By Randy C. Anderson
I am often asked where I go to capture the fabulous colors Oklahoma offers in the fall. My answer has always been anywhere, really. When the conditions are right, the fall colors in Oklahoma are breathtaking. While the most spectacular displays are in the eastern part of the state (because there are more trees and forests located there), there are plenty of locations in the central and western sections of the state. My best advice is to just get out and go! Check www.travelok.com for updates on the changing foliage and maps showing the popular areas. One warning on fall foliage in Oklahoma – it can all end overnight if we have heavy thunderstorms and high winds. That said, here is my personal top ten list of places to see fall foliage in Oklahoma:
Talimena National Scenic Byway – Located in the Ouachita National Forest, the Talimena National Scenic Byway is a 54-mile stretch of road that runs from Talihina, Oklahoma to Mena, Arkansas. It is one of the most beautiful roads you will ever drive, in or out of Oklahoma. The byway crosses the tops of the Ouachita Mountain Range, and is one of the highest ranges between the Appalachians and the Rockies.
There are 22 vistas along the way – many breathtaking views – no matter what season you visit, but especially in the fall. If your timing is right, the entire area is an explosion of rich fall colors. I once met a couple from the Vermont area when the conditions were “just right.” They said they never dreamed they would see such a spectacular display in Oklahoma. They even said it was just as good, if not better than back east. Amen.
Robbers Cave State Park – We go to Robbers Cave every year. Nestled in the San Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, there is plenty to do at this state park. There are hiking and equestrian trails, fishing, camping and rappelling along with the fall foliage. Outlaws and bandits once used the cave as a hideout from lawmen, giving the park its name.
Great Salt Plains State Park – The huge salt deposits surrounding this area provided Native Americans and early settlers with salt. The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is adjacent to the state park and offers some of the best birding in the state. This is also the only spot in the world where you can dig for hourglass selenite crystals, prized by rockhounds. Digging is open from April through mid-October. In addition to the fall foliage, you have many opportunities to see wildlife at the refuge.
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge – This is one of my favorite areas. Established in 1901, the refuge is home to white tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, Texas longhorns, black-tailed prairie dogs and American bison. Here you will see a mixed grass prairie surrounded by mountains, dotted with small lakes and crossed by streams. Every change of season brings a change in beauty. Migratory birds are plentiful, and in the summer, the rare Black-capped Vireo calls this area home.
Osage Hills State Park – This 1,100-acre state park is right in the middle of the Osage Hills. The lush rolling hills offer excellent fall foliage viewing. Once an Osage Indian settlement, this park is known as the gateway to the Tallgrass Prairie. Make cabin reservations well in advance – there are only eight. The park is located near Pawhuska and Bartlesville on Highway 60 (Osage Nation Heritage Trail Scenic Byway).
Red Rock Canyon State Park – Located near Hinton, the park and surrounding area are good for fall foliage viewing. There are hiking and nature trails, rappelling, fishing and camping, as well as wildlife viewing opportunities. The high canyon walls make a great backdrop for fall foliage.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area – Oklahoma’s oldest national park (formerly Platt National Park) is located near Sulphur, Oklahoma. The foliage here can be fabulous when conditions are just right. There are hiking trails, and Arbuckle Lake adjoins the park.
Osage Nation Heritage Trail Scenic Byway – This is an easy drive with lots to see and do. It runs along State Highway 60 from Ponca City to Bartlesville. The fall foliage is remarkable, but there are many points of interest along the way. I could do an entire article on this byway – there are that many highlights. Here are just a few starting in …
Ponca City – Pioneer Woman Statue, Standing Bear Park, Marland Mansion, Ponca City Library, Poncan Theater, Arts Center, Conoco Museum, 101 Ranch Memorial.
Pawhuska – Triangle Building, Swinging Bridge, Osage County Historical Museum, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (north of town).
Bartlesville – Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper; Frank Phillips’ home, Woolaroc, Pathfinder Parkway (a trail system connecting city parks), Johnstone Park (home of the Nellie Johnstone #1 oil well and the only Santa Fe 940 engine known to be in existence), Bartlesville Community Center.
Route 66 – Almost forgotten for the beauty of the fall foliage you can see along this historic highway, do not miss this drive. The rolling hills and charming towns from Arcadia to Miami will give you a sense of nostalgia. Make sure you plan time to see all of the museums and historic sites along the way.
Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway – This byway takes you along the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in northeastern Oklahoma. The byway begins at Gore on highway 100, goes north toward Tahlequah on highway 82, then continues north on highway 10 to highway 59, where you will turn east to continue to Natural Falls State Park. You should allow 2–3 hours for the drive, which is about 90 miles, and parallels Lake Tenkiller and the Illinois River. There are many state parks along or near the route, so this can be a great weekend trip.
During the fall, Oklahoma’s foliage can be spectacular. Make sure you get out and visit your favorite spots … and remember to take your camera!