Exploring the Arbuckles and Beyond: Part II

Welcome to Part II of what turned out to be an awesome, jam-packed weekend exploring southern Oklahoma! I’m going to do my best to pick up where I left off. Since I opted to use Ardmore as my home base, I had a lot of time to explore the city, and I really enjoyed it! Like many Oklahoma towns, it is clear that Ardmore is putting a lot of effort into making itself a more desirable tourist destination and place to live. One way this town of roughly 25,000 is excelling is in its FOOD options! After a great dinner at Cafe Alley (where the staff went above and beyond to make sure we had a great time, with absolutely no knowledge that I would be talking about them later), we started the following day with an awesome breakfast at Hamburger Inn.

This nostalgic diner served up a MEAN breakfast!

After stuffing our faces, we had a chance to roam around the downtown a bit and see the sights. One of my favorite quirks about Ardmore is that they’ve decided to get creative with their fire hydrants! Each one is decorated colorfully and uniquely. It’s a really great way to do something fun and creative with a generally unexciting city feature.

Each fire hydrant is a unique work of art!

There is also no shortage of murals to see around town! As a huge fan of urban art, I’m always excited to see this in any city or town I visit. Ardmore didn’t disappoint!

Even the young people of Ardmore have gotten involved with city beautification, with this series of lively murals along the underpass on Lake Murray Drive.

After exploring Ardmore, we traveled back out to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in the hopes of seeing buffalo, but unfortunately, it was not meant to be. They were just nowhere to be found. So we set our sights on the next destination, Gene Autry, Oklahoma. Gene Autry was a film and television star and “singing cowboy”, famous from the 1930s to the 1950s. Although born in Texas, his family brought him to Oklahoma when he was just an infant, and here he would grow up. Now, Gene Autry, Oklahoma pays homage to his legacy with a museum and of course, the town bearing his name.

Sadly, the museum was closed when we passed through, but I hope to be back soon!

After Gene Autry, we hit the road again, with an eye toward seeing some small town action. One of them ended up being a bigger surprise than I could have imagined! Sometimes I get lucky and end up Googling a town at just the right moment, discovering something I never knew! This was definitely what happened on this trip. But before I got to my big discovery, we had a chance to shoot around a bit in the charming town of Wynnewood!

Wynnewood, Oklahoma

Next we set sail for Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, one of my favorite small towns in Oklahoma. Pauls Valley has a really charming downtown, and is home to the famed Toy and Action Figure Museum! If you’ve never been here, it will take you right back to your childhood, featuring everything from superheroes to Barbies to GI Joe. Get ready to be a kid again!

The Toy and Action Figure Museum

If action figures aren’t your thing, don’t worry. There is so much more to see and do in this charming town, from artwork at The Vault to the train depot and park, to strolling the streets of the historic downtown.

As I mentioned, sometimes I hit the Google at just the right moment. While stopping for a bite in Pauls Valley, I took a look at Google Maps to see what towns nearby might be of interest. While doing this, a town called Elmore City caught my eye. What might this small town have to offer? Well, no one knows better than Google, so I typed away to see if there was anything interesting about this particular town. BOY WAS THERE. You might be familiar with a little Kevin Bacon film from the 80s called Footloose?? Well, it turns out Elmore City was the inspiration for that film! According to online sources, Elmore City is the ONLY town in the US to ever ban dancing. But banned it remained, until 1980 when some foot-tapping high school students decided enough was enough, and petitioned the town to have a senior dance. The rest, as they say, is history. The ban was lifted, and just like that, the people of the EC were free to dance their hearts out.

Sometimes the best part about exploring Oklahoma are the surprises you find along the way. In addition to “discovering” Elmore City, I also ran across this little nugget on my way there:

Garven County, Oklahoma

Next, I set my GPS to a spot that I hadn’t seen in years, since years before I had a decent camera or SmartPhone. The Wanette-Byars Bridge. This gorgeous truss bridge crosses the Candian River, and connects the towns of Wanette and Byars, both of which are worth visiting in their own right if you enjoy photography and “lost Americana”. Formerly a rail bridge, the one-lane bridge is now utilized by cars. It’s one of my favorite bridges in Oklahoma, and I was thrilled to get back to it. On this visit, I had the added experience of seeing a gaggle of ATVs and one giant monster truck playing in the river below.

The Wanette-Byars Bridge
This was one of the few buildings in Byars still standing, but boy is it a good one.
Wanette, Oklahoma
Lotta monster truck enthusiasts in the area.

After this, I headed home! But there were a couple more fun finds in store. If you want to see the good stuff in Oklahoma, you have to get out there and explore! You never know what you might see. Until next time, my friends! Keep exploring!

Exploring the Arbuckles and Beyond: Part I

Turner Falls

This weekend I traveled south, and spent a couple of days exploring the Arbuckles and much more. In fact, there was so much packed into this weekend that I’m going to split this blog post into two parts, so that I can give proper attention to the details of everything that my friend Lauren and I were able to see on this epic Oklahoma road trip. If you’re looking for a fun weekend, here are some of the awesome things available less than three hours from Tulsa and just a little over an hour from OKC!

We ended up staying in a hotel in Ardmore over the weekend, but there are a lot of lodging options in the area, depending on where you’d like to be situated. There are cabins available right near Turner Falls, several Airbnbs in the area, and tons of hotels. So take your pick!

After driving down Friday evening, we decided to make an early start at Turner Falls. Turner Falls is the oldest park in the state, named after Mazeppa Thomas Turner, who first discovered the falls.

I had read online that the park can actually sell out in the summer months, so I purchased my tickets online in advance (You can purchase park as well as camping tickets HERE: https://www.turnerfallspark.com/tickets). The park opens at 6 am, and that seemed a bit early to me, but when we arrived at 7:30 there were already a lot of people in line for entrance, so keep that in mind if you’re planning to go! We didn’t wait that long-maybe 20 minutes or so in our cars, but I was surprised that so many people were already in line at that hour! We were able to find parking easily once inside the park.

Despite the crowds, Turner Falls Park is absolutely beautiful. As you make your way to the falls, you will see a beautiful flowing creek on your left, and castle ruins (Collings Castle) on the right. There are stairs leading up to the ruins, and you can spend a lot of time exploring. You’ll find graffiti, and plenty of visual interest to spark your imagination. The castle ruins date back to the 1930s. It’s named after Ellsworth Collings, a former dean of the College of Education at the University of Oklahoma. In its day, the castle was very large and ornately decorated, taking up nearly an acre of space.

A few shots of the Collings Castle and the stairs leading to it.

Perhaps the best part about exploring the ruins is watching children excitedly explore them. Lauren told one little girl that she had heard that an area up ahead was haunted, and the girl’s face lit up before she hurried off in search of the castle ghosts. It definitely sparks the imagination.

After thoroughly exploring the ruins, we continued toward the falls. Turner Falls are tied with Natural Falls for the tallest waterfall in the state, both at 77 feet tall (although, interestingly, Turner Falls claims to be the tallest in Oklahoma.) We walked around the falls, happily shooting away and taking in the beauty and the sounds of the falls and families laughing and making memories.

Turner Falls

For a better view of the falls, you can hike/climb up the rocks, which we did. But be forewarned, this climb is not for the faint of heart! It can get serious and difficult, and you will be scrambling and using your hands and feet to hoist yourself up. Coming down is no easy feat either. But it’s worth it for these views.

You have to earn these views

If you’d like to see some higher views of the falls without the intense hike/climb, you can also head out of park in your car, turn right, and head up the road to the turn-off where the ziplining is! This was great fun, as we got to watch the zipliners whiz by, see a beautiful lock wall, and take in some breathtaking views of the park.

Zipliners and lock wall!
Found near the lock wall

After leaving the park, we ventured to another area favorite, Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies! This place is everything it’s cracked up to be, with a wide variety of pies, from cherry to chocolate to bacon and eggs-filled pies. This place is definitely worth a stop!

His shirt says “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t pie.”

After we finished off our tasty treats, we decided to head to a spot that I had long planned to visit-the colorful and quirky Cloverleaf Boutique. Decorated almost entirely in hot pink and home to three darling poodles, you can find every kind of oddity inside that you can imagine, from brightly colored wigs to kitschy paintings and beyond. It is an EXPERIENCE with a capital E. I have heard rumors that it might be closing its doors, which would be a real shame, so if you plan to go, do it soon! Here’s some of what you might miss if you wait too long:

Cloverleaf Boutique in Ardmore, OK
Who’s ready for a road trip?
Hannah and Carmen
Chloe and Fergie

The next place we wanted to hit before calling it a day was the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur. This is Oklahahoma’s oldest national park area, purchased by the national government from the Chickasaw Nation in 1902. Here you can find beautiful hiking and camping areas, gorgeous streams, waterfalls, bison, and picnic areas.

Exploring the Chickasaw National Recreation Area

This concludes Part I of the weekend. Stay tuned for Part II, which will explore Ardmore, Gene Autry, Wanette, and more!

Sources: http://www.turnerfallspark.com


Roadtrippin’: Exploring Gloss Mountain, Alabaster Caverns, and Great Salt Plains State Park

Gloss Mountain State Park

Saturday we hopped in the car and set out on an impromptu road trip out to eastern Oklahoma. We set the GPS for Alabaster Caverns, but we could not resist a stop at Gloss Mountain State Park on the way. Gloss Mountain sits directly off of highway 412 and is a must-see if you’re traveling out to eastern OK! It’s a quick and easy hike up (but be ready for lots of stairs!). It’s a gorgeous sunrise hike if you can get up that early, but we arrived around 11 and it was still great! We were lucky to have pretty great weather all day. It was about 74 degrees when we got here, which is unheard of for July in Oklahoma. We took full advantage. It did warm up as the day progressed. Fortunately, our next destination would be a cool one as well-because we would be heading underground!

Next, we headed on to Alabaster Caverns State Park. Last time I was in the area, we ran out of time, so the caverns had to be cut from the itinerary. But I’m so glad that we were able to make it this time. Alabaster Cavern is a large gypsum cave-the largest in the country that is open to the public. It is available by guided tour only. The tours leave roughly once an hour during opening hours. It is also one of only three caves in the world that contain black alabaster-the other two are in China and Italy. The cave suffered a recent cave-in, so the regular opening and the part of the cave that contains the black alabaster were inaccessible, unfortunately. But you can still see the black alabaster in the on-site museum. I really hope that they are able to repair the cave-in soon, because I know there were some beautiful parts of the cave that we unfortunately weren’t able to access for safety reasons. Despite that, it was still a great tour and I’m glad we went. There are also other caves on site that allow for wild caving (spelunking) but we didn’t do that this time. Technically, cameras and cell phones are not allowed on the tour, but I am not always great at following no photo rules (I do follow them in museums and holy places, but I just felt like I could sneak in a couple of photos here without really harming anyone. Don’t follow my example if you want to be a better person than me.)

Me breaking the no photo rules with wild abandon

When we arrived at the caverns, the 12 o’clock tour was already sold out (you can buy tickets online to avoid this situation) so we secured tickets for the 1 o’clock and decided to grab some food while we waited. The closest town to grab food was a short five miles away, just across the Cimarron River. If you’ve never been to Freedom, Oklahoma, this is your chance-and I guess if you’re going to go there, what better weekend to visit than the 4th of July weekend! It’s a small town, with a wild-west feeling main street and a little gas station where we grabbed some pizza and snacks-our whole lunch set us back about $14 for the two of us-score! Then we had some time to explore the town a bit before heading back for the tour.

Freedom, Oklahoma
The historic downtown of Freedom

After our tour, we hit the road again, this time bound for the Great Salt Plains State Park. On our way, we ran across lots of great small towns to explore. I would say that hitting all three of these state parks in one go is easily doable, and if you set out even earlier, you can probably add Roman Nose State Park to your agenda. We left around 8 am, and got back to Tulsa around 7 pm, just in time for dinner.

Pond Creek, Oklahoma
Great Salt Plains State Park

Finally, we made it to the Great Salt Plains! The salt plains, along with Alabaster Caverns, were formed millions of years ago when the area between Mexico all the way up to Nebraska was actually an ocean. The salt found at the GSP is the salt left over from that ocean. Here you can see a dig area where visitors can dig for crystals. Other areas of the park are smoother, and the area really does have a surreal feel to it, almost like being on another planet. On a previous trip to the salt plains, I arrived just before sunset, and the area was basically deserted. That visit felt almost eerie, and definitely had a more other-worldly feel to it. This time, it just felt like visiting a family-friendly state park, but definitely still a unique experience. Pro tip: If you Google Map Great Salt Plains State Park, it will take you to the side of the park with the lake. In this area, you will find cabins, the lake area, etc. If you want to make your way to the actual salt plains, follow the signs that say “Crystal digging area”.

One more shot from the Great Salt Plains

I hope you have a chance to explore some of our great state parks! I’m planning to hit a few more before the summer’s end, so stay tuned and thanks for exploring Oklahoma with me!

Mysteries of Oklahoma: The Heavener Runestone

Today I made my way to Heavener, Oklahoma, to feast my eyes on the famed Heavener Runestones. Heavener is just over two hours from Tulsa, so it makes for an easy day trip. The Spiro Mounds are also near the area, so you can easily hit both in a single day, but unfortunately the Spiro Mounds are closed until at least the end of July due to flooding, so I will have to save them for another day.

I arrived in Heavener around 11 am. One thing you notice as you get closer to the area is MOUNTAINS! That’s right! The Kiamichi Mountains grace the vistas of the area, and the mountains coupled with a perfect Oklahoma sky today made for a wonderful photographic expedition.

Before we get too far, it’s probably important to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, what are runestones? Runestones are simply stones with runic inscriptions carved or painted on them. Ok, great. So the more important question is, what are runes? Runes are letters from an ancient Germanic alphabet, a cousin to the Roman alphabet. The inscriptions are usually significant. Does that clear things up? They are generally associated with Scandinavia (Yes, Vikings!) Here’s a photo of a runestone that I took in Sweden in 2015:

The Heavener Runestones were discovered in 1923, and in the nearly 100 years since their discovery, their origin has been the subject of controversy and passionate debate. Although the Heavener Runestones are the most famous, they are not the only runestones in Oklahoma, In fact, runestones can be found in Shawnee, Poteau, and Pawnee, making Oklahoma home to more runestones than any other state in the country! It is unlikely that any of the runestones, including the one in Heavener, were actually carved by Vikings, but that does not keep the locals from celebrating a Viking festival every fall and spring! Despite the likelihood of a more modern origin, the runestones are of such good quality that they have garnered the attention of several Scandinavian archaeologists who have visited the area to study them. So their lore is taken seriously!

The park itself sits on 55 acres. Once a designated state park (and still indicated as such on the entrance sign), the park was actually turned over to the city of Heavener in 2011. The trail that leads down to the stone is a short 1/4 mile hike, but those with limited mobility will not be able to access it, due to the number of stairs (which can get slippery) leading down. The stone/wooden pathway really adds to the lore of the area, and it is a prime location for photographers. So get your cameras ready! Here are a few shots from the park:

Bridge leading to the Runestones
Stone steps leading to/from the stones

But of course, you come to see the stones themselves. I was a little disappointed that, while it makes sense that the stones would be protected behind glass, the glass doesn’t seem to have been cleaned many times since it was placed around the stones, making it a little hard to see them, and even harder to get any decent pictures of them. But I did my best.

The inscription is said to read “Gnomedal” or “Gnome Valley”

What do you think? Were the runes left by Vikings who traveled inland to Oklahoma? Or is it a more modern artifact? Whatever the true origin, the Heavener Runestones have captures the imaginations of Oklahomans for a long time!





Get Your Kicks: Chandler, Davenport, and Wellston (and old gas stations galore!)

Today I made my way to Chandler, Oklahoma and decided to spend some time exploring Route 66 while I was in the area. A lot of times, I will head out with one specific thing in mind to see, and then play the rest by ear. I have a deep affinity for old gas stations and old gas pumps, so when I caught sight of a beautiful old gas station in Chandler on an Instagram page I follow (@ruralroadsphotography) I knew I had to see it for myself. It was every bit as great as I had hoped, and it was just the first of a few old gas stations I would see today!

After a great lunch at Boomerang Diner (Monday is half-price burger day!) I did a little more exploring around Chandler, and then decided to start driving The Mother Road for a bit. Much to my surprise, I came across two more old gas stations on the drive! The first was in Wellston. It was newly renovated, with new, but retro-looking pumps. It also had the added bonus of great murals painted on the building.

Next, I made my way to Davenport, Oklahoma, where I was shocked to find yet another old gas station. There are times I go months without running across one of these coveted stations, so to find three in one day was just so unexpected. I was thrilled!

Davenport, OK

I decided to drive on into Stroud. I’ve shot around Stroud before, but it’s always fun to come back. I was hoping to find a site I had read about online, the famous Route 66 “shoe tree”, but I read online that it had fallen down in 2010, so that was a bust. Fortunately, one spot that is never a bust is the Rock Cafe, a Route 66 staple. Here you’ll find a cute little cafe if you are looking for a lunch stop, but you will also find lots of cast members from the Route 66-themed Disney movie Cars!

I’d love to say that the day ended on that happy note, but unfortunately it ended with my car on the back of a wrecker. I started smelling rubber on the turnpike and realized it might be me, so I pulled off the road and sure enough, it was. Something had been rubbing on my tire and it was slowly shredding. Fortunately I was able to realize it before I had a blowout, but the 90-minute wait for AAA was not my favorite way to end the day. Still, it could’ve been so much worse, so I was lucky! I won’t be back on the road until my car is out of the shop (It wasn’t just the tire unfortunately) so I hope to see you on the road soon!

Will Rogers’ Birthplace, Bowling Ball Art, and a Mysterious Space Capsule: Just Another Day Exploring Oklahoma

Today I ventured north to a couple of my favorite spots and one new one. I began the journey at Will Rogers’ Birthplace Ranch in Oologah, Oklahoma. If you’ve never been, it’s really worth the trip. The house offers a guided audio tour, there are plenty of animals to keep you entertained (including two peacocks coming next week), and it’s just a lovely, peaceful place overlooking the lake. The family takes great pride in maintaining the house and grounds, and even today I had the privilege of meeting the husband of Nancy Smith, Will Rogers’ niece. Nancy passed away in 2016, and there is a tree on the property planted in her honor, which her husband lovingly tends to and checks on often. Today, the groundskeeper was hard at work planting flowers. He told me they want to make sure everything looks great for the summer, when a lot of visitors will stop by. He could tell that I took an eager interest in learning about the place, so he told me to follow him to his truck (Don’t try this at home kids) where he gifted me a lovely book of love letters between Will and his beloved Betty. Will wooed Betty through letters for eight long years before he finally convinced her to marry him. (A man who knew what he wanted.)

Next, I ventured north to Nowata, to see Chris Barbee’s famous Bowling Ball Art Yard. If you’re a lover of one-of-a-kind sites, this is the place for you. A few years ago, Chris was a retiree, and like many in his situation, wasn’t quite sure what to do with his time. An avid bowler, he decided to spend his golden years on a creative project: creating art out of bowling balls! And create art he has done. His entire yard is full of fun and inventive art pieces he has created using bowling balls. Walking through the yard, you’ll find Mr. Potatohead, Mickey Mouse, a giant American Flag, a helicopter, and perhaps his masterpiece, a giant to-scale billiards table fashioned with bowling balls as the pool balls. Chris loves welcoming visitors to the yard, and has welcomed visitors from all over the world. Stop by and say hi sometime!

Just one of Chris’s Imaginative pieces!
To-scale billiards table with bowling balls as pool balls!

Finally, on my way home, I stopped off to set my eyes on a famed Oklahoma roadside attraction that I had long coveted-the Winganon Space Capsule in Talala, Oklahoma. Just about a mile off of Highway 169, this was my only new spot to visit today, and wow, was it ever worth it.

Creative art piece or government cover-up?

In 1971, a cement mixer was involved in an accident. Because the mixer was too heavy to move, it remained there for many years. In 2008, an enterprising young couple decided to paint it silver and turn it into a space capsule! Or was it all a government coverup….you decide. Big thanks to the folks at Atlas Obscura who help me with a lot of research on places to see in Oklahoma! Till next time, folks, thanks for exploring with me!

The Story Behind ‘The Oklahoma Explorer’

Dust Bowl house between Guymon and Boise City

So…how did this all begin?

I began The Oklahoma Explorer project one year ago. This blog was launched on the one year anniversary. The idea was born after a trip to Natural Falls State Park. I have lived in Oklahoma my entire life, in various cities and towns around the state, and had resided in Tulsa for many of those years. Yet in May of 2018, I found myself at this beautiful state park, just over an hour’s drive from Tulsa, standing under an astounding 77-foot waterfall, and I could not believe that in all my years in Oklahoma I was only now setting my eyes on beauty that had been so close all along. It occurred to me that if this gorgeous state park was right under my nose, there must be so many more things to see out there, and I decided to make it my mission to find out just what I had been missing all this time.

The place that started it all-Natural Falls State Park

I am an avid traveler, and have always had a deep interest in travel photography. But though I had traveled thousands of miles around the globe and admired the beauty of Slovenian castles, Japanese temples, and Peruvian markets, there was something very special and deeply personal about hitting the road and exploring the highways and back roads of my home state.

I’ve always had a bit of a complicated relationship with Oklahoma. In my earlier years, like many twenty-somethings, all I thought about was how I was going to get out of Oklahoma, make my way west or east, to the mountains or the ocean, anywhere but here. But life has a way of carving a path for you, and Oklahoma remained my home despite my restless yearnings.

What this journey has offered me is the opportunity to see with fresh eyes the place I have called home all my life. From the quirky roadside attractions of Route 66 to the beauty of the Black Mesa; the resplendent beauty of the Philbrook Museum or the Myriad Gardens to the natural wonders of the Great Salt Plains, I have reveled in the opportunity to see with new eyes all the beauty that this great state has to offer. It has made me a better photographer, and I daresay a more satisfied person. And the journey is far from over. In the coming weeks I will travel back to Oklahoma City, south to Ardmore and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, Paul’s Valley, and more. I can’t wait to share more of my explorations with you. See you on the road!

Exploring Pawhuska & Pershing

Today I crossed a big item off my Oklahoma bucket list when I finally got to visit the famous swinging bridge of Pawhuska. If you’re planning a visit to the Mercantile, be sure to “swing” by the bridge on your way-only a three minute drive from downtown!

The bridge was originally constructed in 1926, a mere nineteen years after Oklahoma became a state. The placard near the entrance assures visitors that the bridge was refurbished in 1970, but somehow that failed to put my mind at ease. I’m not terribly afraid of heights, but once that bridge started swinging, I discovered that I am afraid of falling from heights into the murky water below.

But facing your fears only builds character, right? So ahead I charged. I can attest that I made it across the bridge dry and in one piece, and the occasional loose board is just there to keep you on your toes, I presume. The placard also assures visitors that the bridge can hold up to 25 people at a time, although the most I saw cross it at once today was a family of five. Maybe don’t tempt fate by testing it at maximum capacity.

The swinging bridge of Pawhuska

My adventures today also took me to the small unincorporated town of Pershing, where the remains of a historic school can be found. The ruins can be found just off of Highway 11, about ten miles south/southeast of Pawhuska. I am quite a sucker for ruins, so I was particularly excited to see this historic site. One of the things I love most about exploring Oklahoma is the kindness of people I encounter, When I found myself on the wrong street, a kindly local gentleman on a lawnmower directed me to my destination. If you have a love of all things abandoned, put this on your Oklahoma bucket list now!

Where should I travel next, Okies? Drop me a comment below, and be sure to follow my adventures on Instagram @oklahomaexplorer ! Thanks for following along!