Oklahoma holds some of the most diverse terrain mile for mile in our nation, with more than 10 ecoregions, including tallgrass prairies, hardwood forests, pine-covered mountains and even cypress swamps. Oklahoma State Parks has excelled at highlighting and protecting these beautiful spaces for all to enjoy and explore. While there are currently 38 designated state parks in Oklahoma, most of us have probably visited or at least heard of the most popular ones, like Beavers Bend, Robbers Cave, Roman Nose and Red Rock Canyon.
But what about the lesser-known parks tucked away but begging to be discovered?
In 2016, when our boys were 3 and 4 years old, we set a family goal to visit all (then) 34 state parks over the course of a year. It was an incredible opportunity to experience more of our state and make some lasting memories. So whether you’re looking for a spelunking adventure, a place for kids to see new wildlife or just a perfect spot to escape the busyness of urban life, the following five unsung state parks will have your family excited to hit the road!
McGee Creek State Park
Resting along the southwest edge of the Ouachita Mountains awaits the often-overlooked McGee Creek State Park, located just outside of Atoka and about 2-and-a-half hours from the OKC metro. If you’re looking for solitude, the peaceful waters and seemingly untouched trails of this gorgeous wilderness will offer the respite your family is after.
Overnight guests can choose from one of several lake huts, RV or tent sites scattered across two campgrounds. The Potapo campground offers eight lake huts, each with a screened-in porch, bunkbeds, air conditioning and a fireplace — just be sure to bring your own linens. The 1.4-mile Potapo Hill Trail is located nearby with lots of big rocks for kids to climb and stellar views of the lake. The Buster Hight campground has many paved campsites with both water and electricity, comfort stations with showers and a large playground. This area also includes a lighted fishing dock for any bass fishermen eager to cast a line, as well as a designated swim beach for the entire family to enjoy.
This quiet park is teeming with wildlife and its 25 miles of trails will accommodate hikers and mountain bikers alike to explore the scenic landscape. The Little Bugaboo overlook parking area is a great starting place to hike along Rocky Point Trail. Another popular trail begins at the park office, taking visitors around both the South Rim and Little Bugaboo Trail for a 3.8-mile loop through a beautiful forest with creek crossings. Visit in late autumn to witness the park’s fall foliage on full display!
Osage Hills State Park
Venture northeast to Osage Hills State Park, located in Pawhuska in the heart of Osage Nation. This gateway to the tallgrass prairies was founded in 1935 as one of the original seven Oklahoma state parks. The park’s location, with miles of trails, creeks and lakefront, affords ample opportunities for fishing, hiking and swimming.
Sand Creek winds through the grand forest and rolling hills, inviting families to explore and spot wildlife on the surrounding trails. Our boys’ favorite hikes include the 0.5-mile Falls Trail that passes through the creek’s cascading waterfalls, as well as the 1.5-mile Creek Loop Trail, which leads to captivating views from high, rocky bluffs. Anglers enjoy abundant fishing for bass, crappie and sunfish at both Lookout Lake and Sand Creek. Kids can make a splash in the park’s swimming pool on a hot day, play a game of tennis on the courts or climb on the local playground.
This park offers eight native, stone cabins, all with central heat and air, and neighboring modern bathhouses, or you can make online reservations for a tent or RV site. Osage Hills is gorgeous year-round, but it’s the perfect place to escape to in the fall when the lush foliage transforms into vivid autumn hues. During your stay, don’t miss the chance to visit the nearby Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve or take a driving tour through the renowned Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie.
Alabaster Caverns State Park
First impressions can be deceiving for new visitors at Alabaster Caverns State Park, a remote 200-acre park in the small town of Freedom, located about 2-and-a-half hours northwest of the OKC metro. Most of this park’s magic lies below the surface in its 0.75-mile cave made of alabaster, a very rare type of gypsum, making it one of the largest gypsum caves in the world.
Guided hikes run daily on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Take a stroll along a well-lit path for a chance to experience this underground marvel, home to five species of bats. Bats can often be found hibernating in the winter when the cave’s climate is drier. During our own cave tour, we had the opportunity to experience “total darkness” for a few moments after our guide temporarily cut all the lights. While slightly unnerving, it left us feeling more beholden to electricity than ever before!
For a unique adventure, try spelunking in one of four caves in the area, ranging in length from 550 to 1,600 feet, and maintained by the park just for wild caving. With the proper equipment, you can purchase a wild caving permit from April through September at the park office. While most of the park activity centers on the caves, families can also hike the nearby trails and observe birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat bordering a small canyon.
Boiling Springs State Park
Just a 30-minute drive from Alabaster Caverns is Boiling Springs State Park, an off-the-beaten-path park located near Woodward. This beautiful space is another one of Oklahoma’s original seven state parks, and the area beckons outdoor enthusiasts with a host of recreational activities, including hiking, fishing and golfing. One of the main draws to this oasis on the plains is its namesake attraction, a “boiling” spring that still flows today just outside the park office. (Water rising rapidly from underground streams creates the appearance of boiling water at the surface.)
The park offers RV, cabin and tent sites that can be reserved online. Each cabin includes queen or twin-size beds with linens, a sleeper sofa, heat, air and a well-supplied kitchenette. Boiling Springs is home to an abundance of wildlife in its peaceful surroundings, such as deer, bobcats, coyotes, badgers and rabbits. Take the family out for a group hike on one or more of the five wooded trails, including Whitetail Trail and Scout Trail, and try spotting some of these animals. In the summer, kids can cool off at the swimming pool or try their hand fishing in the spring-fed Shaul Lake. Golfers will also enjoy the private 18-hole course adjacent to the park.
Sequoyah State Park
Lined with towering trees, the picturesque road leading into Sequoyah State Park will immediately capture the hearts of all who enter. This often-forgotten state park rests on the shores of Fort Gibson Lake, a haven for water lovers, and boasts some of the most serene forest settings in Oklahoma. The Lodge at Sequoyah State Park lets guests choose from 104 rooms or 45 cottages and even has a swimming pool with splash pad on site.
Wander miles of trails through lush evergreen, oak and hickory trees for some peaceful exploration. The 1.25-mile Eagles Roost Trail loops through a popular bald eagle roosting site in the winter. The Sequoyah Fitness Trail is one of our favorites near the lodge, winding along the lake’s shores and dotted with markers that describe the natural history of the area.
Children love visiting Three Forks Nature Center to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region and see some live animal exhibits, including coyotes and foxes. The neighboring half-mile Fossil Trail showcases million-year-old crustacean fossils to discover along its rocky path. Visit Sequoyah Riding Stables for guided horseback rides and hayrides or play a round of horseshoes with the family.
Golfers can book a tee-time online at the 9-hole Sequoyah Golf Course, strikingly lined with mature pecan, oak and pine trees and known for its gorgeous lake views. With 225 miles of shoreline, boating and swimming are popular pastimes here, and the Paradise Cove Marina provides ample water recreation with pontoon, paddle boat and personal watercraft rentals. If you’re looking to extend your boating adventures, Sequoyah Bay State Park is located just 20 minutes away and rests on the western shores of Fort Gibson Lake with its own marina.
These five lesser-visited state parks are all under 3 hours from Oklahoma City and make wonderful weekend excursions, especially for families with young children who are acclimating to longer road trips or for a quick getaway when you’re craving family time. Oklahoma is fortunate to have a wide range of state parks to choose from, and these five are truly the hidden gems of our state, offering a wealth of outdoor activities for the ultimate family getaway.