When the temperature starts to drop, many families might think their outdoor adventures are over for the season. But our family has discovered a love for winter hiking in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Lawton. Rather than dreary winter woods, the Wichitas provide beautiful vistas and spectacular rock formations that are easier to see in the winter. Throw in fewer bugs and virtually no crowds, and you’ve got yourself a new favorite winter pastime.
Top 5 reasons our family loves winter hiking in the Wichitas
- Fewer Crowds
- No mosquitos or ticks
- Less likely to encounter snakes
- The rock formations around the refuge are visually amazing, especially after the trees have dropped their leaves
- You can hike all day – not restricted to early morning hours to avoid the heat.
Finding the right winter gear
Our journey into winter hiking involved a bit of trial and error, but we’ve figured out how to stay comfortable on the trails as long as the temperature is at least 35-40 degrees. Our teenager can get away with a t-shirt, sweatpants or joggers, a hoodie and on the colder days, a hat and maybe gloves. Meanwhile, my husband and I require a bit more clothing to keep warm. After a few test runs at Martin Park Nature Center, we’ve settled on the following gear, which can also double as excellent options for shoveling snow or providing extra warmth during those legendary Oklahoma cold snaps:
- Base layer pants and shirt. Wool is best, but a moisture-wicking synthetic layer is also great.
- Cold-weather or windproof pants – a game changer for winter hiking.
- Wool socks for toasty toes.
- Fleece sweater for insulating warmth.
- Windproof shell or jacket. If temps will top out in the high 30’s, I add a puffer coat under the shell.
- Don’t forget a warm hat.
- And definitely bring gloves to protect those hands.
Recommended trails in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge ranked by difficulty
- Parallel Forest – This easy trail is especially beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon. It’s perfect for the littlest hikers and magical enough to wow the whole family.
- Longhorn – This one-mile loop is well-marked and lots of fun. True to its name, the first time our family walked this trail, we came upon a Longhorn grazing yards from the path.
- Little Baldy (if you scramble up to the very top, otherwise this an easy trail)
- Kite – This trail combines areas of flat terrain with rocky scrambles and beautiful views of 40-Foot Hole.
- Crab Eyes – The initial part of this trail is pretty straightforward. You can turn around whenever you’re comfortable or continue to the end for some rock scrambling. Keep an eye out for the “crab eyes” on the horizon!
- Elk Mountain – This trail boasts a steep incline but beautiful views. The wind can be intense at the top, so have those layers ready. Starts at the same place as Crab Eyes.
- Bison – technically moderate, but it’s long (6 mile loop) and much of it is exposed to the sun. It can be hard to find the trail, so download a map before you go, and have a fully charged phone. The Bison trail gives you a great way to experience the different types of terrain – the vistas are spectacular.
- Charon’s Garden Wilderness Trail – In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult hikes in the Wichitas, but it’s worth the effort. Sturdy shoes are required and trekking poles are recommended. Split off to Post Oak Falls for a shorter hike.
Trail food suggestions:
There’s nothing worse than hiking while hangry. Take food and plenty of water with you on your hikes. Some of our family’s favorite trail foods are:
- Kize Bars – these are my absolute favorite. Not only are they made from just a few whole ingredients, but they are also really tasty. Even better? They are made right here in Oklahoma City. They don’t take up much space in a backpack but are still very filling. You can find these in several grocery stores around OKC or order direct. We haven’t found any flavors we don’t like, but cookie dough, peanut butter and almond butter chocolate sea salt are our family favorites.
- Dried fruits and nuts. Sprouts has a great selection!
- Cheese – This isn’t something I take with me on summer hikes, but in the winter it’s fine.
- Sandwiches if you will be out on the trail around lunchtime.
- Don’t forget to toss a couple of bandanas or kitchen towels into your pack; they make perfect placemats and napkins!
Know before you go:
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is just that – a wildlife refuge. You’re likely to encounter wildlife, including Longhorn cattle, bison and elk. Always respect them by not approaching or scaring them.
Here are some more essential tips for a safe and enjoyable hike:
- There’s virtually no cell service in the refuge, so download maps in advance and carry paper maps. Inform family members at home about your plans and return time.
- Dress appropriately; it’s chilly at the start, but you’ll warm up after 20-30 minutes of movement. For easy, shorter trails, regular winter clothing and tennis shoes work fine, but for moderate to difficult trails, layering and sturdy shoes are highly recommended.
- Be prepared for emergencies by carrying a whistle, emergency blankets and a first aid kit.
- Always bring more water and food than you think you’ll need.
- Get valuable tips, information on conditions, and more from the staff at the Visitor’s Center. Check their hours of operation before heading to the refuge.
- Finally, know your limits and your children’s limits. Start with shorter hikes closer to home to understand everyone’s comfort levels regarding temperature and distance.
Will your family head outdoors for some winter hiking this season? Send us photos of your adventures via email or through social media – email@example.com.
For more ways to explore nature in Oklahoma, read this Exploring Oklahoma with Children article with four day-trip destinations.
Morgan Harris is a lifelong Oklahoman. She has been working with families in various ways since 2010. From her time as a bookseller through owning a retail store to writing blogs for MetroFamily, she loves connecting folks to new experiences that enrich their lives. She lives in Oklahoma City with her husband and teenage son.