Salt Plains


Meador PostA very busy start to the 2016-2017 school year has temporarily stalled the series of posts on our July honeymoon in the Pacific Northwest. So I’m interjecting here a post on our trip in early October to the Salt Plains.

Starting Fall at Osage Hills

The heat and bugs of summer keep us away from the trails, so Wendy and I have been eager for the cooler weather of autumn. The first weekend of October was finally cool enough for us to venture out for an initial hike after months of air conditioned captivity. We drove 30 minutes west to Osage Hills and walked the Creek Loop trail, which is still shown on the state travel website using my map. I knew we should take it easy, so we only did 2.14 miles on that relatively flat trail, visiting the bluffs above Sand Creek and making the loop through the woods. It was still a tad warm for our taste, but we definitely needed the exercise.

Selecting Our Next Hike

A week later the forecast high temperature was in the low 70s. So we made a long-delayed excursion to the Salt Plains. Wendy had enjoyed a solo visit to the area years before we started dating, and I had not been out there in decades. Wendy wasn’t interested in digging for selenite crystals, since she’d done that on her earlier outing, and I’m saving a dig for a future trip with our teaching colleague Betty Henderson, who loves digging for crystals in Arkansas and would no doubt love digging in the salt plains.

Trip to the Salt Plains (click map for slideshow)

Trip to the Salt Plains (click map for slideshow)

Instead, Wendy and I were focused on hiking and taking photos. I did my web research on trails and came up with two quite useful maps:

One trail I targeted was the Tonkawa Nature Trail in the northern area of the Great Salt Plains State Park, opting to avoid the much longer equestrian trails; I didn’t feel like navigating around horse droppings. I also marked down the Eagle Roost Trail, a five mile drive away from the state park over in the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.




I’ll confess, however, that a primary motivator in selecting the Salt Plains for our first real hiking trip of the fall was that midway along our journey out there we could stop for lunch at Enrique’s in Ponca City. That Mexican restaurant at the airport has great food in a unique setting. We headed out from Bartlesville by 10 a.m. so we could drive the 80 miles to Enrique’s by 11:30. US 60 west of Osage Hills is now a super-two road, with actual shoulders, which is much better than the shoulderless stretches of US 60 on either side of Bartlesville.

At the restaurant we ordered puffy chips with their spicy salsa for an appetizer. I had a beef chimichanga while Wendy opted for chicken and added a tamale. Our chimichangas were good, with savory beans and bacon and good rice for sides. Wendy loved the spicy salsa and puffy chips and said the tamale had the kind of heat she treasures in New Mexican cuisine, although it did not use green chiles. My more tender tummy took her word for it. The wonderful big lunch had both of us eager to get to walkin’.

Tonkawa Trail (A on the embedded Google map)

We drove another 70 miles east to the wildlife refuge headquarters, northwest of the state park. I was surprised to find the visitor center closed due an internal fire; there was no mention of this on their website. Later, on their Facebook page, I found out that in July they had a lightning strike that started a fire in the attic.

My soda at lunch had me eager to find a bathroom, so I drove us the five road miles through Nescatunga (which means “big salt water” in Osage) to the state park. We found a nicely plumbed bathroom there at the trailhead for the Tonkawa Nature Trail. The bathroom, however, was more impressive than the trail itself.

Tonkawa Natural Trail

Tonkawa Natural Trail

Salt Fork of the Arkansas

Salt Fork of the Arkansas

The little trail winds through the trees for only a quarter mile, and it was littered with fallen branches. Clearly few folks bother with it, although near the trailhead is the Wildwood Chapel, a small group of railroad timber benches with a pulpit. I expect those who worship there pray for some relief from the biting insects that plagued the area during our brief visit.

There were large anthills all over the camping area. It is situated along the northern shore of the Salt Fork of the Arkansas as it spills out of the Great Salt Plains Lake. That lake is troubled, plagued by fish kills due to silting that has left it with an average depth of only two feet. There isn’t funding to dredge it, so it will likely just continue to silt in until it all becomes a wetland. As fish disappear from the low oxygen levels, so will some of the birds that flock to the area.

The lake hasn’t silted in fully, so we spotted our first large animal of the day: a pelican out in the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River below the spillway. We also admired the colorful layers of rock exposed across the river.

Pelican in the Salt Fork of the Arkansas

Pelican in the Salt Fork of the Arkansas

Eagle Roost & Hoot Owl Trails (B on the embedded Google map)

I was hopeful we’d have better hiking back at the Wildlife Refuge, so we made our way back to the Eagle Roost Trail near the closed Visitor Center. It is described online as a 1.25 loop near Eagle Roost Pond and Sand Creek Bay. We found the trailhead easily enough, just west of the visitor center.

Eagle Roost Trail Track

Eagle Roost Trail Track

Wendy the rock hound immediately spotted some interesting rocks as we made our way through an area that clearly floods. I was surprised to soon reach a fork in the trail. To the left/south was the Hoot Owl Trail, something not mentioned on the Wildlife Refuge website, although they do have some shots from it on their active Facebook page. We headed down that graveled path to see where it might lead. It soon reached a T intersection, which I presumed was a trail loop. We headed to the left, only to find the trail branching again to the left, leading across a nicely built bridge. However, that rather nice bridge was quite overgrown, and the trail on the other side was untended, with tall plants growing out of the gravel. We’d sprayed ourselves with Cutter before heading out, but this looked treacherous in the bug department, so we returned to the main loop.

Satellite imagery shows the Hoot Owl Trail has been in place since at least 2012. The main Eagle Roost Trail is a mowed roadway, but for the Hoot Owl Trail they opted to lay down some fabric and then cover that with gravel. Plants have nevertheless contrived to penetrate the layers in many places, so maintenance is not as carefree as they might have hoped. The trail eventually looped back, and we were back on the mowed roadway as it led west across the marshland toward the eastern shore of Sand Creek Bay.

Bugs had feasted on the large leaves by the trailside, and we were certainly aware of the insect life in this marshy area, which had its share of swamp smell. Wendy pointed out two trees that were bowing towards each other. It is interesting to compare how the backlighting from the afternoon sun affected the shot her iPhone 6 produced in regular Photo mode with what my iPhone 6 produced when I took a vertical panorama. The panorama is less realistic, but is an arresting image.

Heron on Sand Creek Bay

Heron on Sand Creek Bay

On the shore of Sand Creek Bay was a nice blind which featured a telescope. I poked my Canon superzoom out of one slot while Wendy gazed through the telescope. Soon we got lucky with a blue heron swooping in to land among reeds out in the bay. I got a shot on the superzoom while Wendy enjoyed the even clearer view in the telescope, managing to get off an iPhone shot through the telescope.

The trail led north between the bay and the marshes to the east, choked with tall grasses and reeds. An armadillo ignored us as we trod past. At Eagle Roost Pond we didn’t spy any eagles, but a Monarch butterfly graciously posed for us. Wendy had already spotted a bald eagle on our drive toward Ponca City, so we couldn’t complain.

The roadway continued north, but the trail turned back east when we reached Puterbaugh Marsh. While I was grateful for the wildlife we’d spotted, I’d had enough of the marsh bugs and smells. So when the trail reached the auto route road on the eastern side of the loop, we exited the trail and walked back along the road to the car.

Harold F. Miller Auto Tour Route

The Miller Auto Tour Route is named after a local resident who devoted 38 years to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The route was planned in 1987, funded in 1989, and dedicated in 1992, and the road was in great shape. Soon after we began our drive, I saw a coyote dart across a field. Thankfully he stopped to look back at us, allowing me to capture him in the superzoom through Wendy’s open window. The road led by the rather unimaginatively named Little, Intermediate, and Big marshes. We passed an enormous old tree, with very thick grizzled bark. We took a final walk of 0.3 miles to and from the Casey Tower Overlook through the woods to what turned out to actually be another blind overlooking a field. Despite approaching as quietly as we could in our boots, we did not spot any wildlife. Dawn or dusk are better times to catch the critters in action.

Coyote along the Miller Auto Tour

Coyote along the Miller Auto Tour

Searching for Salt (C on the embedded Google map)

It was time for some shots of the actual salt plains. I tried to spot the Sandpiper Trailhead off highway 11, which leads to an observation tower at the north end of the plains, but drove right past it. Rather than backtrack, I just drove on around through Cherokee, turning at the Selenite Sam sign to head along a county road to the digging area. We banged along the asphalt road, jounced by each seam in the old concrete roadbed underneath.

Selenite crystal dig area

Selenite crystal dig area

We finally bumped our way onto the salt flats, trading broken asphalt for mudholes. The thin layer of white salt coating the flat and barren 11,000 acres was initially deposited during repeated water level rises of a shallow sea millions of years ago. The supply of salt is kept intact by saline groundwater that flows just below the surface: when the water evaporates, a layer of salt remains. The same process helps form the selenite crystals which visitors dig for in designated areas which are rotated each year to allow for crystal reformation.

We pulled up to park beside dozens of vehicles at the dig area, which was pockmarked with shallow holes. Wendy and I roamed about, scavenging unclaimed crystals and rocks. I’m no rock hound, but I did manage to gather a handful of crystals. Wendy blended those with her own scavenged crystals and sparkling rocks, which she later cleaned up at home.

Our scavenged selenite crystals

Our scavenged selenite crystals

I got a kick watching some of the people out at the flats. Some little boys were having fun digging at one edge of the digging area. Across the road, photographers were busy with a model wearing an immense parachute-like skirt spread across the white flat. She held a gossamer streamer aloft in the breeze, but I think I like my blooper shot of her billowing skirt the best.

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Headed Home

It was time to return to Bartlesville. TripAdvisor led us to stop off for dinner at the Garret Wrangler restaurant in Ponca City, but they were having an off night. Our turkey and dressing featured an underdone bird and lukewarm mashed potatoes, so I opted to forego a slice of pie. When we got home, it was time to remove the salt and grime. Wendy took a bath while I took the car over to the car wash to clean it, then returned home for a welcome shower. We had a great day out west and are looking forward to more hikes in the weeks to come.


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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