Elk Mountain Trail is a 1.1-mile trail (one way) that provides easy access to the broad, mesa-like summit of Elk Mountain in Charon's Garden Wilderness, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, OK. Along the way the hiker will have great views of the surrounding plains and mountains, most of which are part of the refuge. At the top, the hiker is able to take in the spectacular scenery of Charon's Garden Wilderness. The true summit of Elk Mountain is a large boulder. While several photos are provided of that boulder, summiting it (estimated as 5.9 minimum difficulty) is not included in this route description. An alternative descent, making the trail into a loop, is also described. This alternative descent will extend the hiking time to about a half day. It takes the hiker past the arch, Apple and Pear, Big Boulder Room and Valley of Boulders.
Elk Mountain Trail is located in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Use the Getting There instructions for that page, then make your way to Sunset Picnic Area. From the parking area
Map of route, including the alternative loop descent.
(most hikers park in the "picnicker" parking area, despite what the signs say), head straight ahead across the bridge over Sunset Pool. You should see a sign for Elk Mountain Trail immediately after crossing the bridge.
The Primary Trail
Elk Mountain Trail is a typical "park service" class 1 trail (though the refuge is actually run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). It consists mostly of blocks of rock that have been placed to form almost a staircase along the trail. The grade is gentle, and there are many places with shade during leaf on. The route initially leads southeast around the mountain before heading up to the broad summit. This is a popular trail, so there will be many places that other hikers have worn new paths off the designated trail. To stay on the correct one, just follow the rocks that are placed both as stairs and as a border almost the entire length of the trail. Other than that, there are no other markings/blazes.
After you reach the broad summit, the trail will split. The official trail leads off easterly and provides great views of the refuge and nearby Mount Lincoln. The westerly trail leads to the summit block. In fact, this trail will shortly peter out and you'll be forced to bushwhack along class 3 rocks and crevices thickly laden with trees and scrub brush to actually reach the base of the very large summit rock. There will be an occasional large, open slab of granite, and these provide a good opportunity to check your progress and direction towards the summit block, which is easily visible at those times. The following sequence of images shows how the hike progresses from Sunset Pool to the official end of the trail on the east side of the mountain, then back westerly towards the summit block:
Elk Mountain Trailhead at Sunset Pool.
Typical of the class 1 trail to the Elk Mountain summit.
Heading easterly as the trail splits on the broad summit of Elk Mountain.
View to the east from the end of the class 1 trail to the Elk Mountain summit.
View of Mount Lincoln from the end of the Elk Mountain Trail.
View to the west along Elk Mountain Trail. The summit block is prominent on the horizon just left of center.
The trail peters out along about here.
Granite slabs before the summit block.
Nearing the summit block.
Bryan checks out the summit block.
Below the summit block.
Marvin is about as close as you can get to the summit block without class 5 work.
Alternative Descent and Return Hike
The return can be made by reversing the path taken. Or, to make things more interesting, the class 1 trail may be combined with a descent that takes the hiker past Apple and Pear and down into Valley of Boulders. Depending on the specific route selected, this may involve class 3, and possibly even brief class 4 moves. The following series of photos show what this alternate descent looks like:
Hiking the western slopes of Elk Mountain.
Continuing on to Apple and Pear.
Apple and Pear sighted (upper left).
Checking out the arch, with Apple and Pear in the background.
Checking out Apple and Pear. The easy descent is just in front of the hiker and to the left.
The more difficult descent (through the gully) from Apple and Pear.
After descending Elk Mountain, you should be able to easily pick up Charon's Garden Trail (you'll probably end up at a place that it splits into two trails running parallel about 150-200 yards apart). Take this trail to the right, which will wind its way back through Valley of Boulders (don't miss Big Boulder Room, a great place to cool off for a few minutes!). After scrambling through Valley of Boulders, the rest of the hike to the parking lot is an easy, well-maintained trail.
Take plenty of water, though there are usually water sources (requiring treatment) along the route. Poison ivy and greenbriar are not a problem along the class 1 trail, but if you choose to strike out for the summit boulder or to take the alternate descent, you'll be at the mercy of these hiker's torments. Dress appropriately.