Bushwhacking in Charon’s Garden

Elk Mountain & Charon's Garden (click image for slideshow)

The forecast for Saturday, February 26 was irresistible: low 70s and partly cloudy in southwestern Oklahoma. After the heavy snowstorms of January and February, I’d managed to start mapping trail lengths in Osage Hills, but I wanted to go on a sunny hike which would really make me sweat. So I set my sights on two large trails in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge I had yet to complete: Elk Mountain and the northern half of Charon’s Garden.

I left Bartlesville Friday night for Oklahoma City for an evening with my parents, spent doing the usual technical support on their computer equipment. The next morning Dad treated me to breakfast at Jim’s on the west end of Bethany along old route 66, and then I headed southwest down the H.E. Bailey turnpike. Turning off at Medicine Park, I drove past Mount Scott, which was still enshrouded in fog. The morning had been overcast, but just after I passed Mount Scott the sun broke through the cloud deck for the first time, promising a better day to come. I drove west across the refuge to the Sunset Area, site of two different CCC camps back in the 1930s.

The parking lots were already filling up with eager hikers and fewer family picnickers. I took a bridge across Sunset Pool along Headquarters Creek to first take the Elk Mountain Trail, which arcs around southeast to climb the northeast side of the mountain with plenty of side “social” trails and stone steps.

Just a short ways up the mountain the view was already quite charming with the skies rapidly clearing. The granite shoulders of the mountain were popping out through its covering of blackjack oaks and cedars. The CCC boys had laid broad granite steps leading up through the brush and winding about its northeast flank, devolving into a jumble of large tilted stones.

The summit was crisscrossed with trails and a broad range of hikers, from teenagers to pensioners, milled about, including a soldier from nearby Ft. Sill. I walked westward along the southern edge of the summit, looking across the chasm of Post Oak Creek far below over to Twin Rocks Mountain to the west. Granite outcroppings rose amongst cedars, including a prominent stone resembling a conning tower. I clambered over atop some long folds of granite for a view back eastward, then returned to the peak of the summit, as designated by a survey marker, for a panoramic view eastward over French Lake towards Mount Scott.

Using my camera’s 12x zoom I could see the dam at French Lake and the first of the fish lakes downstream, beside which I had hiked in late December. I glanced north and then descended the mountain, deviating onto a narrow “social” trail which wound its way down to the western end of the Sunset picnic area, where I inadvertently startled a couple who were chatting in what must have seemed an isolated spot until I emerged from the brush.

Here’s my photo track up and down Elk Mountain at EveryTrail.
Today I would deviate significantly from the main trails, since they are unmarked. When you compare my actual path (in yellow) up and down Elk Mountain to the schematic map at that trailhead, you can see how I managed to turn a 2 mile round trip into a 3.1 mile excursion. Next came Charon’s Garden Wilderness, which Quincy Amen and I hiked partway up from the south back in November. This time I’d make it all of the way, although my deviations (in red) turned the 4 mile round trip through into a 6.2 mile trek.

I soon reached the north trailhead for the Charon’s Garden Wildnerness. The dirt trail shot westward, paralleling Headquarters Creek for quite a ways until it reached sandy Post Oak Creek. I had forgotten to bring along my trail guide from Oklahoma Day Hikes and also failed to read it in advance, so instead of turning south along the creek, I ventured on west down an obvious dirt trail.

The trail eventually turned southwest toward Twin Rocks Mountain, although I shot the landmarks without knowing they were eponymous. I paused to eat a turkey sandwich for a late lunch, surrounded by granite peaks.

Setting off again, my trail began rapidly diminishing into a buffalo track and there were frequent echoing gunshots from Charon’s Garden Mountain to the southwest. When the track turned westward again, I knew I was way off track – later I’d discover I was 0.7 miles west of the proper path.

So I retraced my steps and then headed southeast toward what I presumed, correctly, was the ravine of Post Oak Creek. Eventually I reached a nice overlook of Post Oak Creek, with Elk Mountain and its landmark Apple and Pear stones to the east. Below I spied several young men noisily traversing the main trail, but reaching them was no easy task. I followed animal trails, but the animals who forged them kept shrinking until I was ducking and scrambling through tree limbs and brush – a true bushwhack. I finally emerged onto the main trail with several long scratches along my hands and forearms.

The party I’d spotted turned out to be a major leading an ROTC troop. As they clambered up a hillside, I overheard them remarking about a strong odor. I doubted my tortuous bushwhack had made my that smelly, but years of bloody noses in my youth left it so scarred my sense of smell is quite weak. So I shrugged and march onward. The mystery was solved when I passed this spot on my northward return journey and spotted a rotting carcass in the creek. Downwind the smell was intense enough even I could smell it.

Soon I recognized I was back on the creekside trail Quincy and I had traversed in November. A couple of ladies were also struggling southward along the confusing trails with me. So I stopped at a pool and, when they came along, offered them directions about how to proceed south to Treasure Lake. I passed the markers at the south trailhead and ventured over to the shore of Post Oak Lake for a snack.

I decided to take a high trail to the west to begin my return journey. From up high there was a nice view of Elk Mountain’s south slope and Treasure Lake. Soon I spotted the ROTC troop exiting a cleft to the east, where a small waterfall was visible. I walked back down to and crossed the creek, making my way up into the cleft to the waterfall.

A tree grew beside a pool created by the waterfall’s flow through a rock cleft. Scrambling up a rocky slope, I was able to get a close-up shot, and look back out of the cleft toward Post Oak Creek. I followed a trail along the east side of the creek toward Elk Mountain. The sky was quite beautiful as the afternoon waned, and up ahead giant boulders stood across my path with the Apple and Pear looming overhead, although they did not resemble fruit from this angle.

Soon I reached this field of massive boulders, the south edge marked by an enormous stone looming above me. Scrambling around and then atop the boulders, I paused for a breather and snapped a self-portrait with the Apple and Pear behind me. Leaving those landmarks behind, the rough trail then led across a massive boulder pile and I cautiously slid my way across. A solo hiker fell in between two of these giants and perished in 1992, so I knew I had to proceed cautiously. After crossing, I took a shot of the treacherous path I had followed.

Eventually I reached the sandy headwater of Post Oak Creek, where I’d mistakenly headed westward a few hours earlier. I returned to the Sunset Area down in the bed of Headquarters Creek and soon reached the end of Sunset Pool. I’d completed 9.4 miles and headed back to Oklahoma City for a much-needed shower and some Chinese take-out with the folks.

Here’s my loop about the Charon’s Garden Wilderness at EveryTrail.

Click here for a slideshow of this day hike

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
This entry was posted in day hike, photos, travel. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bushwhacking in Charon’s Garden

  1. Pingback: From the Parallel Forest to the Central Peak of the Wichitas « MEADOR.ORG

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