Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge – Half a Billion Years in the Making

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is a beautiful, magical place in southwestern Oklahoma.

We’d driven under an overcast sky all morning and into the afternoon, but by the time we entered Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Western Oklahoma all was clear and blue except for one orphan cotton ball and a few wisps of white.

We coasted through grazing Texas longhorn munching on prairie grass. The calves idly watched as we passed, but the adults kept their heads down. I could practically hear them muttering “darn tourists.”

Texas longhorn cattle at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

After picking up a map at the Visitor Center we made our way to Doris Campground. I was getting nervous because it was nearly 5 p.m. and the campsites were first come first serve, but I needn’t have worried.

Doris has ninety campsites. Eighty-eight were empty.

We picked Campsite #44, an expansive site overlooking Quanah Parker Lake, and Jim set up the tent while I began unpacking our “kitchen” bins.

The sun began to set and a man and boy fished on the still waters. As the light faded the air chilled quickly and we cooked over a fire and ate in the stillness. After the frenetic activity of the past three days, we could finally just be.

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Campsite #44 at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Campsite #44 overlooking Quanah Parker Lake
Father and son fishing on Quanah Parker Lake

We went to bed early. I figured I’d sleep well because it was chilly and we were exhausted, but I also knew that whether I did or didn’t was irrelevant because we were camping.

One of my personal contradictions is that it doesn’t matter how little actual sleep I get; if I’m in a tent, in the morning I always feel more awake than I do anywhere else.

This is despite the rustling of animals wondering where in the heck we put the graham crackers, followed shortly by the incessant chatter of whatever birds call our current campsite home (and they’re always gossipy-don’t-ever-stop-to-take-a-breath chatty birds).

It doesn’t matter if I’ve pulled the covers over my head so that I’m inhaling my own exhaling because it’s below freezing outside, or if I’ve thrown them off and I’m lying in a pool of sweat because it’s sweltering. When I step outside the tent in the predawn and am greeted with the very first rays of sun peeking over the horizon, I’m awake.

This night was rough. Something kept snuffling at our tent. We were in a place where bison and longhorn cattle roam free, and with every scratch and muffled nudge I wondered if a hoof was going to stomp on my head.

I made it through the night and, alerted that dawn was coming by the increased volume of the birds, I unzipped the tent and stepped into peace.

Our front porch was a softly rippling lake rimmed by bare branches reaching towards a sky of deepest richest blue. Camera and phone in hand, I walked the thirty or so feet down the hill to the water’s edge.

A crescent moon twinkled in the corner of my vision. The horizon changed from midnight to orange to yellow, and when I turned back to look up the hill it was awash in the golden hues of a winter sunrise.

I may not have gotten much sleep, but I was definitely awake.

Sunrise in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Sunrise in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Sunrise in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Tent and campsite #44 at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

I ignited the propane to start making my coffee and pulled out my journal, knowing full well that I was going to fill it with flowery and nauseating puffery. I would have pages and pages of dreck, and it would be glorious.

Then a rustle. I turned and a deer emerged from the tree line into the empty neighboring campsite. It stopped, stared, and waited. My first thought was “That was YOU keeping me up all night!” (I think I actually said it.)

Then came another. And another. A wild turkey warbled. A woodpecker pecked. Geese landed near the shore, leaving v-shaped trails in the now-still water. The deer picked their way towards the road and my kettle bubbled.

It was freaking magical. I felt like Snow White, like Disney’s animators had sketched us into their next woodland scene. “Where are the dwarfs?” I wanted to cry. “All we’re missing is dwarfs!”

Deer at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

We ate breakfast and broke camp. It went surprisingly quickly, considering we’d only camped once the previous year and we weren’t accustomed to camping for one night at a time. We were motivated, though. We were in a geological time warp and had some exploring to do.

History of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was established in 1901 by Oklahoma’s General Land Office. It went through a few government offices before landing as the purview of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is the oldest managed wildlife system in their portfolio, and its 59,020 acres, approximately 94 square miles of protected land, cover two mountain ranges that enclose a prairie.

This makes the land a perfect place to reintroduce the American bison as well as wild turkey, Rocky Mountain elk, and some Texas longhorn cattle, too. There are rivers and lakes and sandstone and ancient lava flows. The mountains, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, are the result of over half a BILLION years of geologic history.

The short version: volcanoes exploded and spewed lava. The lava caused the land to sink, and the depression became a sea. After a few more million years, an uplift in the earth’s crust formed the mountains. They used to be much higher, but after 250 million years they’ve eroded to their present state.

The end result is, like so many of the geological formations in the west, stunning.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Quanah Parker Lake
One of thirteen lakes at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

It’s the perfect home for that most American of mammals, the bison. By 1900 its population had been reduced from 60 million – that’s 60,000,000 – to about 550.

In 1907, through a group effort between the American Bison Society and the New York Zoological Society (a.k.a. The Bronx Zoo), fifteen were donated to what was then the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve. Their descendants now roam these protected plains in western Oklahoma.

We said a forlorn goodbye to Doris, hoping we’d one day see her and her magnificent sunrise again. We didn’t have much time before we had to get on the road, so we searched for an easy trail and some bison.

Like many Americans, I’m enthralled by this once-nearly-extinct animal. The American buffalo is considered sacred by many Native Americans, and in 2016 the United States designated it the National Mammal. Three different states have chosen the bison as their state mammal, including Oklahoma.

Wichita Mountains hiking trail

After a short hike around one of the thirteen lakes we got back on the main road and shortly passed a herd on a hill a few hundred yards away.

“Want me to turn around?” Jim asked.

“Yes, please!” I excitedly replied as I attached my zoom lens to my DSLR.

He pulled off the road into a turn-around and pointed. “Or, you could just take a picture of that one.”

I looked up and turned to my right. There, maybe 50 yards away, was a lone solitary beast. His head was the deep dense brown of plowed Illinois soil, his body nearly the color of the tall grass that surrounded him. We opened Mae’s sunroof and I stepped on the seat and stuck my upper body over the top of the car.

Did I want to get out and get closer? Sure, but this was a wild animal and that’s what zoom lenses are for. I waited until he raised his head from his seemingly endless munching and took my shot.

Bison in the distance at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Bison at Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge

A couple of weeks later I printed out copies of this magnificent mammal to give away at the Travel & Adventure Show. It was the most popular photo of the images I’d selected as swag. Jim and I would ask people where they thought it was taken, and to a person they said “Yellowstone.”

“Nope!” we’d reply, probably a little too gleefully. “Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.”


Before planning this trip, I’d never heard of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge either. This is not the last time you’ll hear me say “I’d never heard of {insert awesome destination}.”

It happened more often than I care to admit and I learned just how myopic my Midwestern-based Chicago-focused bubble had been. Even though I’d taken multiple road trips, including Route 66, it seemed I had barely glimpsed life beyond Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin.

After this adventure, that bubble was thoroughly and most definitively popped.

We left the refuge to sounds of aircraft from nearby Fort Sill. The Texas panhandle and camping at Palo Duro Canyon were waiting.

Trail Market at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

Visiting Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service:

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was established to protect wildlife species that were in grave danger of extinction, and to restore species that had been eliminated from the area. 

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is located near Lawton, Oklahoma at 20539 State Highway 115
Cache, OK 73527.

Admission to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is free.

Hiking at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

There are fifteen miles of hiking trails. Because bison and longhorn roam free, expect to encounter some on your trek. There are also snakes.

The terrain is rough, so you’ll want to have appropriate footwear.

There’s very little shade, so you’ll also want to wear head coverings and bring plenty of water.

Cell phone coverage is very spotty, so be sure to take a map with you. You can download trail maps at fws.gov.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge Camping

Doris Campground has ninety campsites, twenty-three of which have electricity. There are an additional forty-seven sites without electricity, and twenty walk-in sites.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge camping fees:

  • Single-Unit Camping, without electricity, for either tent or recreational vehicle campers ($14.00)
  • Single-Unit Camping, with electricity only (No water at individual site), for either tent or recreational vehicle campers ($22.00 to $24.00 depending on location)
  • Semi-primitive Single-Unit Camping, 20 sites, for walk-in (Park vehicle, walk on trail to site) tent campers only ($12.00)

Walk-in camping is no longer available. All campsites must be reserved in advance at recreation.gov.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was half a billion years in the making. This beautiful, magical place is located in southwestern Oklahoma and is home to bison, Texas long horns, and other wildlife. It's a wonderful place for camping, fishing, and hiking
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