Half a Billion Years in the Making: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Saturday, June 10, 2017 - 10:01am
Bison in the distance at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

We’d driven under an overcast sky all morning and into the afternoon, but by the time we entered the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Western Oklahoma all was clear and blue except for one orphan cotton ball and a few wisps of white. We coasted through grazing Texas longhorn munching on prairie grass. The calves idly watched as we passed, but the adults kept their heads down. I could practically hear them muttering “darn tourists.”

After picking up a map at the Visitor Center we made our way to Doris Campground. I was getting nervous because it was nearly 5 p.m. and the campsites were first come first serve, but I needn’t have worried.

Doris has seventy campsites. Sixty-eight were empty.

We picked Campsite #44, an expansive site overlooking Quanah Parker Lake, and Jim set up the tent while I began unpacking our “kitchen” bins. The sun began to set and a man and boy fished on the still waters. As the light faded the air chilled quickly and we cooked over a fire and ate in the stillness. After the frenetic activity of the past three days, we could finally just be.

We went to bed early. I figured I’d sleep well because it was chilly and we were exhausted, but I also knew that whether I did or didn’t was irrelevant because we were camping. One of my personal contradictions is that it doesn’t matter how little actual sleep I get; if I’m in a tent, in the morning I always feel more awake than I do anywhere else. This is despite the rustling of animals wondering where in the heck we put the graham crackers, followed shortly by the incessant chatter of whatever birds call our current campsite home (and they’re always gossipy-don’t-ever-stop-to-take-a-breath chatty birds). It doesn’t matter if I’ve pulled the covers over my head so that I’m inhaling my own exhaling because it’s below freezing outside, or if I’ve thrown them off and I’m lying in a pool of sweat because it’s sweltering. When I step outside the tent in the predawn and am greeted with the very first rays of sun peeking over the horizon, I’m awake.

This night was rough. Something kept snuffling at our tent. We were in a place where bison and longhorn cattle roam free, and with every scratch and muffled nudge I wondered if a hoof was going to stomp on my head. I made it through the night and, alerted that dawn was coming by the increased volume of the birds, I unzipped the tent and stepped into peace.

Our front porch was a softly rippling lake rimmed by bare branches reaching towards a sky of deepest richest blue. Camera and phone in hand, I walked the thirty or so feet down the hill to the water’s edge. A crescent moon twinkled in the corner of my vision. The horizon changed from midnight to orange to yellow, and when I turned back to look up the hill it was awash in the golden hues of a winter sunrise.

I may not have gotten much sleep, but I was definitely awake.

I ignited the propane to start making my coffee and pulled out my journal, knowing full well that I was going to fill it with flowery and nauseating puffery. I would have pages and pages of dreck, and it would be glorious -

Then a rustle. I turned and a deer emerged from the tree line into the empty neighboring campsite. It stopped, stared, and waited. My first thought was “That was YOU keeping me up all night!” (I think I actually said it.) Then came another. And another. A wild turkey warbled. A woodpecker pecked. Geese landed near the shore, leaving v-shaped trails in the now-still water. The deer picked their way towards the road and my kettle bubbled.

It was freaking magical. I felt like Snow White, like Disney’s animators had sketched us into their next woodland scene. “Where are the dwarfs?” I wanted to cry. “All we’re missing is dwarfs!”

We ate breakfast and broke camp. It went surprisingly quickly, considering we’d only camped once the previous year and we weren’t accustomed to camping for one night at a time. We were motivated, though. We were in a geological time warp and had some exploring to do.

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was established in 1901 by Oklahoma’s General Land Office. It went through a few government offices before landing as the purview of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s the oldest managed wildlife system in their portfolio, and its 59,020 acres, approximately 94 square miles of protected land, cover two mountain ranges that enclose a prairie. This makes the land a perfect place to reintroduce the American bison as well as wild turkey, Rocky Mountain elk, and some Texas longhorn cattle, too. There are rivers and lakes and sandstone and ancient lava flows. The mountains, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, are the result of over half a BILLION years of geologic history.

The short version: volcanoes exploded and spewed lava. The lava caused the land to sink, and the depression became a sea. After a few more million years, an uplift in the earth’s crust formed the mountains. They used to be much higher, but after 250 million years they’ve eroded to their present state.

The end result is, like so many of the geological formations in the west, stunning.

It’s the perfect home for that most American of mammals, the bison. By 1900 its population had been reduced from 60 million - that's 60,000,000 - to about 550. In 1907, through a group effort between the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society (a.k.a. The Bronx Zoo), fifteen were donated to what was then the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve. Their descendants now roam these protected plains in western Oklahoma.

We said a forlorn goodbye to Doris, hoping we'd one day see her and her magnificent sunrise again. We didn't have much time before we had to get on the road, so we searched for an easy trail and some bison. Like many Americans, I'm enthralled by this once-nearly-extinct animal. The American buffalo is considered sacred by many Native Americans, and in 2016 the United States designated it the National Mammal. Three different states have chosen the bison as their state mammal, including Oklahoma.

After a short hike around one of the thirteen lakes we got back on the main road and shortly passed a herd on a hill a few hundred yards away.

"Want me to turn around?" Jim asked.

"Yes, please!" I excitedly replied as I attached my zoom lens to my DSLR.

He pulled off the road into a turn-around and pointed. "Or, you could just take a picture of that one."

I looked up and turned to my right. There, maybe 50 yards away, was a lone solitary beast. His head was the deep dense brown of plowed Illinois soil, his body nearly the color of the tall grass that surrounded him. We opened Mae's sunroof and I stepped on the seat and stuck my upper body over the top of the car. Did I want to get out and get closer? Sure, but this was a wild animal and that's what zoom lenses are for. I waited until he raised his head from his seemingly endless munching and took my shot.

A couple of weeks later I printed out copies of this magnificent mammal to give away at the Travel & Adventure Show. It was the most popular photo of the images I'd selected as swag. Jim and I would ask people where they thought it was taken, and to a person they said "Yellowstone." 

“Nope!” we’d reply, probably a little too gleefully. “Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.”

“Where?”

Before planning this trip I’d never heard of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge either. This is not the last time you’ll hear me say “I’d never heard of {insert awesome destination}." It happened more often than I care to admit and I learned just how myopic my Midwestern-based Chicago-focused bubble had been. Even though I'd taken multiple road trips, including Route 66, it seemed I had barely glimpsed life beyond Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin.

After this adventure, that bubble has been thoroughly and most definitively popped.

We left the refuge to sounds of aircraft from nearby Fort Sill. The Texas panhandle and Palo Duro Canyon were waiting.


My husband and I traveled almost 6,500 miles to find places that are unique, changed the course of history, made the world a better place, showcased survival, or were just plain cool. I’m sharing our journey in “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1,” and you can  today!  

32 Refuge Headquarters Road, Indiahoma, OK 73552
A remnant mixed grass prairie that provides habitat for bison, elk, prairie dogs, and many other species.
City/Neighborhood: 

Comments

I love your photos and know all too well about all the weird sounds in the woods at night! I didn't sleep a wink my on my first (and only, ha!) solo backpacking trip!

Thanks Leigh! Yikes - don't know if I'd do that! At least I knew all our food was in the car. You can't really do that with backpacking! Have you written about it? I'd love to read it if you have!

I'd love to camp like this - one day I will get up the nerve! That's wonderful that you had it all to yourself. Look forward to reading more tales from this trip!

Thanks, Jill! I'll be sharing how we got into camping in a future post :-) Yes, it was so peaceful and (relatively) quiet.

I get sick to the back teeth of reading 'top 10 blah blah blah' posts, that this find of a post was like hot oil in a Hamam! Glad to make your aquaintance - I have subscribed. I may be lucky with Europe on my doorstep and the cacophony of cultures and cuisines it brings with it but I am always envious of you Americans with your vast geological wonders and landscapes and I can't wait to read more of your adventures!

Thank you so much, Alex! I'm flattered. This has been a nearly-life-long dream of mine, so to know that it resonates is fulfilling. Yes, I do love the complexity and sheer size of this country, and will be sharing much more. (Hopefully, I'll be able to make it to Europe, too, someday!)

This place looks awesome! Why is it that deer encounters always seem so magical? I also love that you got to see some buffalo, I'd love to see one someday :)

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About Theresa
Theresa Goodrich's picture

Hello Fellow Traveler! I'm the Emmy-winning founder and publisher of The Local Tourist. I've got insatiable curiosity, wanderlust, and an incurable need to use my words. Thanks for joining me as I explore "drive by towns." I hope you'll pull over and stay awhile!

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