Granite Hills Grandeur

The Bewitching Wichitas (click image for slideshow)

Over Thanksgiving I’d hoped to hike the Granite Hills trails at Great Plains State Park in the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, but was stymied by weather. The beautiful Wichitas are too far a drive for a day hike out of Bartlesville, but Winter Break offered another opportunity.

So the day after Christmas, which I’d spent as usual with my folks in Oklahoma City, I ignored the gray overcast skies and drizzle which extended from the city down the H.E. Bailey turnpike to Lawton and points west. The forecast said the clouds would part a bit in the afternoon with highs in the 40s and that was good enough for me.

As I pulled into Lawton around 11 a.m. I was wondering if I’d get to hike at all, since a steady drizzle continued unabated. I took shelter at Central Mall and grabbed lunch, then headed west past the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where I’d be hiking and exploring the following day, toward Tom Steed Reservoir near Snyder.

As I passed the Quanah Parker monument on the Cache highway, I was thrilled to see the clouds part on cue and the sun break through for a bit, although it was mostly shielded as I drove into the state park toward the granite hills. At the Granite Hills trailhead several vees of birds passed overhead. The trailhead sign had a better trail map than the one they’ve posted online. Why these things happen remains a mystery.

The namesake mounds of granite were heaped ahead of me and I tried to follow the yellow trail but got confused by some junctions and wound up looping back on myself. When I tried to backtrack and correct it, I was stymied so I just bushwhacked my way along a watercourse until I caught a glimpse of the reservoir and could shoot a panorama.

I eventually found the white trail and followed it down to the lakeside camping areas. The white trail led back uphill to cedars which celebrated Christmas in reddish orange and green. I reached a tiny grove of saplings, unusual in this setting, and then shot a white bouquet of dead flowers amidst the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti.

I finally reached the far trailhead at the old low Lake Snyder dam, directly south of the big Tom Steed Reservoir Dam upstream on Glen Creek. The rock walls of the Lake Snyder spillway contrasted to the big concrete arch of the bigger dam. While atop the bluff above Lake Snyder, I startled a big heron, only capturing a blurry image of it winging past below me.

Moving north up the road past the big dam, I could see up the narrow creek channel leading out into the larger body of the lake. I rejoined the trail system, always taking the right fork so I could take the higher yellow trail for the return. The boulder strewn trail led up to an overlook and the clouds obligingly parted for a sunny shot. I turned around to shoot a panorama of the granite hills.

I climbed to the summit, where a tree growing in a crack looked like it was splitting a huge boulder. I then shot a very long panorama linking the views. As the sun lit up the distant hills I descended to shoot one last granite mound and then followed the yellow trail until I reached the point I’d been at hours earlier. Here I turned off trail, bushwhacking over to a pond shown on my map.

The drought had drained it and as I negotiated the muddy shore I slid down, smearing mud across my hindquarters. Oh dear! I don’t mind scratches and cuts but I do detest muddy clothes. Chagrined, I used bottled water to wash my hands and cautiously made my way over to the park road and followed it to another small pond, where I bushwhacked across dry mudless granite until I stumbled across the yellow trail again.

I followed it through a grove of trees back to the trailhead. Laying a blanket across the car seat, I drove over to a park restroom where I changed my pants and rid myself of the muddy reminder of that pitiful pond. Then I headed back onto the highway as it wound north and west around the reservoir.

Fittingly the golden hour of sunset arrived as I reached the hill adorned with the distinctive remains of the Gold Bells Mine and Mill. The round cooling tower atop the hill resembled a giant kiva in the warm sunlight. The mine never managed to produce gold, so the owners resorted to blasting gold dust into the mine walls to salt it and cheat new investors to recoup their investment, including $17,000 invested in the big useless mill.

The lake glimmered below the dusky sunset sky and then the blue briefly returned above the old cyanide mill. I drove on into Roosevelt, where I was startled by a disturbing tire man who was dancing beside the abandoned high school. West of town a low cloud pressed down over the flat fields and the colors deepened. Granite hills transformed into purple mountains beneath the moon as Trixie the GPS directed me along a shortcut of lonely flat roads towards Quartz Mountain.

I had fond memories of my stay a year before at the best state-owned lodge and had made the wise decision to forgo a hotel room in Lawton for the comforts of the lodge. The low off-season room rate readily compensated for the 35 mile drive over to the park and I knew a fine meal and pleasing accommodations awaited me.

A star illumined the small carnival outside the park as I wound my way over to the resort. Their online booking system had not registered my reservation, but that was hardly a problem in the off-season. I crossed the moonlit courtyard to my room and then walked beneath the lunar sliver to the Sundance Cafe. The old Indian greeted me at the entrance and I was led to the same fireside spot where I dined a year ago.

Candles gleamed as I feasted on hot rolls, a salad, and seared salmon with citrus sauce and grilled vegetables. This is the life! After dinner I strolled through the corridors where other guests were also walking about, admiring black and white photographs from the summer arts institute. I preferred the sculpture Another Dream by Fritz Scholder, which portrayed a woman emerging from the rock for a kiss.

In the lobby was As Long As The Waters Flow by Allan Houser. The fan the woman was holding looked like a paddle to me – she was prompting me to get to my room and start blogging. I learned last year there is no WiFi in the rooms, so this time I came armed with an ethernet adapter for my Macbook Air. So I’m thankfully composing this post from the comfort of my room, and my photos uploaded in record time via the high speed wired connection.

Tomorrow I head back east to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge to hike a few short trails and see other sights mentioned in Edward Ellenbrook’s guide book which I’ve not encountered on my previous visits. More granite grandeur to come…

Click here for a slideshow from 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.
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