For Kansans, hearing Wichita and mountains in the same sentence doesn’t sound natural. But for 2 million visitors a year, the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge is a place to explore natural habitats for large native grazing animals along with hundreds of other mammal, bird, reptile, fish and plant species.
The refuge, less than a four-hour drive south of Wichita, is the most visited of the approximately 560 national wildlife refuges. It is 60,000 acres of open mixed grass prairie, forest and rock outcroppings enclosed between two ranges of granite mountains with peaks approaching 2,500 feet tall.
The Department of the Interior likes to say that while national parks are America’s best idea, national wildlife refuges are America’s best kept secret. National parks, managed by the Interior’s National Park Service, protect a variety of natural and historic resources while offering recreation opportunities. The Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages national wildlife refuges to conserve wildlife populations and habitats while providing a chance for the public to connect with nature.
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge is not a well-kept secret thanks to recent publicity from USA Today. The media outlet’s readers voted the southwestern Oklahoma sanctuary the No. 1 refuge in the country in 2015, and in 2016 readers named it the top U.S. destination for seeing wildlife, ahead of Yellowstone National Park, Denali National Park and other well-publicized parks and refuges.
Each season offers a different perspective at the refuge, which does not charge an entrance fee. Autumn attracts visitors looking to experience fall foliage or cooler temperatures, and several annual events are scheduled by the Friends of the Wichitas organization.
Bugling elk tours began just after Labor Day this year and run through Oct. 21 on most Saturday and Sunday evenings. The tours are offered on a donation basis but do require reservations. We called ahead to reserve spots and were told they were full, though the ranger encouraged us to come to the visitor center during our visit to check if space had opened up.
We were able to get on a tour due to a cancellation. While we needed binoculars to see the elk from our 30-passenger bus, we did hear a few elk’s high-pitched whistles and we enjoyed seeing a part of the refuge not normally accessible. Of the refuge’s 59,000 acres, 22,000 acres are open for to the public for hiking, rock climbing, bicycling, fishing, camping and observing free-roaming herds of nearly 700 American bison, 1,200 Rocky Mountain elk, 1,200 white-tailed deer and 250 Texas longhorns, not native but introduced to the range to preserve the species’ cultural and historical legacy.
Fall foliage walks are scheduled for 10 a.m. on Nov. 11, 18 and 25. Reservations will be taken by phone (580-429-2197 weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) starting Nov. 6. Similar to the elk tours, these walks are offered on a donation basis and have limited space available. Volunteers with the Friends of the Wichitas organization lead a 1-mile walk into Hollis Canyon in the refuge’s special-use area. You’ll walk through blackjack and post oaks, chinquapin, red cedar and sugar maples.
Whether you’re interested in a tour or not, stop at the visitor center for interesting exhibits on the refuge and its inhabitants, a well-stocked gift shop and friendly rangers eager to offer guidance on hikes or scenic spots.
They helped us make the most of two day visits to the refuge during our weekend in the area. We took a couple of short but scenic hikes to beautiful spots overlooking dams, lakes and a historic tower. We drove most of the roads throughout the refuge and saw an array of vistas from the car, stopping along the way at Prairie Dog Town to see prairie dogs on one side of the road and bison on the other side. We drove the 3.5-mile paved road to the summit of Mount Scott, where we parked and took in the views from 2,464 feet.
An observation deck atop Mount Scott overlooks Medicine Park, considered the eastern gateway to the refuge. The refuge land was first set aside as a national forest in 1901 and is considered one of the earliest established refuges, which predates the National Park system. Medicine Park was established in 1908 as Oklahoma’s first planned tourism resort, a getaway for residents in nearby Fort Sill and Lawton.
With more than 20 cabins, a bed and breakfast and a 20-room hotel, Medicine Park is less than five miles from the eastern edge of the refuge and the closest town for overnight accommodations, unless you stay at the refuge’s Camp Doris ($8-$20, first come, first served).
The town of 440 residents has one main street on the eastern bank of Medicine Creek. Lined with about a dozen shops, restaurants and bakeries, this is called Cobblestone Row for the small, round granite stones found locally and used for building material.
Old Plantation Restaurant is known for its burgers and chicken fry, Riverside Café has a large, shaded deck with acoustic music throughout the day and Park Tavern hosts musicians nightly.
In addition to refuge visitors, the town is a destination for people visiting the Medicine Park Aquarium & Natural Sciences Center that opened earlier this year; Bath Lake, a swimming hole right in the middle of downtown; Medicine Creek, stocked with trout for fishing; Lake Lawtonka, a recreation and fishing lake; and Lawtonka Trails, a system of hiking and mountain biking trails.
“We work hard to keep Medicine Park charming and historic yet full of amenities that are easy to use,” said Jean Schucker, co-owner of Red Door Gallery on Cobblestone Row and a member of the town’s economic development council.
She said many visitors hear about the town’s backyard – the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge – and are surprised to find Medicine Park on their way in or out of the refuge. She’s expecting a healthy number of visitors in the coming months.
“There’s always a lot of good fall foliage in the refuge,” she said. “With the rain we’ve had this year, there will be really beautiful color.”
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Hours: Open year-round. Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week except some holidays. Trails are open sunrise to sunset.
Location: About 100 miles southwest of Oklahoma City via I-44.
Cost: No entrance fees
Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge: fws.gov/refuge/Wichita_Mountains
Friends of Wichitas organization: friendsofthewichitas.org
Town of Medicine Park: medicinepark.com