Eric Leonard, a park ranger, said the masses crowd the large, south-central Oklahoma park from Memorial Day to Labor Day to take a dip in the swimming holes and lakes. But the rest of the year, the wooded, water-filled area clears out and cools down.
"This park changes pretty dramatically as we leave the summer behind because it becomes a quiet, relaxing place," Leonard said. "In the summer, we're famous for the sheer number of people."
Cooler days and less crowds make autumn a perfect time to get back to nature " whether that's hiking along a river, counting butterflies in the middle of a private preserve or straining to hear an elk bugle.
Every Saturday and Sunday this fall, a ranger-led hike steps off from the Travertine Nature Center in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area for an hour-and-a-half stroll through woods and along a riverbank.
Called the Travertine Traverse, Leonard said the hike starts at 9:30 a.m. and leads one of two places: upstream to the Buffalo and Antelope springs or downstream to Little Niagara.
"As you go along the creek, there are a series of waterfalls, Little Niagara is the most famous of them," he said. "Going upstream to the two springs, they're two versions of the same thing. One of them appears more natural " it's water literally coming out the side of the hill. The other is a spring that rises up into a round pool that was built about 75 years ago."
Along the way, the ranger will talk about the plants, animals and environment of the national recreation area, as well as some history of the park. The trail is almost completely wooded " ideal for spotting fall foliage " and the springs, waterfalls and river that the trail follows are clear and cool.
It's the water that Leonard loves the most.
"The sound of that water," he said, "it's a reminder of the defining feature of the park. This place is a park because of the water that's found here."
Call of the wild
It's not water that brings people to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, but buffalo, longhorn cattle and elk.
When autumn rolls around, elk become the stars. This time of year is the rutting season " when male elk vie for mates " and that means bugling, that distinctive, loud whistle that signals a bull's frustration with the mating game.
The Association of Friends of the Wichitas leads three-hour bus tours into the reserve's special use area " which is usually off limits to visitors " on a quest to hear and spot elk.
The tours are held on various dates at 5 p.m., with two leaving at 6:30 a.m. The next scheduled dates are this Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and Sept. 23, 25 (a 6:30 a.m. tour) and 26.
"We'll be doing some bugling, trying to call the elk and get them to talk to us," said Donna Phillips, vice president of Friends of the Wichitas.
The tour guide will give a history of the refuge and teach about the elk along the way, and will use bull and cow calls to try to entice the elk to respond. The tour also includes a short walk to an area Phillips said is ideal for calling the elk.
"When they answer, it's like an amphitheater," she said. "It just fills the area."
These tours require reservations, and Phillips said they fill up well in advance. Tours are $5 per person. For more information, call 580-429-2151.
The Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy is interested in a smaller animal: butterflies. Specifically, butterflies that are passing through Oklahoma.
The fall butterfly count is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 25, and needs volunteers to tally up the winged creatures that alight in The Conservancy's Pontotoc Ridge Preserve.
"For The Conservancy, which is a science-based organization, this is a great way to do volunteer science," said Jona Tucker with The Conservancy. "We get lots of people out, and hopefully they enjoy the scenery and weather and it's informative, but it's also helpful to us because it's a monitoring technique."
Tucker said she can use the information gathered at the count to compile data on not just the butterflies, but the surrounding habitat, too.
The volunteer event begins at 10 a.m. at the preserve, a 2,900-acre area not usually open to the public. Volunteers will get a quick orientation and then be grouped together to head out and get counting.
"We'll send people out to literally " using their cameras, binoculars, eyes and field guides " to try to identify and count the butterflies they see," Tucker said.
Volunteers are encouraged to bring their digital cameras, binoculars and field guides " Tucker particularly recommends the "Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America."
While out in the preserve, she said volunteers can take advantage of the miles of trail that wind through bottomland forest, tallgrass prairie and a limestone outcropping.
Registration is required. For more information, call 580-777-2224. "Jenny Coon Peterson
top photo/Jona Tucker
bottom photo/Jay Pruett