When our first grandchild was a few years old, the realization hit me that I have the opportunity to experience a myriad of kid-friendly activities with the infusion of child-like wonder and curiosity. Visiting the OKC Zoo and Martin Park Nature Center, making sugar cookies with extra icing and sprinkles and keeping up a running commentary on cows and fire hydrants outside our car windows all have new meaning with my favorite tiny traveling companions. As our grandchildren have gotten older, now 8, 6 and 4, we’ve begun to expand our travels around the city and state. Following are a trio of primarily outdoor adventures, which, in our experience, prove delightful for all generations and are perfect for times of social distancing and beyond.
Historic Fort Reno
For history buffs and older children enchanted with Native American and military history, Historic Fort Reno is a treasure trove. My husband Bob and I had visited with friends and family members previously but wanted to share the experience with our grandchildren, who were intrigued by the promise of learning more about war and weaponry!
Located 4 miles west of El Reno, the sprawling historic site offers windswept views for miles, and one can almost imagine the desolation of this 1874 outpost established as a military camp during the Indian Wars. During the hour-long drive, we shared a bit about the history of Fort Reno with our grandchildren, where Buffalo soldiers and Cavalry and Infantry units of the United States Army were stationed from 1875 to 1907.
The fort also played a significant role in the 1889 and 1892 Oklahoma Land Runs and served as an internment work camp for German and Italian POWs during World War II. Pawpaw did his best to explain the concept of prisoners of war to our grandkids, and shared that so many of these prisoners, after being forced to return to their home countries after the war, ended up returning to America with their families to enjoy their freedom living in a new land.
Young and older legs alike will enjoy a stretch walking the grounds. Some buildings can be entered and toured, while others admired from outside. On our visit, Fort Reno’s director and museum curator Wendy Ogden, who’s been involved with the fort since she was a child, started our tour in the Fort Reno Visitor Center and Museum, the former home of the head veterinarian at the fort.
The children enjoyed learning about the fort’s history as a remount station from 1908 through 1947, providing horses and mules for all branches of the military, and examined the various saddles on display with interest. The famous riderless horse Black Jack trained at Fort Reno and is a familiar image to those recalling President Kennedy’s funeral procession. We also heard tales of visits to the fort by Amelia Earhart and Will Rogers.
The kids found the touchable historic items like the metal drinking cup dented by a bullet that saved a soldier’s life and the antique polo stick fun to examine, a reminder that learning through touch is vital for little ones.
Ogden shared the history of the fort’s attempts to both protect and westernize the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, which at times resulted in battles and loss of life. Passionate about educating the public through historical interpretation and making events come alive for all generations, Ogden portrayed and taught us about Moka, wife of famed cavalry scout Ben Clark, both of whom are buried at Fort Reno Cemetery.
We walked by the small former home of Clark and Moka and contemplated how they lived there with their 11 children! Other highlights included a walk by the chapel built by German POWs and a look at the commissary with a brick inscribed by “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The U.S. Calvary Museum is also located onsite.
The children were intrigued by the Fort Reno Cemetery, the resting place of military families stationed at Fort Reno as well as European POWs from Texas and Oklahoma, where Pawpaw explained the coins left on headstones were placed there out of gratitude for their service by visitors or fellow soldiers.
Fort Reno hosts Tombstone Tales in the fall and spring where costumed historians portray persons buried there in the candlelit cemetery. The annual Firing of the Christmas Guns in early December kicks off the Christmas season with German folk tales and a vintage Santa.
The historic site is open for tours Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Children 4 and under are free; ages 5-17, $4; adults, $6; and military and seniors, $5. (7107 W Cheyenne St., El Reno; fortreno.org)
Before or after a visit to Fort Reno, swing by Sid’s Diner in El Reno for a burger, coney with slaw and a myriad of creamy shakes and malts. My favorite is the orange shake, which reminds me of a creamy Dreamsicle, while Pawpaw and the kids preferred the more modern Oreo option. Acclaimed by several food network reviewers, Sid’s offers seating inside and out as well as online to-go orders. (300 S Choctaw, El Reno; sidsdinerelreno.com)
The Oklahoma State University Botanic Garden
While our usual destination when we visit Stillwater is a football or basketball game (Go Cowboys!), the Botanic Garden at OSU has emerged as a new favorite stop. Tucked away off Highway 51, this 100-acre secret garden offers meandering walking trails (which are wide and stroller-friendly) and an abundance of open, shady areas for picnicking, playing games and just running wild.
Both my master gardener and grandma instincts lead me to spend time in nature with my three wild wonders, pointing out plants, flowers and insects and listening with care as they discover the great outdoors. Botanic Garden volunteer director Laura Payne emphasizes the ever-growing importance of connecting children with nature, describing the garden as “more like a living museum than a park.” She goes on to reflect: “If kids sit back and quietly watch, they may observe [non-poisonous] snakes, frogs and lizards crawling through the gardens.”
Vignettes throughout the gardens offered my grandchildren a variety of places and plants to examine. The children’s play area features an inviting playhouse and tree swing nestled in the shade. Bluebird houses with squawking mama birds and containers of a variety of herbs to smell gave us pause and prompted conversation.
New to the gardens and encouraging creative play is the Tree Walk Village, highlighted by a swinging rope bridge. Our grandchildren were fascinated with the chicken moat, watching colorful, clucking hens scampering about within an enclosed area. The kids were intrigued to learn the chickens’ waste provides nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the gardens!
The spring and summer months boast beautiful floral displays while fall highlights the best of foliage as the trees turn every hue of red, orange and yellow.
The Botanic Garden is host to countless free and seasonal events, including an herb festival, yoga in the gardens, Friday night concerts and open houses. On the first and third Saturdays of the month, from 10 a.m. to noon, children can enjoy varied activities in the Model Train Garden, which features a running train. The last Saturday in September is typically reserved for the mum sale and garden fest. Social distancing and wearing masks are encouraged. (3300 W 6th St, Stillwater; botanicgarden.okstate.edu)
While in Stillwater, a trip to the original Hideaway Pizza or a stop for cheese fries at Eskimo Joe’s is always in order! Other favorite attractions for grandparents and grandkids to enjoy together are the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (405 W Hall of Fame, Stillwater; nwhof.org) and Lost Creek Safari (1200 W 8th St; lostcreeksafari.com), an exotic animal park.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Another outdoor Oklahoma oasis perfect for multiple generations is the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, located 90 minutes south of the metro. Grandparents may recall the park’s original name was Platt National Park with the distinction of being the seventh national park in the United States. In the 1970s the park merged with the Arbuckle Recreation Area, adopting its current name.
The area is an ecotone, or meeting place of two different ecosystems. The eastern deciduous forest and the mixed-grass prairie overlap, providing diversity for hikers and nature lovers. The hiking trails vary from very easy to moderate so visitors can choose their level of adventure. Don’t miss the easy 1.2 mile round-trip trail to Little Niagara, with the reward of a beautiful waterfall view. If the weather is hot, a swim here or in Antelope or Buffalo Springs nearby adds even more fun to the trip.
Stop by the Travertine Nature Center to learn more about the diversity of plant and animal life in the park, examine exhibits and meet live reptiles, amphibians and birds of prey. Ranger-led programs are presented daily during the summer, and those interested in the Junior Ranger Program can pick up information there. Designed for kids of all ages to learn about the park through games, activities and puzzles, the program requires attending a ranger-led program, hiking a park trail and completing activity pages.
We have recently introduced our grandkids to fishing, and fishing docks at the Lake of Arbuckles are available for this shared activity, which does require a current Oklahoma fishing license. In the summer months, a cool dip in the lake is a welcome refresher.
For a full outdoor vacation experience, campgrounds are available in the park by reservation. The park is open 24 hours a day and no admission fees are charged for park entry. Social distancing is currently encouraged in the park and some areas may be closed due to COVID-19. Megan Wilkins, public information officer, offers the helpful tip of visiting during the weekdays to take advantage of lower park attendance. (901 W 1st St, Sulphur; nps.gov/chic/index.htm)
Other unique adventures to add to your visit to Chickasaw Country include the Chickasaw Cultural Center (867 Cooper Memorial Dr, Sulphur; chickasawculturalcenter.com); highflying fun with 777 Zipline (6250 Highway 77 S, Davis; turnerfallszip.com); and a visit to Bedre Fine Chocolates (37 N Colbert Rd, Davis; bedrechocolates.com) to watch sweet treats being made (and buy some for the car ride home!) in Davis. NOTE: Be sure to contact these entities before attending due to possible pandemic closures.
For me, experiences with my grandchildren are lasting treasures. “Grand-travel” provides recreational opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to deepen relationships, see the world through a fresh lens and entertain others with funny stories. Joy may be found in the journey, regardless of the destination.
If you are looking for more Oklahoma road trips, check out our vast collection of Sooner State getaways.