PHOTOS BY NICK GERLICH

When Amarilloans think of going to the mountains, it usually means driving northwest toward Raton, a gateway to the Rockies, around four hours away. But there are other mountains equally close at hand, and in a most unexpected place: Southwest Oklahoma.

Just four hours southeast of Amarillo, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge consists of roughly 60,000 acres (94 square miles) of prairies, granite mountains and spring-fed streams and lakes. It is so not Oklahoma as to raise eyebrows when traveling east on US 62 from Altus, the pinkish mountains rising from an otherwise flat terrain. Although only about 1,200 feet at their highest point above the prairie, they still loom large.

The Refuge is well worth a weekend getaway. Medicine Park, on the east edge of the Refuge, provides a quaint respite and home-away-from-home for your journey. But more on that later. I recommend driving north from US 62 onto OK 54 a few miles east of the Snyder exit, and then turning east on OK 49 for the full experience. Texas will seem like a distant place. Drive slowly, and stop often to savor the beauty.

As for the mountains themselves, they are ancient in geologic time, having started to form 525 million years ago, and then beginning their gradual uplift above the surface soil between 330 to 290 million years ago. While granite is the most easily identifiable mineral, there is also rhyolite and gabbro. The range extends some 60 miles from southeast to northwest, creating a major topographical hiccup across an otherwise nondescript plain. No doubt the native Wichita tribe and those who came after relished the rich hunting opportunities it presented.

Highway 49 through the Refuge is only open sunrise through sunset. Be advised: It is open range with cattle and bison roaming freely; deer and elk may also be spotted. Give them berth and keep your distance when photographing—this would be a good time to pull out your zoom lens. There’s no need to make the headlines.

Outdoor activities abound in the Refuge, from boating and canoeing, to hiking, biking, photography, camping, birding, fishing, swimming and general sightseeing. I visited in mid-May when wildflowers were peaking, yielding vast oceans of Indian Blankets and other gorgeous blooms. Mountain vistas with waterfalls—who would have thought?—filled my viewfinder.

There are many miles of hiking trails in the Refuge, mostly within the 1- to 6-mile range. Watch for snakes, and be advised that not all venomous Oklahoma snakes come with rattles. And remember once more that it is open range. I encountered a bison on the return leg of one hike, and had to carefully—and quietly—pass by without raising his ire.

I hiked the Bison Trail and Kite Trail, which are on opposite sides of West Cache Creek. Both are drop-dead gorgeous. 

The City of Medicine Park, founded in 1908 as a resort community not long after the Refuge was created, is a delightful departure from the usual touristy districts. It is surrounded by mountain biking trails, providing endless miles of two-wheeled amusement as well as amazement, including an April festival. The town sits at the southern edge of Lake Lawtonka, the largest lake in the state. Picturesque Medicine Creek drains the dammed lake, offering photo ops along with the chance to pay only $3 a day to wade into its pools during the warmer months.

I stayed at The Plantation Inn, a 2009 structure built atop the foundation of the Oklahoma Press Association’s Clubhouse that had opened there in 1916. There are 20 rooms, along with several stand-alone cabins nearby. The Old Plantation Restaurant is a short walk north, where hotel check-in is housed, as well as dining and drinking.

The best part is that you can ditch your car. Everything is walkable, including an after-dinner stroll north to the lake and along its shoreline. Many of the shops, restaurants and bars are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly. Multiple festivals happen throughout the warmer months, so expect crowd surges.

There are numerous dining and drinking establishments in and around Medicine Park, and I can vouch for the Healthy Hippie (if you wish to feed your herbivorous habits or just want to graze lightly on the vegan fare), Tu Familia for amazing Tex-Mex, and Joe Mountain for perhaps the most amazing rendition of avocado toast I have had.

You will relish your visit just as I did. The mountains were calling, but not from the usual direction, and it was the soul medicine I needed.  

Nick’s Picks

Be sure to check out the Visitor Center at the Refuge. It has tons of information, a gift shop and educational displays. 

The corkscrew drive up Mount Scott is breathtaking. From its apex at 2,464 feet, you can see 360-degrees, including Lake Lawtonka and Medicine Park (elevation 1,276 feet). Or, you can hike it.

There are numerous lakes throughout the Refuge, including Jed Johnson Lake, Lake Elmer Thomas, Rush Lake, Quanah Parker Lake, and French Lake. Each offers its own unique views.

While entry to the Refuge is free of charge, camping is fee-based. Also, there’s no potable water inside the Refuge, so come prepared.

If you plan to hike, bring appropriate footwear (e.g., trail runners or hikers). The trails are rugged in places, and not suited for flip-flops or casual shoes.

Cell phone coverage is spotty to nil in places. I highly recommend the AllTrails app and downloading your route in advance. 

If you must get a bigger city fix, Lawton is only 15 minutes away. But why spoil a great outdoorsy adventure with chain food and lodging, right?

The Medicine Park Aquarium is a family-friendly destination that everyone can enjoy.

Take a loop drive around the majority of the mountain range by including Meers as your destination one day. 

Fuel up before you travel at a convenient Pak-a-Sak store location in Amarillo or Canyon.

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  • Nick Gerlich

    Nick is Hickman Professor of Marketing at West Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1989. He led the College of Business in their transition into online teaching in 1997, and has taught more than 125 online courses since then. In his spare time, he travels around the country, including his beloved Route 66, in search of vintage signage and other outdoor advertising. He can be found on Instagram @nickgerlich.

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