We’ve all heard them. The benefits to being in nature, especially for our children, are plentiful, mentally, physically and educationally.
“Nature acts as a natural learning laboratory,” shared Jeremy Tubbs, manager of the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve in Oklahoma. “Children’s five senses are heightened and [they] get the opportunity to interact with new and never seen discoveries.”
With 35 state parks, nine national wildlife refuges and dozens of other locally-managed conservation areas, Oklahoma has a plethora of natural attractions for families to explore. Here are four of our favorites.
Keystone Ancient Forest
Sand Springs, 1.5 hours ne of OKC
The Keystone Ancient Forest conservation area was established in 2007 to preserve Oklahoma’s natural forest landscape, and this Oklahoma gem is touted as one of the last great places on Earth by The Nature Conservancy. Eight miles of hiking trails traverse through 1,400 acres allowing hikers to explore centuries-old cross-timbers forest to see 500-year-old red cedars and 300-year-old post oak trees, plus deer, American eagles, bobcats, birds, about 80 species of butterflies and more. The trails offer beautiful views of Keystone Lake and the Arkansas River basin, too.
Along the trails, hikers can learn about American author and historian Washington Irving and his travel through the area.
Staff and volunteers are working to open a visitor’s center on site this spring as well as new trails this summer. The visitor’s center will include educational materials, bathrooms and a souvenir shop. Future plans include an astronomy night with a local astronomy club in July and a night hike in the fall.
The City of Sand Springs is developing an app that will feature a virtual scavenger hunt, through which kids can learn more about the forest and environmentally-friendly practices. They expect to have the app ready to launch later this year.
The forest is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Volunteer trail guides are available on certain days each month to share about the forest landscape. Stay up to date on upcoming events at facebook.com/
J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve
Tahlequah, 2.5 hours east of OKC
Spring-fed creeks and rugged slopes wind through narrow valleys in the Cookson Hills at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve, which is home to a diverse mix of Oklahoma woodlands, savanna, shrublands and prairies and some impressive Oklahoma wildlife, too.
“The preserve provides a great opportunity for viewing of most Oklahoma wildlife species, including elk and the occasional glimpse of a black bear,” said Tubbs. “The preserve is a great site for birding excursions and outdoor photography.”
Three walkable trails and driveable county roadways provide ample ways for families to explore the well-preserved natural beauty of the area during any season. The preserve boasts a beautiful showing of spring and summer wildflowers and showcases stunning fall foliage. Tubbs said some native grasses can even reach heights of 10 feet in the warmer months!
A popular summertime spot, Bathtub Rocks is a unique formation on Cedar Creek. Rushing water has smoothed and shaped small, refreshing pools, much to the delight of heated hikers. While the rocks are closed to the public for now due to COVID precautions, typically visitors are allowed to take a dip in the tubs. However, it is important to respect the preserve’s access rules because sensitive habitat and restoration projects could be impacted in the areas around the rocks.
Tubbs advises bringing plenty of water, insect repellent and sunscreen for your trip and to wear appropriate clothing and shoes to hike the trails that range from half a mile to 1.5 miles in length. Public restrooms are typically accessible at the preserve’s headquarters (though they are currently closed due to COVID precautions), and the trails are open to the public during daylight hours, seven days a week.
Camping is not permitted on the preserve but there are camping and lodging options nearby in Tahlequah, which makes a visit to the preserve a great addition to a float trip or weekend getaway at Lake Tenkiller.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
Meers, 1.5 hours sw of OKC
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is likely at the top of any nature enthusiast’s list in Oklahoma. This popular destination saw more than two million visitors in the past year, according to Park Ranger Quinton Smith. Families eager to get outdoors can enjoy hiking to the top of Mt. Scott and Little Baldy, visiting Prairie Dog Town and venturing into the mysterious Parallel Forest.
The refuge is more commonly known as a hiking destination but Smith says, if timed right, families can also enjoy wildlife observation and photography as well as fishing, kayaking and canoeing, though swimming is not allowed.
“To observe wildlife, time of day is really important,” shared Smith. “Animals move a lot more at dusk and dawn but you can see bison roaming throughout the day and birds are always out moving. Bird books or field guides can help you identify what you are looking at.”
The roaming bison and longhorn should be viewed at a safe and respectable distance, preferably from inside your vehicle. Do not approach the wildlife.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge has 20,000 acres open to the public so there is a lot of nature to explore. Smith advises families plan out visits ahead of time with several options because certain parking areas can fill up fast on weekends and peak seasons. He recommends checking Facebook for updates.
The refuge trails are open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset. Currently, RV and travel trailer camping is permitted by reservation only as long as the vehicle has its own self-contained bathroom. To plan your outing, visit fws.gov/refuge/Wichita_
Little River National Wildlife Refuge
Broken Bow, 3.5 hours se of OKC
Southeastern Oklahoma is well known for its natural beauty so it should be no surprise that Broken Bow would be a wonderful destination for families to explore nature. Just a little off the beaten path, the Little River National Wildlife Refuge is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with 191 identified species that spend at least a portion of the year on the refuge, including a rare, secretive songbird called the Swainson’s warbler. Wild turkeys roam the forest and, during the winter months, bald eagles soar about and roost in the tall trees. Bats, otters, beavers, flying squirrels and even alligators call this swampy bottomland home.
Six primitive walking trails provide families with scenic hiking, fishing and animal watching opportunities. Duck Roost Slough Observation Deck is a popular spot to watch for wildlife.
But the animals aren’t the only sights to see! The refuge includes 11 state-champion trees. A champion tree is the largest of its particular species, and the area’s fertile soil provides impressive growing conditions for towering bald cypress, hickory, maple, oak and water-elms.
The refuge is open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset and the headquarters is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Staff and volunteers are available to answer questions and provide maps and other informational brochures.
While exploring these and other nature spots with your family, do your part to protect the landscapes, waterways and wildlife at these unique natural attractions. Do not collect or disturb plants, insects or rocks, and be sure to take your trash out with you.
Hiking Safety Tips
- Know where you are going before you head out.
- When your water is half gone, your hike is half over.
- Never hike alone and respect your limitations.
- Wear proper shoes and dress for the weather.
- Hike in the cooler parts of the day during warmer months.
- Stay on the trails for your safety and to protect the plants and animals around you.
The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Lab offers online curriculum and virtual field trips specifically designed for kids that focus on natural environments. Explore our natural world from the depths of the ocean floor to the rainforest’s canopy and beyond and find out about biomes and ecosystems from across the globe at nature.org. To learn more about conservation projects going on in our state, check out The Oklahoma Nature Conservancy’s Facebook page, facebook.com/nature.ok.
Other popular nature destinations in the Sooner State
- Redbud Valley Nature Preserve, Catoosa
- Mary K Oxley Nature Center, Tulsa
- Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park, Hinton
For even more Oklahoma road trip ideas with kids, check out our collection of family-focused travel articles.