Although one of the only states in the nation without a national park, that doesn’t mean Oklahoma is lacking in options for outdoor recreation and natural beauty. In fact, with 38 state parks and 12 protected nature preserves, the Sooner State is overflowing with hidden gems. Below you’ll find five parks and adventurous destinations that offer some of the best ways to experience the great outdoors in Oklahoma.
This story was created in partnership with Travel Oklahoma.
Where the Bison Roam: Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Picture this: sweeping plains covered with rich, oat-colored grasses and dotted with mighty bison. It’s an iconic image of American heritage, and it’s in Oklahoma. Located an hour and a half from Tulsa, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is home to the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie in the entire world. And surprisingly, this landscape is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Over 700 species of native plants thrive in this terrain, from grasses like big bluestem and switchgrass, to a multitude of wildflowers that blanket the prairie floor each spring. This nutrient-rich blanket supports not only large wildlife like deer and coyotes, but also an astounding number of smaller creatures such as amphibians and birds. But of course, it’s the charismatic herd of 2,500 free-range bison who steal the spotlight for visitors today.
HOW TO EXPLORE: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is a great place to stretch your legs. Select from three easy to moderate walking trails: the Bottomland Trail, Study Trail, or the two-mile Prairie Earth Trail. Want to cover more ground? Stay behind the wheel on the 15-mile driving loop, where scenic turnouts provide the perfect photo op for roaming bison. In the spring, highlights include wildflowers, bison calves, and singing prairie chickens. In the fall, prairie grasses can reach astounding heights of up to 10 feet. History buffs may also enjoy a visit to the historic Mathews cabin, home of famous Osage writer John Joseph Mathews.
Cast a Line (and So Much More) at Keystone State Park
There’s nothing better than a weekend on the lake. And visitors to Tulsa, Oklahoma don’t have to go far! Located just west of the city, Keystone State Park provides a plethora of recreation opportunities on Keystone Lake. The lake itself is actually a reservoir on the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers, and is named after a community that existed on the shores of the river from 1900 to 1962, when it was submerged underwater as a result of the dam. But visitors today don’t have to worry about history lessons to explore the park’s 714 acres. Instead, simply throw the sunscreen and cooler in the car and head to the lake!
HOW TO EXPLORE: Whether you are hoping to swim, paddleboard, fish, or waterski and wakeboard, you can do it all at Keystone State Park. Pier 51 Marina offers boat and equipment rentals, and those who prefer to stay on land can bird watch and utilize nearby ATV trails. Once the sun goes down, three campgrounds provide places to extend your stay. There are even cabins–complete with kitchens and jacuzzis–available for rent.
Take a Hike at Gloss Mountain State Park
Located in the beautiful Northwest Region of Oklahoma, Gloss Mountain State Park is just as ethereal as its name suggests. It’s here visitors can revel in the unusual landscape that defines the Gloss Mountains—a series of red buttes high in selenium that lend an almost shiny, glass-like appearance to the rocky faces. Surrounded by miles of undisturbed prairie, Gloss Mountain State Park is a peaceful destination for road trippers and Oklahoma locals alike. Keep an eye out for the Eastern Collared Lizard, who sports a beautiful almost iridescent color and holds the proud title of being the state lizard.
HOW TO EXPLORE: Visitors will want to tackle Cathedral Mountain during their visit to Gloss Mountain State Park. While only 1.5 miles in distance, the trail climbs 200 feet and delivers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Other options for activities include horseback riding, hiking, and fishing at nearby Newton Ranch.
Experience Choctaw Country at Robbers Cave State Park
One of the original seven Oklahoma state parks, Robbers Cave State Park is as rich in history as it is in ways to play. Located in the southeast region of the state in Choctaw Country, this area is punctuated by pristine lakes, rivers and streams in the thickly wooded Sans Bois Mountains. That’s exactly the type of landscape you can expect from Robbers Cave. It’s here that legendary outlaws like Jesse James hid out from authorities, utilizing a dramatic sandstone cave that inspired the name of the park. Today, visitors can spend a day or long weekend reveling in the great outdoors and spending the night in some of America’s most iconic lodging.
HOW TO EXPLORE: With three distinct lakes and plenty of hiking and horseback riding trails, Robbers Cave State Park offers a variety of ways to get outside. There are even climbing opportunities on the numerous sandstone walls that dot the area. Don’t leave too soon! The lodging in Robbers Cave State Park is not to be missed. Stay in rustic cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or opt for the finely appointed covered wagon that sleeps four.
Go for a Drive: Wichita Mountains Scenic Byway
Photo by Tory Keeter
Ideal for those who want to cover some ground on their journey through Oklahoma, Wichita Mountains Scenic Byway combines wilderness, wildlife, and epic scenery on a 93 mile (149.7 km) route. Start in Apache, and head west through the Wichita Mountains. These valleys and rises are home to the largest grassland and ancient cross-timbers ecosystem in North America. Not only will travelers get to see the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, but also the unique community of Medicine Park.
HOW TO EXPLORE: Aside from the passing vistas, the highlight of this photogenic meander is easily the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. This historic wildlife preserve founded in 1905 protects a herd of 600 bison as well as other large mammals like elk. Birders will enjoy keeping an eye out for the Black-Capped Vireo, a species of bird that resides almost exclusively in this terrain. Afterwards, stop by Medicine Park for a decadent meal and cozy stay at a bed and breakfast.