Now that summer has officially ended, Oklahomans might be tempted to put away their mix tapes and spend the cooler months hunkered down with their maps and offbeat tourism books, planning to take next May by the throat and once more see as much of the Sooner State as possible.
But as the edge finally comes off that late summer weather, travelers may find that Oklahoma is just getting started. In the autumn, the state shows a whole new side of itself, and by traveling just a few hours southeast (and maybe, accidentally, just for a minute, crossing over into another state just a little), Okies can experience autumn with a capital A.
The Ouachita Mountains (that’s wash-i-taw, not ooh-ah-cheetah) in Southeastern Oklahoma might be the state’s best place for viewing the burst of color that comes with autumnal leaf changes. Travel three and a half hours to the town of Talihina in LeFlore County to begin the drive up one of the state’s most stunning panoramas: the Talimena Scenic Drive, which links Talihina with the small town of Mena, Ark.
The drive, designated a National Scenic Byway in 2005, travels 54 miles down Oklahoma State Highway 1 and Arkansas State Highway 88 through the Winding Stair Mountains, crossing over the top of Arkansas’ second-highest peak, Rich Mountain.
QUEEN WILHELMINA STATE PARK
Atop Rich Mountain lies the Queen Wilhelmina State Park, home to a number of scenic hiking trails ranging in length from the half-mile Spring Trail, to the 225-mile Ouachita Trail, which stretches from Talihina to near Little Rock, Ark. The trails provide hikers with excellent opportunities to witness some of the area’s rich wildlife, and campsites are available.
For the less rugged, the park also is home to the legendary Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, sometimes known as Arkansas’ “Castle in the Clouds.” The original lodge was built for $100,000 in 1898 by Dutch investors in the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad; it was named for the soon-to-be-crowned Queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina. It fell into disrepair in the early 20th century, and was rebuilt in 1963, before being destroyed by a fire a decade later.
The current lodge was built immediately afterward and features nearly 40 rooms, a restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater and a privately owned train ride, as well as access to the state park. Nightly rates at the lodge range from $70 to $120. Visit http://www.queenwilhelmina.com for reservations and more information.
Coming back down into Oklahoma from the Talimena Drive, travelers have no shortage of short day trips to keep themselves occupied.
About 60 miles to the northwest of the drive is the Spiro Mounds, considered one of the most important prehistoric Indian archaeological sites east of the Rocky Mountains. Located northeast of the town of Spiro, only a few miles over the Oklahoma line from Fort Smith, Ark., the site attracts scholars and visitors from all over the world.
The state’s only archaeological park, Spiro Mounds encompasses 140 acres and 12 mounds containing evidence of a pre-Columbian culture that occupied the site from about 850 to 1450 C.E. The site has been linked to the “Southern Cult” of the Mississippian period, and appears to have been an important center of commerce and religion. It is believed that many of the rituals performed at the site centered around the death and burial of elite members of the Spiro society.
The site’s center, operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society, allows visitors to experience this ancient culture through artifact displays, interpretive reconstructions and through views of the various site excavations as well as the unexcavated mounds. The center is just south of the Arkansas River off State Highway 9.
About 100 miles south of Spiro lies Beavers Bend State Park, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts on the banks of Broken Bow Lake. The park is home to a range of lodging options, including Lakeview Lodge, a 40-room retreat complete with private decks that overlook the lake, as well as cabins with river views and RV and tent campsites. The 18-hole Cedar Creek Golf Course is nearby, as well as excellent trout fishing, float trips, canoeing, horseback riding and miles of nature trails.
Round out a trip to Beavers Bend with a visit to Abendigo’s Grill and Patio, 259 N. Stephens Gap Road in Broken Bow. The restaurant features a menu of steaks and freshwater seafood, as well as salads, burgers and pasta. There’s live music on the patio, too. “Nathan Gunter
Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of the monthly series “The Great Oklahoma Road Trip,” a look at the lesser-known ” but worth a trip ” spots across the state.