There are mountains in Oklahoma. They aren’t large mountains—Coloradans would probably think of them as “cute”—but they are mountains. Indeed, the state has four distinct mountain ranges: the Arbuckles, the Ozarks, the Ouachitas, and the Wichitas. The latter of these, the Wichita Mountains, are mystical and enchanting, offering a diversity of flora and fauna, numerous recreational activities, and beautiful views, making for a perfect long-weekend visit.
This area has been inhabited for at least a thousand years by the Wichita people, whose full territory covered Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Their religion reflected what was important to their lives, with a focus on the land and wildlife surrounding them and, according to one ethnologist, “more than the ordinary consideration of the infinite.” They were semi-nomadic, living in beehive-shaped lodges for most of the year, but following the bison for sustenance in the winter months. By the 19th century, however, the Wichita people’s largest village was in southwestern Oklahoma, near the mountains that now share their name.
These mountains are geologically unique, having formed some 500 million years ago, in what geology textbooks describe as a “failed continental rift.” If so, it was a magnificent failure, producing a pleasing line of rolling mountains, massive boulders of exposed granite, and an unusual habitat for wildlife and plant life.
Indeed, the area’s history, beauty, and attractiveness to living forms prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to designate some 60,000 acres of this region as a wildlife preserve in 1905, making it the oldest site managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Today, there is much to manage. It is home to almost 1,000 plant species, including the intriguing gold cobblestone lichen; more than 200 bird species; and 50 species of mammal. Among the mammals is the bison, which once numbered some 20,000,000 in the Great Plains, but by the turn of the 20th century had vanished entirely from Oklahoma. They were reintroduced in 1907 by—again—President Roosevelt, who suggested that 15 of them be moved from, of all places, the Bronx Zoo. Today, there are almost 700 American buffalo on the Refuge, and they can be seen regularly in most areas of the park.
In fact, in half a dozen visits to the Refuge, we have never not seen them. They are large creatures—the largest land mammals in North America—weighing up to 2,000 pounds. They take up a lot of space, and when we have witnessed them, they moved slowly, when they moved at all, giving us much time to gawk, point, and photograph.
Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, bison are as fast as horses, capable of speeds up to 35 miles an hour and are—I find this almost unbelievable—“extremely agile, able to turn quickly and jump high fences.” You really don’t want to anger a bison.
Helpfully, the FWS notes that you can “judge a bison’s mood by watching its tail,” which, apparently, operates as something of a middle finger, rising in periods of anger.
Wild herds of Texas Longhorns also roam the Refuge, along with many deer and elk. The elk, however, are mostly out of sight, dwelling in less-travelled areas of the Refuge. In September and October, however, the Refuge offers special “Elk Bugling Tours,” allowing visitors to access these areas with the hopes of spotting bull elk engaged in their aggressive competition for cow elk, bugling all the while.
Perhaps the most entertaining animal to observe on the Refuge is the prairie dog. With more 20,000 acres of mixed grass prairie, these creatures have their choice of homesites. Early travelers described miles of prairie dog villages, and from the vestiges visible today, such reports are credible. It is, perhaps, damning with faint praise to call these animals the cutest among the order rodentia, but they really are entertaining to watch, and children will enjoy seeing them sun themselves, dine on grass, or occasionally frolic with friends.
The prairie, of course, is also a birders’ haven. There are the horned grebe, several species of woodpecker, and the endangered and elusive black-capped vireo. Also living in the Refuge are numerous birds of prey: merlins, kestrels, and several species of hawk—including northern harriers, which can be seen swooping down on other birds, field mice, and even prairie dogs.
Such sights may have given rise to the legend of Piamempits, who, according to the rich and mystical lore of Wichita elders, was a “giant cannibal owl.” This creature lived in a cave in the Wichita Mountains, but he prowled at night, searching for and devouring naughty children while they slept. If this wasn’t sufficient to keep children in line, there were stories of Teihiihan, a “race of cannibal dwarves,” who had sharp teeth, one eye, and a penchant for kidnapping small children.
Of course, we may have been overly sensitive to such tales, inasmuch as our first visit to the Wichitas corresponded not only with Halloween, but also with a full moon. We lingered in the Refuge after sunset, and as this Full Hunter’s Moon arose behind a veil of clouds, we tried to dwell more on the Wichita people’s moon deity, Bright Shining Woman—a generally beneficent deity and Mother of the Universe—and less on Piamempits and Teihiihan.
In absolute terms, the elevation levels of the Wichita Mountains are modest. Even the highest mountain peaks in the range reach only about 2,500 feet above sea level. But this is Oklahoma, which is otherwise largely flat, and even small elevations allow for expansive views across the entire southwestern part of the state. And, this being Oklahoma, even the same views are altered throughout the day, as weather events come and go.
These views are best reached by hiking, although the summit of Mt. Scott, the second highest peak in the Refuge, can be reached by car. Mt. Scott offers 360-degree views of the Refuge; nearby communities; and a few of the Refuge’s 13 lakes, some of which can take on a mystical quality during periods of fog or heavy weather.
One of these, the Jed Johnson Lake, is particularly picturesque. The Jed Johnson Tower, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941, is 60 feet tall, and was formerly used as a fire watch tower. Because of structural issues, it is no longer open to the public, but it is visible from many spots in the park and is accessible via a two-mile hike.
Elk Mountain Trail is also recommended, offering wonderful views of the Refuge and numerous opportunities for wildlife spotting, all while intersecting numerous water features. Our most recommended hike, however, is Little Baldy Trail, which offers almost perfect views at sunset, providing a lot of punch for a round-trip less than two miles in length.
The Wichita Mountains, where tales of Piamempit and Teihiihan were once passed around campfires and in beehive-shaped grass lodges, might seem like an unlikely spot to build a simulated Jerusalem. But Native Americans are not the only people to find a religious quality to the mountains and its inhabitants.
Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock began offering sunrise Easter services in the Mountains in 1927. The annual service proved popular, and a “Passion Play” was added. By the mid-1930s, during the height of the New Deal, the federal government provided a grant to build a Holy City. The Works Progress Administration undertook the construction, and using locally quarried cobblestone, workers built key landmarks from Jesus’s life: Herod’s Court, Mary’s Garden, a Lord’s Supper building, Pilate’s Judgment Hall, the Gateway to Jerusalem, and even a Golgotha.
Nearly 90 years later, the structures still stand—and the Easter pageant is still performed, making it one of the longest-running annual Passion Play performances in the country.
This enchanting land, marked by granite mountainous outcroppings, rolling hills, and diverse wildlife, is a natural wonder. It is no wonder, then, that the people who have encountered it have projected their own spiritual beliefs on the land. From the terrors of the Teihiihan to the spiritual rebirth and renewal associated with Easter, the Mountains, the wildlife, and the elements provide a rich land for “more than an ordinary consideration of the infinite.”