Part II of Oklahoma Travels
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Like I said in my first review, I'm a little partial to Oklahoma because I was born here and have lived here the last ten years (mostly raised in Kansas though). But I've also traveled to 11 countries in Europe, most of the United States and the Caribbean.
The first review focused on popular attractions around the Oklahoma City metropolitan area: Oklahoma City Zoo, Omniplex/Omnidome, Remington Park, Lazy E Arena and White Water Bay. This review will take us on little road trips across this great state.
If you're driving around the panhandle on an August day that hasn't seen rain in 6 weeks and it's 106 degrees, then you don't have to speculate why the pioneers dubbed the panhandle "No Man's Land." I often joke about how flat and treeless Oklahoma is; that when you drive through Oklahoma you see all these birds just flying around in an infinite holding pattern because there are no trees to find rest... eventually they fall to the ground and die of exhaustion. Okay, that's not true.
We do have lots of trees, rolling hills and lakes (and no mound of dead birds that I've ever seen). If you doubt me, take a look at the pictures on this url I found of Turner Falls: http://www.kencole.org/turnerfallsok.htm Oklahoma actually has more miles of lake shore than any other state in the country. In fact, one of the biggest man-made lakes is in Oklahoma and not many people know that.
Lake Eufaula - Eufaula, Oklahoma
If you want a lake with over 600 miles of shoreline, sandy beaches, scenic hills and cliffs covered thick with trees... then you would enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of Lake Eufaula. In fact, if you get there via I-40 eastbound, you'll pass a sign for the town named "Lotawata". Located in the southeastern part of the state, the lake took 8 years to develop and has about a mile long dam with beautiful scenic views. For years my extended family gathered there for large family reunions and my grandparents retired there in later years. I've visited for a weekend and I've visited for a week or longer. And every time I went there I was in awe of the natural beauty around me. Since there's 600 miles of shoreline I can't say I know which part is prettier than the others. I mostly stayed on the northern side of the lake near the town of Eufaula which is a few miles inland. It's a nice area to camp out in an RV or tent (with several RV, park and marina facilities) or close enough to town to find lodging, if you don't have family/friends in the area. There are plenty of mom n' pop diners and BBQ stands to eat at, along with your assortment of bait shops and cement statuary stores. After all, how many times can you drive past the yard full of 200 bird baths before you finally break down and buy one? The fish on the menu are fresh and usually cooked batter-dipped and fried. Better yet if you catch, clean, and cook your own. Fishing, boating, water sports, and hiking are probably the top recreational activities in the area, along with golf at nearby resorts.
Because of it's size and depth it's one of the cleanest lakes you'll find in Oklahoma - a lot of the other ones being a murky red in color. Even though Lake Eufaula is a popular tourist attraction for Oklahoma, it's not over-ridden with tourists. There aren't any four-star hotels around. What you'll find are a couple of small resorts, some bed 'n breakfasts and locally owned motels... and even more RV and camping spots. There are also time-shares and cabin rentals available if you want that "woodsy cabin" experience. And the woods you'll get. The hills are covered in a forest of majestic trees. Early spring when it's so green and lush is beautiful - as well as early to mid October to see the changing of the leaves. We could walk through the woods in the hills for hours and not see another soul. We would cross streams, witness deer playing, avoid the occasional rattler, watch the graceful hawks soaring, hike and climb up steep hills, peer over steep cliffs, sit on huge boulders overlooking the lake and ponder the meaning of life or spread out a picnic and read a good book in utter solitude. If you want to find serenity and tranquility or rent a pontoon boat and a keg with a dozen friends, Lake Eufaula is a place you won't want to miss.
Robbers Cave State Park - Wilburton, OK
If you're near Lake Eufaula then you're near Robbers Cave State Park, about a 40 mile drive southeast. I found this one weekend just going for a leisure drive through the San Bois Mountains headed to the Ouachita National Forest. (By Rocky Mountain standards, these are really just woodland hills, but pretty nonetheless.) Robbers Cave has an interesting history originally home to the Caddo and Osage Indians. During Civil War times deserter soldiers used the caves to hide in and later outlaw gangs of robbers, most notoriously Frank and Jesse James, used the cave's secluded and rugged location to their advantages. The cliffs and caves are popular for rapelling, exploring, and hiking in addition to equestrian trails through the forest surrounding it. Oh and learn from my mistake, if you happen-stance upon this place and are wearing slick-soled sandals... don't kid yourself into thinking your shoes have enough "grip". I didn't slide off a cliff, thanks to a friend with a strong arm, but I did finally finish the hike with a few extra scratches, bumps, bruises and blisters. There's a Robbers Cave State Park with several amenities and even very low-cost cabins, RV parks and campsites available near the area. There are easy and moderate cave hiking trails, horseback riding, canoeing, paddle boating, swimming and other activities available. There are also accommodations for large groups and is often a field trip or weekend spot for boys and girl scout troops. Very family friendly and easy on the pocketbook too.
Marland Mansion - Ponca City, OK
In the northern part of the state, not far off I-35 you'll come to the bustling little town of Ponca City. Probably the biggest attraction in Ponca City is the Marland Mansion and it is worth the drive to see it. This mammoth home of oil baron E. W. Marland was finished in 1928 and filled with artifacts and furnishings from Europe --- the house and furnishings cost an astonishing $5.5 million. Later after Mr. Marland sold his oil company (which later became known as Conoco) he was elected as Governor of Oklahoma in 1934. You'll learn more about the life and times of the Marland family during your tour. But lets get back to the house --- and what a house it is. It is 43,561 square feet, has four floors, 55 rooms, 10 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, 7 fireplaces and 3 kitchens. Just about every feature of this house is a work of art and an example of expert craftmanship. From the hand set stone tiles, painted murals on the walnut ceilings, custom made wrought iron doors and decorative ornaments, hand-carved arches and stone columns, stained glass windows, and hand-poured terazzo, just to name a few. When it was built it was dubbed the "Palace on the Prairie" and was the host to presidents and national dignitaries. One of my favorite features is the still-working elevator lined in buffalo leather and has a brass gate. Although not all of the furniture is original, some of it is - and it is exquisite. The tapestries, chandeliers, hand-carved beds and tables are of impeccable quality and elegance. In addition to the tour of the mansion, you'll be able to tour the grounds and the other buildings on the estate: the Artists' Cottage, Lydie's Cottage (Chauffeur's Quarters), Lake Whitemarsh, the Boathouse (which has an underground tunnel connecting it to the Mansion and the Artist Studio), and the Gate House. You can have a guided tour or just roam around at your leisure. The mansion is also available for receptions, reunions and other large gatherings.
Turner Falls - Davis, Oklahoma
Turner Falls is in the southern part of the state, not far off I-35 in the Arbuckle Mountains. It is the oldest park in Oklahoma and in my opinion, one of the prettiest. This is a great place to pitch a tent, bring the folding chairs, coolers with beer and hot dogs and the kids. You're able to drive up into the mountain and find a clearing to park. From there, you're on foot winding through the trails looking for the perfect place by the river to set up camp. You'll find the occasional worn area with a picnic table and BBQ pit, if you're lucky to get there early enough. The river is mostly shallow and wide and since it's coming from underground springs from the mountain, it's cool and clean. If you follow the springs all the way down, eventually you'll get to a place where you'd be a fool to keep following -- that's when the springs merge and turn into the actual "Turner Falls" which is a 77 foot fall from a cliff top down to a natural swimming pool below. The swimming pool area is HUGE and heavenly -- all formed naturally with rock borders and varying levels of depth. You can actually swim out to the area where the falls are, but I don't recommend it. It's pretty much an at-your-own-risk type of place and so keep a close eye on the kiddies. There have been lots of drownings here, but if you use common sense and keep watch you'll be okay. There are pools that cascade over slippery rocks into smaller pools below and layer upon layer of pools spilling over. There are natural rock slides that have been smoothed by erosion of water that are safe enough for kids to spill over into the pool below. Be sure to pack the "water shoes" with thick rubber soles because there are some sharp rocks to contend with. You can bring your own rafts, inner-tubes and floating devices which is especially nice up in the mountain to just float around your campsite on the river. Although I've never spent the night in a tent there, lots of people do and I've heard it's real safe.
Everything I've mentioned here are great activities for the family, weekend or day trips and very economical. If you pack a picnic and refreshments, you can easily get by on $30-40 each place for a family of four. And if your family is like mine -- we can drive to Texas and spend $200 at Six Flags for one day... then later spend a day at the lake or some State Park like I've mentioned above for a fraction of that and they end up having more fun at the cheaper attraction.
It's not in-your-face-action-packed-all-you-can-stand-manufactured-excitement --- it's nature, it's getting back to the basics, it's simple, it's relaxing, it's peaceful, it's exploring and discovering... and in my book, it's better.