November 27, 2010
That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
–Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
The bard’s maxim is put to the test by what was once Sulphur Springs Reservation, then Platt National Park, and is now the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. In 1902 that tribe sold the land around Travertine and Rock Creeks to the government and the popular summer resort grew up with the adjacent community of Sulphur. It was a major CCC project during the Depression and eventually Lake Arbuckle was built to the south. When I was a child my parents took me there several times for camping, hiking, and biking and since then I’ve returned a few times with friends. I was ten when its awkward new name was applied, but many of us still call it Platt out of both nostalgia and convenience.
Thanksgiving 2010 was cold, but it warmed on Black Friday and I found myself in Oklahoma City ready for a day hike. My proximity to south central Oklahoma made it a tempting target, but I wanted to stick with a popular and well-developed park since we are now in gun hunting season for deer. My Oklahoma Hiking Trails book mentioned the Rock Creek Trails at Platt, just south of the campground I recalled from my youth. Those might be dicey with hunters about, but I knew there were also some trails along Travertine Creek where no hunters would dare stray.
So I drove south to Sulphur and into the park for a day hike which would extend to 5.75 miles. The most picturesque area I could recall was the Little Niagra falls to the east, so I drove to them first through an almost empty park. The combination of freezing rain on Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping had cleared the park, but it was now in the 40s and the trees were rapidly shedding their icicles. For the first time in my life, I had the falls all to myself.
The CCC constructed the beautiful twin falls, which cascade on Travertine Creek. The upper falls are nice, but the lower falls are far more fun, having a series of stepping stones across the top. I shot a short video of Little Niagra and then trekked eastward past the Nature Center toward two of the springs which feed the creek. The trail, as I vaguely remembered, was long and linear as it both followed and traversed Travertine Creek amidst the glistening trees. I ignored the three side loops to the south, concentrating on the two springs. The wide circular pool at Buffalo Springs was strewn with leaves.
Above me one tall tree gave a final burst of autumn color and I crossed another slab bridge over a small waterfall in good flow and fed entirely by Antelope Springs. They flow from the base of a pile of boulders formed of conglomerate rock. I returned to my car, having hiked a bit under two miles along the creek.
Driving to the west part of the park, I stopped at Lincoln Bridge, which was built in 1909 on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Although lacking the usual flock of children scampering about its little flagpole turrets, the bridge had its usual charm as it spanned Travertine Creek.
I drove past Bromide Hill through the Rock Creek campground on the northwest corner of the park, past the many narrow numbered turn-ins. I recalled riding my bike past these as a child wondering when I’d finally reach our slot in what seemed like an endless series. The deeper portions of the campground were gated off since there were only about three campsites in use in the entire park. I was disappointed to find that the entire Veterans Lake area was closed, denying me access to the Rock Creek multi-use trail, parts of which I remember scrambling across decades ago. I later discovered that the Lake was closed in July for a nine-month project to rehabilitate the dam to modern standards and replace the road across it with a new mile-long North Shore trail connecting to Rock Creek campground.
Not knowing what was afoot at the time, I decided to check out the other entrances to Veterans Lake but found them all blocked. Thinking I might try the southern trailhead to the Rock Creek trail system, I drove seven miles south to the Buckhorn Area on the southeast shore of Lake of the Arbuckles. But there were orange-vested utility workers all about and signs indicated the area was open to hunting, so I opted for safety and returned to the historic part of the park to hike around Bromide Hill.
This long mound of conglomerate rock rises 140 feet above Sulphur and the park. For millennia rivers washed rocks down from the Arbuckle Mountains and lime in the water cemented them into what is today’s Bromide Hill, which is tall enough to transition from oak, ash, and elm trees into short grass and prickly pear cacti. An overlook provides a great view of Sulphur to the south and is called Robbers Roost since local legend says outlaws once used the location. These days it serves tourists and, evidently, beer-swilling polluting partiers who leave aluminum cans scattered in the crevices.
Parking in the Bromide Pavilion area, I took the east bridge across the creek, which I remember being constructed in the 1970s, and climbed the east trail up the hill, happily finding that the trail to the top was still open even though the road at the top was closed and fenced off due to the work at Veterans Lake. At Robbers Roost I enjoyed the view while dining on a hefty turkey sandwich I’d picked up down in town. That reminded me of cold campsite mornings when my father would drive a few blocks to pick up delicious warm square donuts in the city, which we feasted on back in camp. As a child the fact that a full-fledged city was only a few blocks to the north struck me a singularly odd, and from above it is striking to see the park only extend a few blocks northward to the walls separating it from the city.
Extended westward along and then down the peak was a narrow overgrown trail. I vaguely recalled taking it in the past, but was not clear on its destination. As it descended into the trees I startled a large buck who, like me, was hiding from hunters. Soon I managed to stir up a doe as well. Eventually the trail ended at the western edge of the hill, providing an overlook of the fork in the road where you either turn into Rock Creek campground or towards Veterans Lake. Ah yes, I remembered being here before in my younger days.
Backtracking and bushwhacking, I descended from the roost to a well-remembered spot where the main trail crosses a rockfall of massive boulders. I was tempted to climb on up to the crevices, but decided it was too treacherous for a solo expedition. I then trod eastward to circumnavigate the fenced Bison Pasture. Although I never spotted any of the buffalo, descendants of a small group brought over from the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge decades ago, I did see another doe and a buck, barely managing to capture a shot of one of them through the trees before they bolted.
I passed a large hollow tree stump and followed my shadow around to the Ranger Station, built in 1894 as a family home by Graves Leeper and put to use in 1904 as the superintendent’s office. It was expanded in the CCC area. It is adjacent to Hillside Spring, which flows at about 80 gallons per minute with a heavy sulphur content. The arsenic in the water is why it was once used to help lighten the skin. Today the bacteria content makes the water undrinkable.
Nearby is the former center of the park, an old buffalo wallow which became Pavilion Springs and brought together the flow of seven springs. One is grateful for the open sides to the pavilion, as the sulphurous stench is quite strong. You can safely cross Highway 177 to the pavilion via an underpass with the spring water flowing in a small side channel. The sulphurous smell through the short underpass is quite powerful, and I remember being both fascinated and repulsed by it as a youngster.
The first part of the trail back westward toward Bromide Pavilion along Travertine Creek was scenic, but became less interesting as it curved south through the woods. The sun was streaming into the south side of the beautiful old pavilion, where until the 1980s the big fountains allowed you to compare bromide and medicine spring waters to the city’s tap water. The building had tanks to store up low-flow spring water for peak usage, but the springs eventually dried up completely.
I wrapped up my trip with a trek back up Bromide Hill, this time using the west trail with its memorable high walls and switchbacks. The hill’s long shadow was eating away at the park below as I descended to my car for a drive to Tulsa for dinner with friends. I look forward to returning to Platt, er, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, after the Veterans Lake projects are finished. I want to refresh my memory of the lake and the Rock Creek trails and partake of the new trail they are a-building.