Return to Winding Stair Mountain

Down Winding Stair Mountain (click image for slideshow)

A year ago I made a loop hike over Winding Stair Mountain off the Talimena Skyline Drive in the Ouachitas of southeastern Oklahoma, hiking a portion of the Old Military Road built in 1832 from Fort Towson to Fort Smith. With severe weather forecast throughout northern Oklahoma for the weekend, I decided to flee the storms to spend Friday night in Poteau so I could start early on Saturday for a longer loop hike from Holson Valley Road to the Talimena Skyline Drive, including two miles along the Old Military Road. I’d been planning this hike ever since I discovered it on Charlie Williams’s OuachitaMaps.com.

So after school let out I drove out of Bartlesville under lowering skies to Tulsey Town for dinner and to buy a few of Charlie’s preprinted maps at Backwoods. The trip south took me through one thunderstorm, but Tulsa itself was only having sprinkles as I came through. I drove under gray skies to find Cavanal Hill still looming over Poteau, where I spent the night at the Days Inn. I was paying more than twice what I would have spent for a night next door at the Black Angus Motel, which I actually did stay in over 45 years ago. Yes, I was at the Black Angus when I was about three months old, joining my parents and a neighbor family for a fall foliage tour which I of course have no recollection of whatsoever. Mother, whose memory of details always astounds me, not only remembered the name of the motel but recalled that we had a restless night there, with her wishing the room had a rocking chair.

My sleep now was less fitful, perhaps in part due to the somewhat improved accommodations, although the hotel WiFi was a fiasco and the water pressure in the near-empty inn was so strong my shower had the bathtub a quarter full by its conclusion. The hot breakfast included eggs, bacon, and sausage, so I was quite content as I drove toward Winding Stair Mountain, making a stop at a Tote-A-Poke for some water and a Lunchable for the trail.

Ooo, when I get so hungry…Tote-A-Poke
I could almost eat a donkey…Tote-A-Poke
I want me something crunchy…Tote-A-Poke
I want a lots of lunchy…Tote-A-Poke
For a sandwich or a Twinkie, or something cold to drinky…

In high school and college my friend Jeff and I noted all of the crazy convenience store names as we drove hither and yon across the Sooner State and beyond. We sniggered more at Kum & Go than Tote-A-Poke, I’ll admit. I wasn’t singing the Tote-A-Poke rap as I drove out of Poteau, however. Instead I was rocking to Heavy Chevy on the recently released Boys & Girls debut album of the Alabama Shakes.

I climbed into the Ouachitas and turned off on wide lonesome Holson Valley Road, taking the Boardstand Trail turnoff, which my lousy camera refused to focus on. Oh how I am looking forward to replacing the futzy thing. There were several cars already there and I headed off down the trail, which was a riot of greenery until the forest canopy thickened. I would follow white blazes today since the spur I was on would soon dead-end into the Boardstand Trail, which you can follow westward to the Old Military Road or southeast to Deadman Gap and Horsethief Spring. They all sound like fun destinations!

Over the river and through the woods I went…well, I did ford a few narrow forest streams. On a couple of occasions the trail ran alongside incongruous barbed wire fencing in the middle of the forest and it crossed and recrossed a wide gravel forest rood which I would use for my return journey. Seldom did the forest open up much, although in one area of thinned cover a tree had an unusual lower canopy. The rare open area was a welcome respite from the enclosing woods on this overcast morning and I enjoyed walking through some of the very tall trees.

A pretty butterfly posed for me, flexing its wings and then holding still for close-ups. Eventually I reached the Old Military Road, made evident by the wider path often levelled out by stonework and fill. I reached the trail junction where a year ago I’d turned aside for the Choctaw Nation Trail and I thus retraced sections of the old road with admirably preserved stonework. The one-wagon-width road curved again and again as it wound its way up Winding Stair Mountain toward today’s Skyline Drive.

I passed spiderwort and went through a fence gateway as I climbed to Oklahoma Highway 1. More spiderwort attracted my eye in clusters of two and more, with more pretty wildflowers, including some Baby Blue Eyes. I reached the Talimena Skyline Drive trailhead, where I saw a young couple setting out back along my path. Precisely three hours, to the second, after leaving my car I reached a picnic table for lunch. I’d averaged 2.2 miles per hour on the way out as I walked up and down the inclines and climbed the 700+ feet to the Skyline Drive. I intended to beat that pace on the way back by taking the forest road the trail had crossed multiple times.

The path back was strewn with flowers at first and happily the sun broke through the clouds as I retraced my path, cheering me along as I passed another couple out hiking and later a tattooed man and his dog. I noted where the faint trace of the old military road continued northward while today’s hiking trail curved eastward toward the forest road, which I followed after turning off by the barbed wire fencing to find a gate to frighten dumpers, with only ruins beyond.

The forest road had only one tree down across it, sawn for clearance but with a scattering of pine cones. I propped my camera on one of the boulders by the roadside for a blurry self-portrait and marched along the road admiring the layers of forest ahead of me and blue skies above. Every so often there would be a clearing to one side, often with a fire ring of stones showing folks like to camp along here. I reached the car before 2:30 p.m., having completed 13.4 miles and improved my earlier 2.2 mi/h pace to 2.8 mi/h along almost five miles of forest road.

I headed back homeward, taking scenic highway 82 across the San Bois Mountains and zooming to Tulsa for dinner and then to Bartlesville with sun rays poking through the low clouds. It had rained 2.5 inches in my absence and the wind must have been fierce, as I found the front yard and driveway completely covered in branchlets from the River Birch tree. I like the shade it provides, but its constant shedding of branchlets and the way it fills the gutters each spring with its female catkins can be tiresome. One day I’ll replace it with a nice Japanese Maple or Chinese Pistache to join my Cherry Laurel.

Although this day hike cost me $45 in gasoline and $92 for a passable hotel room, it was a welcome escape to the piney woods. Next weekend I will be stuck at school all day Saturday helping with the chemistry olympiad (don’t ask) and meeting teaching candidates at our job fair. But May will bring several three-day weekends during which I can hope to hike before the summer broil begins.

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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