it was still a pleasant one to be out with good folks in a wilderness setting. We had a great day, completed a six-mile traverse of the three main summits of Sunset Peak, got some great pictures, and once again were able to appreciate the beauty of this great land in which we live.
From Alan: I really like doing stuff with people who actually show up and are on time. I don't know how many times I have stood around forever at some trailhead waiting for someone to show up and they didn't....or they were extremely late. However, this was not the case today, and when two Jeeps showed up promptly at 9:00 am, I knew it was gonna be a good day. Meeting Internet killers is always interesting and fun, but Mark, Sam, and Collin seem fairly normal. It is always nice to put the names with the faces after such a long time of seeing them on SP. One of the great things about this site are the people and it would once again prove to be true. Anyway, enough mush, on with the hike.
Sunset Peak is my favorite day hike. The solitude and scenery is what draws it to me time after time. And each time the experience is different. Every time I go, I have to remind myself that I'm in Oklahoma and not somewhere else. We're lucky to have this area to hike and climb. This time...seeing the elk up close and personal was the highlight of the day and the fall turn was spectacular to say the least. The day was very enjoyable and it was fun listening to Sam and Collin banter back and forth. Mark steadily trudged along while Scout blazed a trail in front of us. We took our time and never got into a hurry which is how I like my Sunset Peak hikes.
Thanks to Mark, Sam, and Collin for the day and the photos. We'll have to do it again soon.