A Guide to Hiking Wichita Mountains

Hiking Wichita Mountains: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

In 1901, about 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) of the Comanche-Apache-Kiowa Indian Reservation were taken by the U.S. government and used to create the Wichita Mountains National Forest, under the care of the U.S. Forest Service [source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service]. The area has been passed among several different government agencies and changed names a few times over the decades.

Prior to the establishment of the national forest, the region had a rich and colorful history. It was the backdrop for skirmishes between Native Americans and American settlers, served as a hideout for bandits, and is even rumored to house buried treasure (none has ever been found, and it's illegal to look for it). There was a mini-gold rush in the late 1800s, but the Wichita Mountains have never been a serious source of that kind of buried treasure either.

Today the wildlife refuge is an area of great natural beauty. In addition to the mountains and lakes, it's also home to one of the only remaining areas of untouched mixed grass prairie in the U.S. In 1907, American bison were introduced to the refuge as a way to maintain the once nearly extinct species. Through careful management, the refuge maintains a herd of 650 animals, with excess bison sold off at auction to prevent the herd from growing too large and damaging the prairie [source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service]. A herd of longhorn cattle are kept here as well -- though they're not native to the area, the herd is kept as a living link to southwestern heritage.

Visitors may also encounter elk and prairie dogs in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Just remember that the refuge is not a zoo. Bison and elk can be very dangerous and do charge, so don't get too close.

The wildlife refuge isn't the only impressive nature area in Oklahoma – about 31 miles (50 kilometers) away is Quartz Mountain Nature Park, one of the most highly regarded mountain climbing sites in the U.S. We'll discuss that next.