If you’re seeking to explore the great state we call home in 2020, we’ve got your vacation plans covered for every season of the year through this two-part series. Even if you’re a Sooner State adventure aficionado, we’ve uncovered some out-of-the-box ideas for family fun, intermingled with can’t-miss favorites.
Southwestern Oklahoma is Great Plains Country, home to the sweeping plains so eloquently described in our state song. The region invites families to take a tour of a bygone era, highlighting the events and people that helped shape Oklahoma.
The rugged landscape of the short grass prairie and towering granite mountains paint a beautiful backdrop to the area’s storied history, poignantly captured in the small towns that dot the old Chisholm Trail and historic Route 66. Here are three family-friendly destinations perfect to explore this winter.
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site – Cheyenne (140 miles west of Oklahoma City)
As one of three sites in the state operated by the National Park Service, the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site recounts Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s surprise attack on a Southern Cheyenne village. Visitors can learn about the tragic clash of cultures, what lead up to the attack and the history of the Great Plains Wars. Explore the museum’s exhibits, including narratives from survivors, and watch a film focused on the military engagement. Outside, walk the hallowed grounds and experience what life was like on the plains after the Land Run. A paved loop invites visitors to explore a dugout house, working windmill and Native garden.
Embark on a self-guided walking trail to see the prayer tree and site of the conflict, with educational stops along the way. The first half of the one-and-a-half-mile trail is paved, wheelchair and stroller accessible. The second half is a dirt and grass path that leads to picturesque views of the Washita River. On the way, you’re likely to spot some of the wildlife that call the neighboring Black Kettle National Grasslands home.
Admission is free to the visitor’s center and historical site, open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours and a junior ranger program are available upon request; call 580-497-2742 to schedule your guided tour.
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center – Duncan (84 miles southwest of Oklahoma City)
Chisholm Trail Heritage Center chronicles the heyday of the cattle-driving trail. Merging together picturesque art, high-tech theater experiences and old-fashioned, hands-on fun, visitors can experience what life was like on the famous trail. Learn about stampedes, frontiersmen and women, Native American tribes and more through award-winning exhibits.
“Kids can rope a steer, ride a bucking bronco, create their own brand and shop in a re-creation of the Duncan General Store,” said Toni Hopper, a representative with the center. “The T.H. McCasland, Jr. Experience Theater is the closest to a real stampede you’ll ever want to get!”
The Painted Ladies – Watercolors of Friendship art show opens in January and March is the Heritage Center’s youth art month, showcasing local students’ creations.
The center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. A family one-day pass is $17 for up to six kids. Individual admission ranges from $4 to $6; kids under 5 are free.
Stafford Air & Space Museum – Weatherford (70 miles west of Oklahoma City)
Peruse the pioneers of flight and space exploration at The Stafford Air & Space Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate museum named after Lt. General Thomas P. Stafford, a native of Weatherford. Stafford piloted Gemini VI and was the commander of Gemini IX and two Apollo missions.
Stafford’s namesake museum houses several artifacts of the history of flight, aeronautics and the space race, including an actual Titan II rocket, a Russian MiG and items flown to the moon on Apollo 11. The exhibits take visitors on a historical journey of the accomplishments and failures of the journey to flight. Learn about Stafford’s early career, his four space missions and early and
In the education center, kids can put what they learn into action with several interactive stations including flight simulators and a close-up look at what astronauts experience in space.
The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for kids ages 5 to 18. Kids 5 and under are free.
Black Mesa – Kenton (360 miles northwest of Oklahoma City)
A trip to Black Mesa State Park & Nature Preserve is an especially fun option for extra days off during spring break. Black Mesa is the highest point in Oklahoma at 4,973 feet above sea level, and the trek up to the top gives families incredible views of distinct elevation changes and the tri-state border. Hikers can explore the short grass prairie at the base and the foothills covered with juniper, shrub oak and cacti.
At the top, the summit offers expansive views of New Mexico and Colorado in the distance. The state park is also known for its remote, dark skies, perfect for stargazing. In fact, the area draws a host of astronomy enthusiasts.
Summer’s heat can really soar at Black Mesa, making springtime a more enjoyable time to visit, but hikers should still pack plenty of water. An average hike to the summit takes around four hours. Also located in Black Mesa State Park is Lake Carl Etling, a hot spot for spring trout fishing. Campgrounds near the lake offer picnic areas and a playground, as well as late night views of the sweeping sky.
Just past the east end of the state park families can hunt for dinosaur tracks preserved in sandstone at Carrizo Creek. Originally discovered in the 1980s, portions of the tracks are still visible today. The exact species is unknown but scientists believe the tracks were made by a theropod, a classification of dinosaurs with hollow bones and three-toed limbs. The tracks are on private property; however, visitors can access the tracks during the day.
Families can extend their stay at one of the nearby ranches offering lodging and activities including hiking and guided horseback trail riding. The Hitching Post Lodging & Ranch lets families stay in a 100-year-old two-story rock house and Hoot Owl Ranch welcomes families for overnight stays in one of their two cabins. The owners of Hoot Owl Ranch showcase some of the historical excavations found on the ranch including a Spanish conquistador helmet and dinosaur bones.
Summer in Oklahoma means lots of water play! When the temperatures soar, families can find fun in the refreshing waters and miles of shoreline in northeast Oklahoma. These destinations will shake up your summertime fun.
Keystone Lake, located less than 2 hours northeast of the metro
The northeast part of Oklahoma boasts many natural and man-made lakes along the Illinois and Arkansas rivers and their tributaries. Keystone Lake offers families a variety of splashy fun including swimming, boating, water sports and fishing. Keystone State Park in Sand Springs has a children’s fishing pond and playgrounds in addition to their campgrounds, cabin and boat rentals and hiking trails.
In the lakeside town of Mannford, families can play at Jellystone Park Camp-Resort. Between the large pool complex complete with shallow-depth splash pool and towering waterslides and the Aqua Park on the lake, the resort offers plenty of options to keep the whole family cool and entertained. The Aqua Park is a large-scale inflatable that sits on the water. Families can put their athletic skills to the test as they climb, bounce and slide their way through the course. The resort also offers sandy beaches, paddleboard and kayak rentals and three fishing docks. Day passes and overnight accommodations are available. Visit www.keystonelakejp.com to learn more.
Harbor Grill at Keystone Harbor enables families to dine waterside. This family-friendly, two-story restaurant serves traditional American classics that can be enjoyed indoors or outside on the open-air upper deck. They often have live entertainment during the summer season.
Illinois River, located less than 3 hours northeast of the metro
Floating the waters of the Illinois River is an iconic summertime activity. The leisurely, moderate flow cuts through the Cookson Hills offering beautiful views of rocky, tree-lined bluffs. The most popular stretch is near Tahlequah where several outfitters and campsites are stocked with kayaks, canoes, rafts and other supplies available for rent.
Floating with children in tow does require some extra preparation to ensure everyone has a safe and positive experience. Weekdays tend to be less busy making it an ideal time for families. Local mom Whitney West packs plenty of snacks, drinks and sunscreen and opts for the shorter six-mile float trip option for her family. Shawna Duncan, a mom of four, says her family prefers the longer 12-mile trip, allowing for several breaks to swim, refuel and reapply sunscreen.
“We like to make it a full day and my kids love it,” Duncan said.
If you are looking for a destination outside of the norm, consider booking a stay at the Marval Campground Resort in Gore. The resort sits on a one-half mile stretch of the Lower Illinois River near the Lake Tenkiller dam and offers a wide variety of activities geared toward families including two pools, a splash pad, outdoor games, Frisbee golf and bike rentals.
“People come for the river but we offer lots of activities to keep the kids busy,” said Bill Gordon, manager of the resort. “We have train rides, fishing tournaments, themed weekends and outdoor movies in the summer.”
Cabins and tent and RV sites are available; however, families will need to bring their own floats for the river. Visit www.marvalresort.com for more information.
Editor’s note: Find more tips and advice for your float trip with our feature on canoeing with kids at www.metrofamilymagazine.com/
Bonus trip idea: Hit up a new-to-you water park!
• Safari Joe’s H20 Water & Adventure Park in Tulsa
Enjoy high-speed water flumes, a relaxing trip around Rex’s River and animal attractions.
• River Country Family Water Park in Muskogee
River Country offers interactive play structures, Tugboat beach and towering water slides.
• Sun ‘N Fun Water Park in Ponca City
Cruise down the twisting water slides, catch some waves in the 200,000-gallon wave pool and enjoy some out-of-the-water fun like mini-golf, bumper boats and carnival rides.
Fall conjures up images of crisp mornings, cozy sweaters and spectacular colors. From pumpkin patches and county fairs to corn mazes, fall is the perfect time for family fun, and a road trip to the Talimena Scenic Byway highlights the best of the season.
Talimena Scenic Byway, located 3 hours southeast of the metro
Constructed in the late 1960s, the byway was built to showcase the beauty of the forested peaks of the Ouachita National Forest. The road, named for the two cities that cap the drive, Talihina, Okla., and Mena, Ark., offers a leisurely 54-mile cruise, and a quick stop at the visitor’s information station is a great way to start your trek. There are 22 designated vistas along the byway that spotlight spectacular views of the fall foliage, which tends to peak in late October to early November. Spring is also a popular time to visit as the area is awash in blooming buds.
Talimena State Park offers camping, picnic facilities, hiking and backpacking trails, playgrounds and a small gift shop. The park is an entrance point to the Ouachita National Forest, popular for fishing, biking, trail riding and hunting. ATV trails are also a popular way to explore the expansive forest.
As you cruise along the byway, enjoy panoramic views of the mountains and the small towns tucked in the valleys. You are also likely to spot hang-gliders, eagles and hawks enjoying the soaring winds.
The drive is marked with historic sites including the Heavener Runestone, the Kerr Museum with memorabilia from pre-history to World War II and the Peter Conser Home, a restored 19th century home from the height of the Indian Territory period.
Families can extend their trip with white water adventures on the Ouachita, Mountain Fork, Caddo and Cossatot Rivers or with a visit to Robbers Cave State Park, the infamous hideout of Jesse James and Belle Starr, which is located just 45 minutes northwest of Talihina. Each October, the park hosts the annual fall festival with three-days of entertainment including carnival games, live music and a car show. The Queen Wilhelmina State Park in Mena, Ark., is another popular destination along the byway.
Start planning your trip today at www.talimenascenicdrive.com.