By Michael W. Sasser
When some people – particularly those in other states – think of Oklahoma, the first thing that might come to mind is the lyrics from the classic musical “Oklahoma!” by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Sure, there is romance and charm in those lyrics, and thus they are associated with the Sooner State. However, there is also the image of wind-swept plains, and little else, creating a lasting perception of a flat, homogenous landscape.
Well, there is “Oklahoma!” and then there is Oklahoma. And Oklahoma, the state, is far more varied in terms of its natural environment than flat plains. In fact, Oklahoma has one of the most diverse geographies of any state in the nation, providing residents and visitors opportunities to explore vastly different terrains, topography and eco-systems – often within just hours of one another.
"People say, 'Why see Oklahoma, it's all flat,' but that's not true," said Keli Clark, marketing coordinator for Oklahoma State Parks. "Consider Western Oklahoma, for example, one of my favorite parts of the state. There are mesas, canyons, dunes, salt flats, caverns ... far more than flat plains. In the southeast, there are swamplands. Hey, there are alligators down there! We have rocky and mountainous regions that are beautiful as well.
"In fact," Clark continued, "Oklahoma has 11 different eco-regions. Only California has more."
Given that Oklahoma also has more water-fronting property than any other state due to the massive number of rivers, streams and lakes, the image of a dry, flat, continuous topography comes across more like myth than reality.
"There is so much diversity that when you explore it, you get a whole different idea of what the state is about," Clark said.
Oklahoma's geo-diversity is a function of the basic geology of the region, according to Brad Bays, associate professor of Geography at Oklahoma State University.
"We are at the transition point between the Great Plains and the Ozark/Ouachita Mountain regions, which are the western extension of the interior highlands," Bays said. "The two mountain regions are the primary regions of Oklahoma in the eastern part of the state. The rest of the state is composed of east-to-west provinces reflecting the underlying geology."
Oklahoma's position at the meeting point of varied geological features creates interesting dynamics. The underlying geology of the state gets younger moving from west to east, for example. The lowest area of the state is in the extreme southeast, where the Little River enters Arkansas; the state's highest point is atop Black Mesa in the Panhandle. The elevation ranges from a low of 287 feet above sea level to a high of almost 5,000 feet above sea level at Black Mesa. Oklahoma's elevation gradually declines from the west to the east, which might surprise people familiar with the Ouachita and Arbuckle Mountain areas.
"The Arbuckle Mountains used to be as high as the Alps," Bays said. "Now, you can only see the extreme core of the range. It is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the country, with the oldest rocks being over a million years old."
However, all of Oklahoma west of 99 degrees longitude is higher than the well-known Ouachita Mountains.
"The top of the Ouachitas is about the same height above sea level as the western one-third of Oklahoma," Bays pointed out.
Besides underlying geology, Bays said Oklahoma's great variation in precipitation is the key factor in the state's geography. The rainiest part of the state might see 54 inches in a year, while the driest part of the Panhandle averages just 15 inches.
The result is a treasure trove of topography, complete with incredible variation in geology, flora, fauna and environmental conditions.
"I've lived in Oklahoma my entire life," Clark said. "Until I actually started working at this job, I didn't go see things. I still haven't seen everything that I want to. But I know that the image of Oklahoma as all flat isn't true at all."
Numerous parks and managed sites around the state provide a glimpse into the tremendous and scenic geo-diversity that Oklahoma has to offer.
Black Mesa State Park & Nature Preserve
Located in the Panhandle, Black Mesa derives its name from the layer of black lava rock that coated the mesa 30 million years ago. The area marks the point where the Rocky Mountains meet the shortgrass prairie – and also where species of each habitat are at their easternmost or westernmost point. Visitors can hike to Oklahoma's highest point at 4,973 feet above sea level, and enjoy the Black Mesa Nature Preserve that includes 23 rare plants and eight rare animals.
"Black Mesa is one of my favorite parts of the state and is unique to Oklahoma," Bays said. "It's unique in terms of landscape, and you see vegetation very different than in the rest of the state."
Little Sahara State Park
Oklahoma residents might recognize that the western part of the state is arid. But sand dunes a la New Mexico or Utah? That's exactly the appeal of Little Sahara State Park near Waynoka. It boasts 1,600-plus acres of sand dunes, ranging in height from 25 to 75 feet. These vast dunes formed over time from terrace deposits left behind when the Cimarron River flowed over the area in pre-historic times. Today, dune buggy and ATV riding on the dunes is a huge attraction.
Great Salt Plains State Park
And speaking of the vastness of pre-historic times, at one point, millennia before mankind, Oklahoma was covered in a vast ocean. The remnants today can be seen – and experienced – at this unique park comprised of leftover salt and Great Salt Plains Lake, north of Jet. An outdoor family sporting and equestrian playground, the park offers a glimpse into the distant past utterly different from anything else in the state.
"There is no racing like there is on other salt plains in the West, but the area is home to a unique type of selenite crystals with an hourglass shape that can only be found there," Clark said.
Foss State Park
Western Oklahoma's Foss State Park serves as an excellent example of the western region's topography. Recreational activities abound, although the best-known attraction might be the bison that roam, helping set a scene not that different than it was at least hundreds of years ago.
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
A singularly distinct setting, Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, north of Pawhuska, is the largest protected area of tallgrass prairie on Earth, spanning almost 40,000 acres. Once upon a time, the region was comprised of considerable tallgrass prairie, a complex environment with diverse plants and animals. Today, though, this somewhat remote site is living history, possessed of tremendous beauty, roaming bison and almost an otherworldly sense of serenity. "Otherworldly," though, despite the fact that much of the region has looked not dissimilar to the Preserve.
"This is one of the few places left where you can still find the big bluestem grass that was originally all over Oklahoma and the West," Bays said.
Unlike parks, access to the Prairie is somewhat limited. A scenic route on public county roads, beginning and ending in Pawhuska, permits visitors to experience the heart of the tallgrass prairie and the impressive buffalo ... and a step back in time.
Alabaster Caverns State Park
Massive caverns beneath the earth might seem like something one would find farther west in the United States, but there is a fascinating and unique one right outside Freedom, Oklahoma. The centerpiece of Alabaster Caverns State Park is a cavern formed of alabaster, a rare form of gypsum. It is the largest natural gypsum cave in the world that is open to the public, and the only gypsum show cave in the United States.
"It's also one of four places where you can find black alabaster, as well," Clark said.
Beavers Bend & Hochatown State Park
This park near Broken Bow, in the mountainous region of southeast Oklahoma along the shores of Broken Bow Lake and the Mountain Fork River, is one of Oklahoma's most popular areas. It shares the spectacular beauty of places like the Tallgrass Prairie and Black Mesa, but is otherwise an entirely different environment, demonstrating the extreme diversity in Oklahoma. Here, vast forests of pine and hardwood trees, mountainous setting, the lakes and more rainfall on average than most sections of the state create a distinct environment for numerous adventures and activities.
Ouachita National Forest
Covering portions of LaFlore and McCurtain counties in southeast Oklahoma, this vast, beautiful and foreboding wilderness offers more than 352,000 acres of scenic preserved space. Hiking trails, mountain bike trails, horseback riding trails, hang-gliding opportunities, an equestrian camp, and numerous other outdoor and sporting opportunities attract plenty of visitors. However, there are many miles of unpaved forest roads, game trails and access to various types of terrains.
Numerous other distinct locations in Oklahoma exist, featuring geography and topography so diverse that it might be hard to conceive of them all existing in one state. In fact, the pursuit of the many different eco-regions of Oklahoma can take considerable time.
"I haven't seen everything yet," Clark said. "I only hope to live long enough to see everything in Oklahoma."
That's Oklahoma, not “Oklahoma!”
For information on Oklahoma’s state parks, preserves and the state's natural diversity, visit www.travelok.com.