An Extended Weekend in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma
It was school fall break in Oklahoma, and the boys of Boy Scout Troop 275, Choctaw, Oklahoma, had decided to take an extended camping trip to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Their excitement about the refuge was a direct result of activities of my son, Curtis (Cdoiron
on SP), and myself. We’d visited there several times in the last couple years, and had brought back some pictures of the rocks, mountains and wildlife that were abundant to this area of a state that is otherwise dominated by plains. That had resulted in the troop's first trip there in November 2007. They were eager to return, so I was tasked to obtain permits to camp at Fawn Creek Youth Campground and the Charon’s Garden Wilderness – no small feat during one of the busiest weekends of the year for the refuge! The boys also decided that this would be a hiking and backpacking weekend: We would emphasize a backpacking menu and skills, and Leave No Trace ethic, regardless of whether we were in the backcountry or the front country. In that spirit, the boys prepared their own backpacking meals, to include making GORP and cooking crepes the Monday before the campout.
THURSDAY - The Arrival and the First Night
As it would turn out, six of us would drive down Thursday evening. We’d arrive shortly before sunset, so other than setting up camp in Fawn Creek, we did little more than relax around a campfire. That night the wind was calm, but the temperatures were cool. I was awakened (as were all six of us) by the call of a bull elk (commonly called elk, the more correct term is wapiti). Though it was late in the season (mid-October; normally elk rut is in the last two weeks of September), this elk was bugling within a couple hundred yards of us. And, occasionally on this still night, we could hear the distant response of some competitor for the affections of an Elk cow or two (during rut, each bull elk will round up as many cows as he can, forming what is called a harem). This went on until sunrise, though I was up and about well before. That is, I’d told the other assistant scoutmaster that I planned to drive the Jeep around Lake Latonka to take a few pictures of Mount Scott to post on SummitPost.
FRIDAY - Bat Cave Mountain and Crab Eyes
On my way out of the refuge, the moon, which was three days past full, brightly lit up the landscape. Regardless, the clear skies revealed a true splendor not seen from the edge of the city where I live. I reveled as Orion and Canis Major soared high over Elk Mountain (so named because legend has it that the last native Elk was seen on it). I decided to try to capture that moment and, while waiting for each lengthy exposure to time out, listened as the elk bugling continued in the distance. Finally, driving around Lake Latonka I shot a number of shots of Mount Scott. During my return, which I figured should take about fifteen minutes, I kept finding new shots that begged to be taken. The cool air temperature (38°F on the Jeep’s thermometer) and the warmer lake water caused steam to arise, lending a mystical ambiance to many of the images. There was Lake Latonka, the waterfall at Medicine Park, Quanah Parker Lake and Little Baldy. And then there was a Bison that was strolling just off the roadway, and a pair of female elk that must have decided that none of the suitors the previous evening were quite suitable enough. Before I knew it, I was an hour late returning to our campsite!
Orion and Canis Major over Elk Mountain.
Little Baldy and Quanah Parker Lake.
Bison and Elk Mountain.
Upon my return I talked with the boys about our intended destination: Bonanza Mine. After describing the route and the destination (a vertical mineshaft that was usually flooded), they said they were more interested in hiking to a cave. So, we made a last minute decision to hike to Bat Cave (also known as Wind Cave). Since this was not originally planned by the boys a couple weeks earlier when deciding their itinerary for the campout, the only information I had on it was from the book Outdoor and Trail Guide to the Wichita Mountains of Southwest Oklahoma
by Edward Charles Ellenbrook. Unfortunately, the verbal descriptions in it would prove inadequate in helping us locate the cave. However, we did spend the remainder of the morning climbing the east side to the summit of Bat Cave Mountain, within which the cave is located. At the top we’d revel in the excellent weather, and we’d enjoy nice views of Mount Lincoln and the surrounding mountains and plains. We ate a trail lunch on the peak, before descending the north side, hiking back to the road and returning to our vehicles. We then drove back to Fawn Creek Campground, arriving just as the second, and largest, contingent of Scouts arrived. (Note: After our return home I researched Bat Cave and learned that had we approached it from the south, rather than from the north, it would have been obvious even from the road - we were just above it, but had climbed and departed on the wrong sides of the mountain to see it).
Climbing Bat Cave Mountain.
Pothole ecosystem on Bat Cave Mountain.
While they set up their tents, the first group of Scouts and leaders (dubbed Crew 1) destined for a night in Charon’s Garden Wilderness prepared their backpacks. We did a brief shakedown to double-check that they had the required gear. Then, with everyone all set, we hiked out into Charon’s Garden, headed for Crab Eyes. The boys had decided a couple weeks earlier that this would be a good destination because it was an interesting rock formation, and because it would allow everyone to survey the backcountry camping area. However, I was the only person who’d hike out to it, and I’d only done that one time. So, we missed a turn and ended up … not lost … but certainly not on the best route to Crab Eyes. The problem in Charon’s Garden is that Texas longhorn frequent the area. And they leave behind a maze of trails that can easily confuse the unwary hiker. Since there are no trail signs or markers, it’s easy to head off on a nearby, but incorrect path.
Wrong way to Crab Eyes (seen in the distance).
I realized my mistake pretty quickly – there was a split in the trail about a half mile back and I’d advised the hike leader to take the left, more trodden trail. I should have followed the advice of Robert Frost and taken the path less traveled. In fact, that actually was the more traveled path, but a heavy, grassy overgrowth belied that fact. So, we ended up bushwhacking to the north to return to the proper trail. Because of that detour in our trip, and the hour of the day getting late, we elected to not finish the journey out to Crab Eyes, but instead to return to the vehicles and Fawn Creek. All of us except those scheduled to spend that night in Charon’s Garden, that is. During the hike out we were crossing this beautiful meadow when one of the adult leaders spotted a four-foot diamondback rattlesnake moving across the path. The snake seemed oblivious to our travels, although it's likely that at least several of us stepped right over it!
That evening was another one spent relaxing around the campfire at Fawn Creek. Our final contingent of Scouts and leaders would arrive later that evening – bringing us to 26 total campers. We’d learn the next morning that the backcountry crew enjoyed their backcountry meal of stroganoff with shitake mushrooms (as did we). We would all hear a few distant and infrequent elk bugles, but nothing like the night before. The backcountry crew did comment that the Big Dipper was awesome, laid out on the horizon as it is this time of year (and usually not visible from any area with city light pollution). They also commented positively on the crepes and Nutella. The next morning they awoke to a small herd of about two dozen bison a short distance from their campsite.
SATURDAY - Elk Mountain, Apple and Pear, Valley of Boulders
This being Saturday morning the boys had scheduled us to climb Elk Mountain. We did this by dividing into three crews: The first was the older boys who were camped at Fawn Creek that previous night, the second was the youngest boys, and the third was the older boys who were camped in the backcountry that previous evening. We divided up like this so as to reduce the impact of such a large group on a popular hiking destination. Everyone would hike to the top, then wait for the last crew to arrive. Once everyone had reached the top we ate a trail lunch, admired the wonderful view, and did a little map and compass work. One of the leaders gave a short presentation on the history of the refuge; a history that included reestablishing the bison and elk, and historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Quanah Parker, Frank James, Geronimo and William T. Hornaday. It was a marvelous locale and surely must have impressed these young men with the necessity to preserve this precious, wilderness place.
Younger boys climbing Elk Mountain.
Crew 1 takes a break on Elk Mountain.
Next we divided into two crews: The younger boys returned to the trailhead at Sunset via the same trail they had hiked up on. The older boys (Crews 1 and 2 combined) continued on to the summit block on Elk Mountain. During this part of the hike they stumbled upon another rattlesnake, though this one was miffed to be disturbed. It was good that several of the boys hear, for the first time, what one of these amazing creatures sounds like when annoyed. We then scrambled across the granite slabs of the western part of the mountain to Apple and Pear, descended to the valley below, and returned to Sunset via the Boulder Room and Valley of Boulders.
Massive boulders on the western reaches of Elk Mountain.
Headed to Apple and Pear.
Crews 1 and 2 at Apple and Pear.
Cooling off in the Boulder Room.
After everyone had hiked back to Sunset, we returned to Fawn Creek where the second crew of older boys (Crew 2) prepared for their evening in Charon’s Garden. After packing their gear, they headed out as the rest of us prepared our dinner of cheesy quesadillas. I was scheduled to head into the backcountry with them, but I’d twisted my right ankle pretty hard during the scramble across the Elk Mountain slabs. It had been very challenging for me to get down from the top of the mountain, so I elected to skip an additional couple miles of hiking with a pack to a backcountry campsite.
SUNDAY - The Departure
The next morning the backcountry crew returned while those of us in the front country prepared for our return to Choctaw. The backcountry crew described a bull elk that they had seen from about thirty yards during their hike out. All of the troop gear was packed and a short Scouts Own Service was held. After that we packed up and headed for Quanah Parker Lake, where we made a quick visit to the dam, then to the refuge visitor center, where we learned more about this fascinating land.
It was a great weekend of camping, hiking and backpacking, with a couple mountain summits thrown in for good measure. The boys practiced a lot of hiking, backpacking and non-technical climbing skills. Abundant wildlife, exceptionally pleasant weather, great food and the fellowship of close friends: It truly doesn’t get any better.