April 18, 2011
Driving west from Oklahoma City on I-40, you leave the Cross Timbers behind and enter the rolling great plains. The scenery is little but grass and sky, yet between Hinton and Binger there are gashes in the red earth, including a miles-long canyon carved through the red sandstone deposited here by an inland sea 260 million years ago. Red Rock Canyon runs north to south, dug in several stories below the rolling prairie. On a warm and windy Sunday in mid-April 2011 I stretched a half-mile nature trail into a six-mile walk about the rim of the canyon.
I was in Oklahoma City for the weekend; one of my first cousins was married on Saturday at Fort Reno, which is just west of El Reno and was established in 1874 to “pacify and protect” the Cheyenne and Arapaho in the area. It later became a remount station for specialized horse breeding and the training of pack mules. The chapel where the wedding was held was built in 1944 by German prisoners of war. 1,300 Germans, mostly from General Rommel’s Afrikakorps, were held at Fort Reno during World War II. Today it is the site of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grazinglands Research Laboratory.
Sunday was warm and windy and rather than retreat to Bartlesville I headed back out west past Fort Reno toward Hinton. A zillion highway signs prompted me to stop in at the Cherokee Trading Post, a tourist trap that’s been operating there since 1958. I bought a sand painting tchotchke and then turned south off I-40 to drive through Hinton. Red Rock Canyon State Park is just south of town and was Kiwanis Canyon Park until the local club donated it to the state in 1956. My parents took me camping there several times in my childhood and I fondly recall wandering the rock swap which was held there each year, several quarters in my hand as I hunted for a beautiful stone I could afford. I wasn’t terribly fond of getting dirty as a kid, but I do recall having red soil ground into my jeans from grubbing about on trails leading up the steep canyon walls.
Dim memories were lit as I spotted the park sign and drove past the red canyon walls on the steep and winding road. I parked just inside the canyon at the trailhead for the Rough Horsetail Nature Trail. It is a half-mile loop, but I had plans to extend it considerably, based on my memories of the canyon. I had a runny nose, cough, and sore throat from allergies and a possible cold, but I was determined not to miss out on a great hike.
The trail led straight through a grove of horsetails, tiny relatives of the calamites, which once grew up to 40 feet tall. Vast forests of calamites along the rivers and swamps of the Pennsylvanian period were fossilized to become most of today’s coal deposits. I was starting what would become a five-hour trek on red sandy trails. Soon I reached one of the three box-head plunge pools at the north ends of the canyon, kickpoints where a larger stream long ago began carving its way down through the red sandstone to form a waterfall and then steadily erode southward to form the canyon of today. The small stream running from here through the canyon causes too little erosion to explain the canyon’s size and length – Oklahoma was once a far wetter place.
I laughed when I saw a sign forbidding short cuts. I’d be deviating from the trail, but certainly not for a short cut. The canyon brochure mentioned rim trails which hikers are allowed to travel on but which are not maintained by the park, and I found a place where I could leave the nature trail and climb the abraded sandstone to the canyon’s rim. Up top I saw a pump jack near the edge of town, amid the heaving red sandstone and invasive cedars. Turning I could barely make out where the red sandstone was replaced by tops of the trees sticking up out of the canyon, which is a couple of stories deep on the eastern side.
I walked over to the rim of the plunge pool and then over the ridge to view the dry bed of the tiny stream leading to the plunge. Trooping across the eroding crust of the sandstone, I found the perimeter trail on the east not only had narrow bushwhacks along the canyon rim, but further eastward there was widened, improved, and staked trail which mountain bikes and hikers could easily follow to the pond overlook downstream.
I reached one of the designated rapelling areas, following the narrow bushwhacks along the rim until the trail burst onto the bare rock thrusting out into the canyon which provides an overlook for the pond. I couldn’t resist posing for a shot, and trooped onward across the rock face. Over the years folks have carved their initials here and there into the soft red stone, and I grinned when I spotted a MOM rock. The overlook not only provided a good view of the fishing pond, but also the nearby tent area. The rim above a picnic table showed the grooves of many a rapeller, and the rim stone swirled with erosion while a colorful plant provided a welcome splash of spring to the dusty rock.
I had a nice view of the red canyon walls from the rim, and on one of the narrow rim trails found the remains of an Ent, those living trees from The Lord of the Rings which smite orcs. Okay, it was probably too small to be an Ent, so it was probably one of those creatures from the Cold Hands, Warm Heart episode of The Outer Limits. Fearless, I sat down beside it for lunch. The canyon wall below had enough worn edges that folks used it to climb up and down, grasping the various tree roots.
I trekked on southward, looking up at cell towers and vultures and down as I circled the cute A-frames of the group camp nestled in a short side canyon. Another fun graffito was a tic tac toe game carved into the rock. Soon I stumbled back onto the same sort of improved, widened, staked path I had seen earlier and followed it to the south end of the park. It descended into the canyon and crossed the stream, where a reclining tree was sprawled.
The trail then went up the higher and steeper west canyon wall. The park boundary is quite close to the rim of the west wall and the wide trail made a straight shot northward and looked like it was part of the California Road Trail at the south end of the park. Red Rock Canyon was a landmark on the so-called California Road, one of the trails wagon trains followed to California in the gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century.
Numerous bushwhacks led off eastward from the main trail toward the steep west wall of the canyon and I followed one over to familiar-looking mounds of sandstone, following them northward. The west wall of the canyon is more heavily forested, so I could not see into the canyon below. I passed a marker which indicated I was on part of the California Road Trail. Treetops jutted up from the canyon between me and its eastern wall, and cedar trees clung to the rock.
Soon the California Road Trail turned back southward along the park boundary. To the west occasional bushwhacks led up to the barbed wire park boundary and one narrow and treacherous bushwhack followed the slim gap between the boundary fence and the sloping canyon wall. This marginal trail bounced steeply up and down the terrain and when the gap finally widened enough I followed a side trail to a lower bushwhack along the canyon rim which was less taxing, although still only for the surefooted hiker who is not afraid of heights. I was glad to have my trekking poles!
The west canyon rim eventually widened and I shot a panorama near some turtle rocks and soon the trees thinned out and I could spot the group camp across the canyon. Across the way I could see tenacious trees growing on the east canyon wall. Eventually I saw the pond below me and got a good view of the overlook upon which I had trod earlier, the one separating the pond from the tent area. Soon below me I saw the narrow canyon stream meandering amidst horsetails while across the canyon two ladies on the opposite rim were approaching the pond overlook. I passed a power pole with an electric meter. I don’t envy the meter reader who has to trek up here!
The narrow trail headed on toward the park entrance and I crossed the winding entry road and strode right out of the park since I wanted to follow the rim around to the Horsetail Trail. I could see one of the three boxhead plunges below me. I had a great view of the north canyon wall and the stream and circled around to view the area looking east.
I found some steps carved into the rock face which allowed me to descend to the stream running from the third boxhead plunge. The Horsetail Nature Trail visits the two eastern plunge pools, but does not visit the third boxhead canyon on the west, since it lies outside the park boundary. The steps looked intimidating from both above and below, but they worked. I posed by the curving canyon wall along this branch but the short trail dead-ended at the stream and I had to climb back out the way I’d come.
Up top I trekked over to the top of the middle boxhead plunge and then found a way to clamber down to the Horsetail Nature Trail and visit the middle plunge pool. Soon I was traipsing back through the tall horsetails towards the car. I had hiked six miles, which wasn’t bad given the current afflictions of my respiratory system. But I was good and ready to clean up and head back to Oklahoma City for dinner with the folks before driving back to Bartlesville. It would be great if eventually the state would fund a proper rim trail around the entire canyon, but until then the existing trail segments and many bushwhacks will have to do.