November 23, 2012
On Black Friday 2012, the big shopping day in the United States, I did not stroll at the malls but hiked the falls, driving 90 minutes south of my parents’ home in Oklahoma City to visit Turner Falls. I was last here in June 2011, although I did not enter the crowded park on that summer day, instead gazing at it from the overlook on old twisting Highway 77. The old park is swarming on hot summer days with folks cooling off along Honey Creek, but there were few visitors on Black Friday, which was to my liking.
I paid the out-of-season $4 fee, plus tax since the City of Davis owns the park, to enter and parked at the end of the main lot nearest the falls next to a pickup, the only other vehicle in the lot at that hour. Gusts of wind carried off my brochure map, but instead of consulting the version I’d already saved in my Dropbox, I planned my route by consulting the snapshot I’d taken of the handpainted map near the parking area.
Old stone homes lined the steep hillside beside the walk toward the falls, including the abandoned and roofless WyldAcre from 1922. I ascended its winding flight of steps for the view through its main window of Honey Creek passing below, and then climbed to a small building higher up the slope.
Farther along I climbed up to Collings Castle, the oddball vacation home built for OU College of Education dean Ellsworth Collings in the 1930s. The very low ceilings and doorways leading to extremely steep and narrow spiral stairways make it a favorite for curious children, although the castle is sadly neglected and the large rose rocks were long ago pilfered from one of the living room fireplaces. I ascended to the crenellated tower for a view of the angled bluff above Honey Creek, adorned by the Highway 77 overlook.
Then I climbed the long flight of steps uphill to the old stable, which later became a garage, passing through it to follow the old walled road up to the hilltop. All of this was quite familiar in my memory from camping here thirty-odd years ago with my friend Jeff Silver, with my memory freshened by rare visits over the decades.
Cliffs and Caves
Up top I could see the 77′ waterfalls and two fishermen wading in the falls pool. The falls were haloed with autumn colors, so gorgeous it seemed unreal, somewhat like a kitsch painting by Thomas Kinkade. I noted a beautiful picnic area up top, deciding that would be where I must lunch later in the day, with the nearby trees offering some shelter from the chilling wind.
Upstream from the main falls is Bridal Veil Falls, but the drought has clobbered them. However, the cliffs were beautifully illuminated by the morning sun. I found the lower outlet of Outlaw Cave – I could have squeezed through that low gap, but I knew I’d be much happier climbing up to the upper entrance, which is like a tunnel into the ground. It was nice to have the cave to myself for once, able to peek out the window at the falls below and pose for a self-portrait. The cave graffiti proclaimed the romances of youth.
Back outside, I bushwhacked down the hillside to some more falls for a closer look at the rivulet and the craggy cliff. I sat in one large cleft to shoot the view from within, noting how a slight shift in position to bring the edge of the sun into view altered the lighting. Then I climbed back up the cliffside to find the small natural arch. A family at the overlook was pondering my exploits across the rocks.
The tilted bedding planes along here were more like rows of jagged teeth than tombstones. I strode past the yawning maw of a rock monster and passed Wagon Wheel Cave, which I shot from below. A man was exploring the hollows beneath the fall’s flow deposits, and the fishermen were still fly casting as I composed a classic shot of the falls named after Mazeppa Thomas Turner.
Bushwhacking Off the Crystal Cave Trail
Next I decided to take the Crystal Cave Trail off south of the falls, which led me to some extensive bushwhacking. The park doesn’t bother to indicate where this cave is located; evidently it is high up on a bluff, and I spotted a hole on the cliffside. I climbed the tilted bedding planes up to it, only to discover it was a tiny cousin of the real thing. I managed to crawl in, but my feet stuck out of the end as I relaxed in my hermit hidey hole.
Rather than clamber about the bluff searching for the cave, I descended and followed the main trail to where it ended at a pockmarked junction of two dry creeks, preceded by a leafy pool and a huge tangle of tree roots. I decided to bushwhack up the hillside, seeking the nearby peak where I’d seen cell phone towers and a fire tower. I crashed through tree branchlets until I found a dry creek bed I could ascend up the hillside until I reached a barbed wire fence around the tower zone.
I had a panoramic view to the east of trucks and cars streaming along I-35 and the side of a large quarry cut into the root of the ancient Arbuckle Mountains. I made my back down to the creek bed, following it as it curved around the side of a hill. Suddenly I encountered a tall, strapping young fellow who asked me if I knew a way out of there, saying he had followed telephone poles down from the towers, but they’d led to a dropoff and he’d wormed his way down to the creek, now unsure of his orientation. I impressed him with the tracking map I’d been making with my MotionX GPS app on my iPhone (another gift from long-time tech entrepreneur Philippe Kahn), directing him to continue along the creek and then turn right at the junction. He gratefully strode on downstream as I continued upstream until I reached a fence strung across the creek.
Turning back, I encountered the fellow again at the pockmark junction, nestled in a hollow and sharpening a knife. We exchanged pleasantries and I climbed the steep slope to negotiate around the pool dropoff. Looking back, I saw my fellow bushwhacker striding across the dropoff behind me. He was a sweetheart, ducking back out of view to clear the shot, but I actually wanted him there to give the shot a sense of scale. I ascended a side trail to the top of the hillside, locating the telephone wires he had been following earlier. Descending a different route, I spotted him strolling into the park past tourists who clearly were not our sort of bushwhackers.
It was lunch time and I’d been hiking and bushwhacking with only my mini-pack. I picked up my main pack from the car and ascended to the picnic area above Collings Castle for a pleasant snack, ready to hike the Mountain Trail loop around the upper campground.
Mountain Trail Loop
I found another handpainted sign for the Butterfly Campground and its perimeter Mountain Trail. This gravel trail was wide enough for a motorized utility cart and, sure enough, a couple of teenage workers passed by in one. Wooden bridges along the way were its most picturesque elements, in contrast to when it broke out of the taller trees into scrub. The trail ended in a bulldozed zone; later I discovered I could have ventured into that area to find the north entrance to the Fire Break Trail, but I walked the best parts of that trail later from its south end as it wound through the tree cover.
I reached Honey Creek and followed it back toward the falls, passing several low dams which created long leafstrewn pools. I passed a rope swing and then climbed the hillside for a view of the creek below, then followed a trail back to the creekside with its aquatic plants and sunlit trees.
Rather than follow the creek to the falls, where I’d need to scramble back up the cliffs, I forded the creek and bushwhacked up and over the hillside to Crystal Cave Trail. I never did see Crystal Cave, but I wasn’t disappointed, since I’d seen so much beauty along my 7.5 mile hike on this Black Friday.
I ended back at the falls, volunteering to photograph one family whose members had coalesced from Indiana, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to gather at Oklahoma’s most scenic waterfall.