Hiking in the Heartland
On my 40th birthday, I was trudging down a one-foot wide trail in the rolling green Lord-of-the-Rings-like wilderness of the Ouachita Mountains in eastern Oklahoma in a heavy rainstorm.
As the March rains beat down in sheets of cold wetness, I and two friends kept one foot in front of the other as we navigated this 11-mile trail. The Horsethief Springs Trail, located outside of Talimena, is thought to be one of the most difficult hikes in the state, and to mark four decades of life, I wanted to explore that wild place.
The trail, which is also one of the most beautiful trails in the area, lived up to its reputation. During the five-hour hike, we crossed several small streams without the benefit of a bridge, fell into a river once, shimmied across a fallen tree to cross a large section of water and climbed up steep, leg-screaming sections of trail. And we loved every minute of it.
Hiking remains wildly popular with Oklahomans and outdoor enthusiasts worldwide. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2012, more than 34 million Americans laced up their boots and went hiking. But you don’t have to cross raging rivers or strap on 40-pound backpacks to enjoy the sport of hiking. Trails can be found right in your backyard, within an hour’s drive away or in the most remote areas of our state. All you need is a good pair of walking shoes, a trail map and a sense of adventure.
Hiking isn’t just enjoyable, it’s good for you too. Countless studies have shown that walking can help with obesity, heart disease, diabetes and more. It turns out hiking also makes you happy. A study published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” found that people who took a 90-minute walk in nature showed a drop in activity in the part of the brain associated with depression.
Springtime in Oklahoma is a perfect time to enjoy a stroll in the outdoors. To make it easier, we’ve highlighted three great trails for the beginner hiker, the intermediate hiker and the experienced hiker.
Nestled along the bustling Kirkpatrick Turnpike in north Oklahoma City is a hidden gem of nature—the Martin Nature Park. Featuring 140 acres of grasslands, rocky streams and thick foliage the park also has three miles of trails that weave over Spring Creek, across lush meadows, through Oklahoma scrub forests and into wildlife and bird sanctuaries.
This park is perfect for the beginner hiker. The trails are well maintained and marked, and are easy to walk. Because they are mostly gravel and packed soil, the paths are terrific for spotting deer and fox tracks. The routes, one of which is ADA-accessible, are mostly flat with very little elevation change.
Perfect for families with small children or those just easing into the marvels of the outdoors, Martin Park Nature Center is an enchanting escape from urban life right in the heart of the city.
For more information, visit www.okc.gov/parks/martin_park.
A mere hour’s drive will take you to the underrated and little-known Lake McMurtry in Stillwater. Littered with challenging multi-use trails, Lake McMurtry offers stellar views of the lake, undulating paths through thick forests and hikes that will get the heart pumping. The best maintained and most popular of the four mountain-biking/hiking trails at Lake McMurtry is the Red Trail.
Though the signs indicate this route is 6.8 miles, according to my GPS tracker, it’s 7.6 miles, but is well-maintained and nicely marked. This twisty dirt path winds through the forest mostly, passing hidden little ponds and a waterfall in the wet season at about mile six.
With multiple hills and elevation changes, the Red Trail offers an exciting challenge for the day hiker looking to spend several hours braving a more remote trek.
For more information, visit www.lakemcmurtry.com.
By far, my favorite and most challenging trail in Oklahoma is the Horsethief Springs Trail. Though a three- to four-hour drive away from the Oklahoma City metro, it’s a hike that will test even the most enthusiastic hiker.
The trail begins at Cedar Lake and crosses several small streams before connecting with the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. The trail then loops back down the northern face of Winding Stair Mountain to Cedar Lake for an 11-mile loop.
Hikers will travel a 1,100 foot elevation gain from Cedar Lake and the high point on the Ouachita Trail, so be prepared for some sweating and effort. I love the history of this path. Portions of the trail were actual routes that horse thieves used in the 1800s, and the outlaws camped at top of Winding Stair Mountain near a fresh water spring.
Due to rocky trail conditions and steep grades toward the top of the mountain, this trail is recommended for expert-level hikers only. Travel time one way is from five to six-and-a-half hours. Hiking in this area is best in the fall, winter and spring.
For more information, visit www.fs.usda.gov/ouachita.