With fall break on the horizon, your family may be ready to push pause on work and school to hit the road to explore our great state. Autumn comes alive in northeast Oklahoma, where vibrant fall colors sprinkle the lush, forested hills along the banks of the Illinois River.
The small towns of Tahlequah and Muskogee lay at the heart of Oklahoma’s Green Country, offering equal parts charm, history and outdoor adventure. Tahlequah is also the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the largest tribal nation in the United States, so there is an abundance of valuable Native American history to incorporate into your trip. Even after living in Tahlequah for four years during graduate school, I always enjoy revisiting this area’s restaurants and museums with my kids, all while discovering new places along the way. Check out our family’s guide to visiting Tahlequah and Muskogee, including our favorite places to eat, learn and play.
Just a 2-and-half-hour trek from the OKC metro, Tahlequah offers a wide range of lodging options to meet the needs of any family. In addition to hotels, homes and cabins are available to rent via Airbnb, including Purdy Cabin Guest Retreat, a riverside home with a multi-level deck for prime wildlife viewing, an outdoor fire pit and proximity to downtown shops and restaurants. If you’d prefer to stay closer to the Illinois River, several of the river outfitters, like War Eagle Resort, offer cabins and lodges to make you feel right at home.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love exploring the gorgeous waterways and trails that run through the surrounding foothills of the Ozark Mountains. One of the biggest draws to the area is the scenic, 60-mile Illinois River, which has a gentle but moderate flow and includes some class II rapids.
Several river outfitters, such as Riverbend Floats, can help you plan a family excursion on the water. Choose from 2-, 4- or 8-hour trips, during which outfitters transport rafters to a designated drop-off point before you casually float your way back to camp, where your car awaits.
Kayaks and canoes can make the trip a bit faster, while rafts are ideal for larger families looking to relax and stop to explore various swimming holes and beaches. Weekend reservations are usually required and the minimum age to ride the rafts is 3 to 4 years old. The river is also an excellent fishing destination year-round for bass, walleye
On land, one of the most popular trails in Tahlequah is the 4-mile roundtrip Sparrow Hawk Trail, leading hikers to sweeping views that overlook the rocky bluffs bordering the river below. Just 30 minutes outside of Tahlequah lies the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve, the largest protected conservation area within the Ozarks. Three self-guided trails in the preserve, including the 1.5-mile Pine Ridge Trail, offer excellent opportunities to wander along spring-fed creeks and watch for wildlife. Elk were reintroduced on the preserve in 2005 and are usually more active in the autumn months, making them easier to spot.
Museums & Historical Sites
The Cherokee Nation welcomes visitors from all over the globe to learn and experience the Tribal Nation’s culture. Three museums are located in Tahlequah’s walkable town square to jumpstart your historical tour. The Cherokee National History Museum is located in the iconic Cherokee National Capitol, built in 1869, and was recently restored to showcase tribal art and artifacts. Families can enjoy hands-on exhibits to learn about the Trail of Tears, as well as the revitalization of the Cherokee Nation after the U.S.
Take a short walk over to the neighboring Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum to learn more about the judicial system and the evolution of Cherokee journalism. This building housed the original printing press of Oklahoma’s first newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate. Complete your town square tour at the Cherokee National Prison Museum where visitors can learn about law and order in Indian Territory, walk through ironclad cells of this former prison and hear the stories of some famous outlaws who spent time there.
Where to Eat in Tahlequah
Tahlequah boasts an eclectic mix of local eateries providing incredible dining experiences. Start your morning at Lift Coffee Bar for a delightful selection of crafted coffee drinks to pair with a custom waffle sandwich or avocado toast. For lunch or dinner, visit one of the city’s most revered restaurants, Sam & Ella’s Chicken Palace. Don’t let the name fool you! Their dining room may be covered with a plethora of chicken décor, but they serve up some of the best hand-tossed pizzas in the state. One of Oklahoma’s own superstars, Carrie Underwood, even worked here while in school at Northeastern State University.
If your family is craving Mexican fare, don’t miss the classic Tex-Mex dishes from El Zarape, served in a vibrant atmosphere. Kroner & Baer is a trendy brewpub downtown offering an assortment of craft beers to enjoy around one of many fire pits while the kids check out an assortment of yard games like bocci ball and Jenga. Grab some appetizers along with a burger or sandwich from their on-site kitchen for a relaxing patio dinner. Wrap up a busy day of travel with some of the most innovative desserts at The Rollie Pollie, where they roll their ice cream into beautiful, tasty creations!
Historical Museums & Attractions
While staying in Tahlequah, make your way just half an hour away to Muskogee. What started as a railroad town with some of the Wild West’s first trading posts, Muskogee has become a thriving city, rich with historical sites and whimsical attractions.
Visit the Muskogee War Memorial Park, home of the USS Batfish, a WWII submarine that sank several enemy vessels while in combat. Take a walk through the inside to see the torpedo room and crew cabins or explore the tanks and cannons around the park.
Muskogee proudly celebrates Oklahoma’s musical heritage, so make your way through the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame to learn about the more than 130 inductees, like Woody Guthrie and Reba McEntire, who have greatly influenced the music industry. You can even view some of their donated memorabilia, preserved to honor these Oklahoma icons.
Honor Heights Park is a popular destination all year, especially in April when their 40 acres of gorgeous azaleas are in full bloom, but it’s also home to the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. The museum offers a valuable opportunity to see preserved artifacts and documents of the Five Tribes, as well as a beautiful array of Native art. Afterward, the park is a picturesque place to wander the trails and arboretum or enjoy a picnic lunch.
If you happen to plan your trip in October, the Castle of Muskogee is an absolute must-visit to kick off the Halloween season! Their Halloween Festival includes haunted hayrides, illusion mazes and a creepy walk through the woods. Visit their website to determine “scare ratings” on all activities before deciding what’s best for your family. Throughout the castle’s village, there are plenty of shops, as well as food and drink vendors to keep your crew fueled for an evening of fun.
Where to Eat in Muskogee
One of the most adored restaurants in Muskogee is Harmony House, located in a 100-year-old Victorian home, which has been serving up delicious lunches and desserts for 30 years. They routinely offer burgers, salads and sandwiches, as well as a rotating daily special, but they also make homemade cinnamon rolls and baked goods fresh every morning.
If your family needs a little pick-me-up, head over to The Break, a modern bistro and wine bar with some of the nicest staff around, for craft made Topeca coffee drinks and cocktails. They also offer pastries and quiche for a morning bite or choose from an array of sandwiches and shareable charcuterie plates later in the day. Before your vacation ends, consider stopping in the Amish Country Store to select authentic Amish goods, like cheese, jams, pastries and mouth-watering fudge, all handmade by Oklahoma’s own Amish communities.
Sometimes the smallest cities can bring the biggest adventures, and there is no shortage of fun to be had in Tahlequah and Muskogee. The tranquil surroundings of these charming towns will help your family reconnect and recharge when the crisp, cool days of fall this year.