The third day of winter found me up early, seeking a better hot breakfast than I’d secured the day before at the Denny’s in McAlester. Yelp and Urbanspoon directed me to Marilyn’s Home Cookin’ out on highway 69 by the Best Western. I drove up at about 6:15 am and found several pickups out front and a few tables occupied by regulars – this looked better than the sparsely occupied Denny’s from the morning before. I ordered the Trucker’s Breakfast from the sole waitress and tucked away two scrambled eggs, a big pancake, toast, hash browns, bacon, and sausage. Once my arteries were sufficiently clogged, I lit out for Quartz Mountain on the other side of the state.
Trixie the GPS app and Google Maps agreed that the fastest route was to take Indian Nations Turnpike up to I-40, cross over to Clinton, and then dive south to Lone Wolf and the lodge. Since I wanted to maximize my time on the trails, I took that advice. The road rolled by swiftly with the moon, which only a few days ago was in eclipse, peering through the clouds in the western sky even as the east remained dark, awaiting the dawn.
I stopped to pick up a turkey hoagie in Cordell and was approaching Quartz Mountain State Park before noon. It was overcast and in the 30s, not sunny and in the 60s as originally forecast. But at least it wasn’t raining and there were trails awaiting inspection.
Quartz Mountain was one of the seven original state parks. Long a camp for Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne-Arapaho, and Wichita-Caddo Indians, the infamous General Custer marched troops to this location back in 1869 as he was pursuing Cheyenne who had fled their reservation.The Western Cattle Trail ran by here from 1874 to 1886. The park began as a water supply lake for Altus in 1927 with a 458 foot long, 27 foot high dam across the north fork of the Red River. It became a state park in 1935 and the CCC constructed roads, picnic areas, shelters, and trails. The dam was raised 50 feet for flood control and irrigation by 1946.
The first lodge was completed in 1955 and it became home to the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute in 1978, with high school students around the state competing for the privilege. Thirty years after its completion much of that lodge burned down and state and private funding rebuilt it into a resort with indoor and outdoor performance halls and art pavilions. Each year those of us who attend or watch the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence program enjoy music played by the young artists chosen for the Summer Institute.
It is the nicest state lodge we have and I was able to book a room during this very slow season for only $60. I’ll spend almost that much eating at the restaurant, which has fine food prepared by chef Bola Togun.
But I’m mainly here for the trails, most of which are quite short but very steep since they climb up and sometimes over the distinctive granite hills, er, mountains that pop up out of the prairie here. My first stop was the New Horizon trail. It is only 1/4 mile long, but it climbs right up the side of one of the hills.
It begins with a small building of native cobbles, the same construction one finds at Medicine Park on the east end of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. I presume it was built by the CCC for some purpose back in the day – there was no signage to explain it. A low concrete rise in the floor leads me to think it was a machine shop or pump house. After winding through the brush for a bit, you pop out onto the granite outcroppings. Giant granite boulders dot the rugged landscape, and soon I was near the top, admiring the view of part of Lake Altus.
Even in 30-degree weather, I was quite warm from the climb when I reached my highest point and stretched my legs out for a bit before eating part of the turkey hoagie. It was quite bland and I only ate half of it before giving up and deciding I’d wait for a big dinner in the restaurant later. I passed a scraggly old tree on the descent and looked back at where I’d been.
Then I drove past some overly tame deer and saw the twin peaks located just west of the lodge. I passed them and parked west of the lodge at the indoor Performance Hall. Just then a huge jet banked in the sky to the west, reminding me that Altus Air Force Base was 15 miles south of me.
I found the Mountain Pass trailhead for the 1/4 mile trail which leads over a hill to a cove on Lake Altus. As I climbed I looked back to see my car parked by the Performance Hall, which is normally separated by Lake Altus from the resort, requiring a long connecting bridge. But the lake is so low right now the bridge is superfluous.
The high point provided a sweeping panorama of the cove, and then I descended to pop out through a grassland border onto the shore. I enjoyed the cove with its granite sandy shore and hill mounds rising on the sides. Water had sculpted some of the sand into a tiny impermanent arch. I clambered out on a point of boulders, then posed for a self-portrait nearby and then posed again by some lichen-encrusted rocks on the south edge of the one of the peaks.
After climbing back over the hill, it was a short walk to the Twin Peaks trail. This paved trail runs along the eastern edge of the peaks, providing a panoramic view of the nearby lodge. I startled an eagle (I’m no ornithologist, so forgive any misidentification), which reminded me that the Eagle Trail should join up with this one. I searched unsuccessfully for a sign, but picked what looked like a trailhead and began my climb. Vegetation is sparse and granite is slow to wear, so the trails are often difficult to discern, although at first some crumpled grass told me I was on track. I climbed as high as I could with safety, about 3/4 of the way to the summit, and earned a great view of the resort complex below.
Finished with all of the longer open trails by the lodge (a couple were closed since they passed near private land where hunting is underway), I decided to drive over to Baldy Point. It is a little over a mile west of the lodge area and, because of various land parcels, accessed by an indirect route along paved and dirt roads. Baldy Point rises over 300 feet above the prairie and is a popular technical climbing area and, while I’m no mountain climber, I did plan to reach its summit via a promised trail.
The summit trail at first ran right along the smooth granite wall of the Point, then ascended to afford a view of the long granite slabs, one of which had daylight peeking from beneath it. I lost the trail on the steep granite slope and climbed up to a dead end where I was blocked by barbed wire marking private land and granite overhangs. There I rested, enjoying the view.
Then I scrabbled around the slope and found the trail again, following it up and up until the summit was in sight. I paused to shoot a panorama and then made the final ascent.
The view from the top was tremendous – I could even see Lake Altus in the distance. I saw a pickup far below creeping along, the driver watching me standing atop the immense granite mound. I was wearing my hunter orange vest, so I was rather conspicuous. Then I made my descent, my knees aching a bit and growing weary of the cacti and thorns which periodically penetrated my leather gloves and jeans. I skidded and fell twice and, although never in much danger, knew I was reaching my limit for solo mountaineering. Near the bottom I looked back to see how far I’d climbed.
Back at the trailhead I set out on the Mesquite Forest trail, passing signs about technical climbing and the area’s geologic history. I passed one obvious climbing spot which looked rather fearsome when compared to the summit trail, then a spot that resembled a cave and was formed from fallen granite boulders. Another climbing spot was apparent, and then the trail wound around to show me the impressive eastern face of the point. The trail merged with another here and I knew it to be closed due to area hunting. So I paused for a panorama of the countryside and then retraced my steps.
I’d hiked over five miles, with much of that being steep vertical boulder hopping. Combine that with my 4.5 hour drive from McAlester, and I was relieved to see it was 4 pm and I could thus check into my room at the lodge. The view from my second-floor balcony was nice, and I showered and dressed before lounging a bit by a warm fire in the gorgeous lobby and then proceeded to the Sundance Cafe.
The entrance had a nice statue of a Native American, and, as the first customer of the evening, I snagged a seat near its fireplace, enjoying a delicious grilled halibut and indulging in a rich chocolate dessert.
I was at a resort, so I made sure to change into my swim trunks and dash down the hallways to the adjoining building with its indoor swimming pool (heated, but too cold for my taste) and outdoor hot tub. It felt strange to be roaming the hallways in swim trunks two days before Christmas and even stranger to be outside in 30-degree weather so attired. But I flipped on the tub jets and eased in for a blissful period of recuperation.
After leaving the hot tub and toweling off, I jumped onto a running machine for a few minutes to warm back up before returning to my room. I couldn’t get on the internet there since the guest rooms lack WiFi, instead offering ethernet jacks. My MacBook Air is too thin to sport an ethernet port and I haven’t sprung for a USB-to-ethernet adapter. So I edited the photos and composed my draft of the blog post in my room and then dashed over to the main building where I could use the WiFi in the Beverly Badger Memorial Library to upload the pictures and make the post. Nearby was the Survivor sculpture by Ron Bertocchi, a memorial to the loss of the artwork in the original library when the old lodge burned. I love the huge quartz crystals of its base.
Tomorrow’s morning forecast calls for rain, so I may lounge about here and then try to hit a trail if I can locate one that isn’t too wet. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parents’ home in Oklahoma City.
Click here for a slideshow of this day hike
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