Oklahoma has one of the most diverse terrains in the USA with 12 different eco-regions and more than 30 State Parks to explore, away from the crowds and up close to nature. The state’s wide open wonders span the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth, caves so remote that they were used as hiding spots for infamous outlaws, sand dunes, salt lakes and scuba diving spots. As travellers begin to plan their return to the USA, these remote Oklahoma gems shouldn’t be missed as part of a socially distanced road trip.
Scuba dive in Lake Tenkiller: Scuba divers can explore more than 50 metres below the surface at Lake Tenkiller Scuba Park, discovering catfish and other species, a sunken school bus, a helicopter, and underwater hills, homesteads and rock cliffs from before the lake formed. Equipment can be rented from Gene’s Aqua Pro. With 130 miles of shoreline, Lake Tenkiller is known for its clear waters, nature trails and fishing opportunities, and makes for a great place to pitch up a tent and spend the night on the lakeside.
Dig for crystals at Great Salt Plains State Park: In one of Oklahoma’s most unique state parks, visitors can dig for selentile crystals. Located just under the surface of the salt plains, these crystals usually form into an hourglass shape. Oklahoma is the only place in the world where the hourglass-shaped selenite crystal can be found. Overground, ride bike trails, take a dip in the Great Salt Plains Lake (which is 50% as salty as the ocean) or spot some of the 300 migrating bird species that pass through the park.
Take a buggy ride across Little Sahara State Park: ranging from 25 to 75 feet in height, vast dunes have formed over time from terrace deposits, remnants of prehistoric times when the Cimarron River flowed over the entire area. Today, visitors can enjoy the thrill of riding across the dunes, which is known as one of the best spots for ATV adventures in the mid-west. Vehicles can be rented close to the park from Stewart Sandsports, with $10 park entry for all riders and passengers to enjoy a day exploring the dunes.
Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve: The 40,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska is the largest protected area of tallgrass prairie in the world. Here, you can get up close to nature, roaming alongside more than 2,100 bison, 210 bird species, white-tailed deer, bobcats and armadillos. Owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, visitors can drive the scenic 15-mile bison loop, hike unspoiled nature trails and enjoy a picnic as part of an Oklahoma road trip.
Black Mesa State Park & Nature Preserve: Home to the highest point in Oklahoma, Black Mesa is a great location for stargazing, boasting some of the darkest night skies on publicly accessible land in the USA and welcoming the annual Perseid meteor shower each August. Black Mesa takes its name from the layer of black lava rock that coated the mesa about 30 million years ago. Visitors can hike to the top of the plateau – 1,500 metres above sea level – for views of the Rocky Mountains meeting the shortgrass prairie.
Talimena Scenic Byway: designated as an official National Scenic Byway, the 54-mile Talimena Drive was built specifically to highlight the area’s beautiful foliage and spans one of the highest mountain ranges between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Nestled in the heart of south-east Oklahoma’s Choctaw Country, road trippers can view one stunning panorama after another as the route winds along crests of forested peaks between Talihina, Oklahoma and Arkansas. A must-visit in the U.S. Autumn as vibrant red and gold colours stretch as far as the eye can see.
State Parks to Stay At
Beavers Bend State Park: Road trippers heading down the winding road through the forests of pine and hardwood trees between Broken Bow Lake and the Mountain Fork River will find an abundance of adventure, beautiful scenery and activities inside this state park to last for days. Canoe, kayak, waterski, fish and float along on the crystal clear waters, or hike, bike and horse ride on the park’s rugged terrain. Within the park are 47 rustic cabins, camping and RV sites, and the 40-room Lakeview Lodge with each room having sweeping views across Broken Bow Lake.
Robbers Cave State Park: Once used as a hideout for outlaws, including the infamous Jesse James and Belle Starr, who sheltered in its sandstone caves while on the run, visitors today can distance themselves from the world with an overnight stay in the hilly woodlands of Robbers Cave State Park. After a day of rappelling the steep cliffs, exploring the park by horseback or navigating the many hiking trails, accommodation options include primitive campsites along secluded trails, yurts, 26 private cabins and the 20-room Belle Starr View Lodge, looking out to Coon Creek Lake and the forested valley below.
Sequoyah State Park: The Lodge at Sequoyah State Park is Oklahoma’s largest set of state park lodging with 45 cottages and 104 rooms, located on the shores of Fort Gibson Lake. Travellers can base themselves in the park, exploring the 225 miles of shoreline, horseback riding through wilderness trails with Sequoyah Riding Stables and deer spotting, or venturing into the boutique shops and historic sites of local towns of Wagoner, Muskogee and Tahlequah.