When I tell people I’m from Oklahoma and ask them if they’ve ever been there before, I almost always get the same reaction. They look off into the distance, their brow furrows and a distressed look enters their eyes. “Yes, I drove through it once,” they say. “It was the longest, most boring drive of my life.”
Oklahoma is neatly bisected by I-35 and I-40, two major interstates that connect east and west, north and south, and intersect in the center of Oklahoma City, the state capitol. In addition, I-44 branches off from OKC, up through Tulsa and on to Chicago. Almost anyone who has driven cross-country has cruised through this surprisingly large state and by all accounts, came away deeply unimpressed.
This is no surprise. In the words of Charles Kuralt, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” The interstates pass through some flat and featureless land in Oklahoma. But a detour from the interstate highway will reveal a state with surprising landscapes and friendly small towns. Next time you are passing by, get off the interstate and see these places.
The Wichita Mountains
The most obvious detour in western Oklahoma is the Wichita Mountains and the eponymous national wildlife refuge. Frequently listed in travel magazines or blogs as one of the unknown gems in America, this park is home to herds of bison, elk, longhorn cows, white-tailed deer and small animals such as prairie dogs, rabbits and fox. There are miles of hiking trails, several lakes and rugged mountains that look more like the foothills of the Rockies and unlike anything you’d expect in a flat state like Oklahoma.
The Gloss Mountains
In the northwest part of the state are the Gloss Mountains, an area that is a baby Utah, a poor-man’s Arizona, a miniature New Mexico. Wow, I’m really selling it. This land of ochre mesas and rugged hills is one of my favorite places in the state. The small Gloss Mountains State Park has a hiking trail that leads up Cathedral Mountain where it is possible to walk atop the mesa and enjoy 360 degree views of the area.
Northwest State Parks
There are a handful of unique state parks in the northwest part of the state, from the Little Sahara Sand Dunes to forested Boiling Springs to the Alabaster Caverns, these are little pockets of parkland amidst miles of farms. One of my favorites is Roman Nose State Park with a couple of beautiful hiking and bike trails, plus a lake that is usually deserted during the week. These are great places to camp for the night, sleep in a cabin or go for a short walk to stretch your legs after all those miles in the car.
Small Towns and Farmscapes
Although sparsely populated, the Great Plains are hardly pristine wilderness. Almost every speck of land has been transformed by man, plowed into farmland or turned to grazing pastures for cows. Grain elevators, oil rigs and windmills dot the skyline; tractors and farm machinery lend a photogenic charm to every view.
When you stop off to refuel your car or get a bite to eat, you will meet some of the friendliest and nicest people on Earth, although I wouldn’t recommend wearing a turban or burqa or a hoodie. Even if you know where you going, ask directions and watch how helpful the locals are. A couple of my favorite little towns, which I am sure once this is read by fellow Oklahomans they may think I am crazy, include the following:
- Thomas – Friendly and photogenic small town with three giant grain elevators.
- Weatherford – College town with a nice downtown.
- Waynoka – Gateway to the Little Sahara Sand Dunes.
- Freedom – Cool downtown area, takes about 15 seconds to see it all. Also near a beautiful spot on the Cimarron River.
- Medicine Park – A super fun resort town in the Wichita Mountains. You will think you are in Colorado.
- Shattuck – Has a really cool windmill museum.
- Woodward – My hometown. Lots of new hotels and a couple of great Mexican food places. Also lots of drinking establishments that took like good places to get in a bar fight.
I’m not advocating that you spend your hard-earned vacation time visiting western Oklahoma, but if you have an extended vacation or are on a cross-country road trip, by all means, take a couple of days and drive the backroads of the western half of the state and see a side of America few outsiders see. And if we ever meet and I tell you that I am from Oklahoma, you can say, “I went there once. It was surprisingly interesting.”
And now, a few photos. Click to enlarge.
Have you ever traveled through Oklahoma?
What did you think?
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All I can say is wow. I’ve never been, but you have given me several great reasons to visit!
By the positive comments I’ve received, I’m afraid I may have oversold it! On your way back to NH, are you driving or flying? (or did you already return?)
I will be driving. We won’t be headed back until early April. I will be going back to NH via FL to drop my dad off at his house.
Beautiful photos and state!
You have a valid point for suggesting us to take a detour to western Oklahoma if we have extra time. It makes me think of Java back then before the Great Post Road was built. Traversing the island must have been a very unforgettable experience with undulating hills, towering mountains, and picturesque lakes. But now to get from Jakarta to Surabaya one will take the Pantura (Java’s northern coast inter-provincial road) which doesn’t provide the best scenery the island has to offer, but enables people to travel more efficiently.
Really great photos, Jeff! I really enjoy seeing how clean the air appears in that part of Oklahoma.
Yes the air very clean but we do produce a lot of pollution – we just have really strong winds that blow it all away! The good thing about all the traffic being diverted in places like Java and Oklahoma is it preserves the charm of the small towns. Riding across Flores was really cool because we went right through the middle of the villages.
I have never been to Oklahoma Jeff. Your photos as always are astounding. Has National Geographic been in touch yet? They should be. I hope readers were not so keen to gaze at your lovely images that they missed reading your map. You are hilarious!
Thanks Sue. I imagine that western Alberta has some similar areas of rolling hills and farms that people bypass for the mountains.
And thanks for noticing the map 🙂
It looks like Charles was right!
Yes, I think he was. I don’t think my home state is unique in this fact. Except for Kansas – that place is worth blowing right through.
Even though you didn’t put my town on the map, I love the pictures.
Danni – where do you live? I’ll add it to the map 🙂
Rocky–sw of Weatherford forty-five mi or so. It’ll be a real small dot. 🙂
I drove through Rocky my last day in Oklahoma, going to Altus to watch my nieces play basketball. That is a pretty area.
Thank you Diana. We do get some beautiful light in Oklahoma.
Don’t forget chasing supercells and tornados in the summer evenings.
Oh yes, probably my favorite thing about Oklahoma is the storms. I haven’t been in the state during the spring or summer in 10 years now so I am missing out!
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We drove through Oklahoma on our cross country road trip last year on i40. We stopped in Oklahoma City for the night and had a wonderful time. We ate at the Bricktown Brewery. As a Flaming Lips fan, I had to check out Flaming Lips Alley. Also, there are some beautiful murals around the city. Judging by your pictures, Western Oklahoma looks pretty excellent as well.
Ah yes, a fellow Flaming Lips fan. I don’t even know who would be the 2nd coolest rock band in the history of Oklahoma, but the Flaming Lips are 100 times cooler than them. I don’t know if any other state has such a wide disparity.
Oklahoma City has really changed for the better in the last 20 years. They spent a lot of money revitalizing the downtown and now with the NBA basketball team and other events, it is a great destination. I’m glad you enjoyed.
After quickly checking with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_of_Oklahoma i’d have to say you’re correct. Possible second place being Kings of Leon, thats pretty sad. There are lots of good songs ABOUT Oklahoma, though. That has to count for something.
Oh dear god, Kings of Leon are from Oklahoma? I am never claiming being from there again.
I love this post! I think it’s so great when people can appreciate their own corner of the world, especially when it’s not somewhere that is usually loved. I’ve never been to the US, but I’m going this year – I won’t have time for my dream road trip then, but one day I’d love to just go for a drive and see iconic sights, as well as places like western OK that aren’t plastered on every tourist brochure. Thanks for sharing some cool pictures of somewhere I’ve never seen before 🙂
Thank you Genevieve. Where are you visiting in the U.S. this year?
I’m going to NYC for three weeks, but I’ll be working during the week, and then I’m going to Maui for a week after that. Hopefully will be able to squeeze in a side trip somewhere, maybe Boston or Montreal. There are so many places in the US I want to go though, I’ll definitely be back!
All this talk about Wootown and Norhwest OK. You didn’t even mention the world renown BSGC where you spent countless hours listening to Meadows.
True, those were some of the best days of my life there. That place is special, although I don’t like what they did to the greens!
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