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Destinations on a tank

Ready for a day at the beach, but the kids hate car rides and the grown-ups hate the gas prices? It will take longer to pack the car than the trip itself if your is Arcadia Lake in east Edmond.

Malena Lott, Jenny Coon Peterson, Nathan Gunter July 6th, 2011

With my three kids in tow, we visited not one, not two, but three beaches at Arcadia Lake. The lake is comprised of three separate parks — Spring Creek, Edmond and Central State — each with its own recreation wonderland of docks, playgrounds and, yes, swimming holes.

Beach hopping

With my three kids in tow, we visited not one, not two, but three beaches at Arcadia Lake. The lake is comprised of three separate parks — Spring Creek, Edmond and Central State — each with its own recreation wonderland of docks, playgrounds and, yes, swimming holes.

With 26 miles of shoreline, Arcadia Lake felt big enough for exploration, but small enough to not feel lost, despite having to drive through three gates to enter each area. However, one receipt will get you access to all.

As my tween daughter said, “I didn’t think we had beaches in Oklahoma!” I replied, “What’s your definition of a beach?” Because if it’s sand (albeit a little rocky), next to a body of water, with nearby restrooms and a snack stand, then, baby, we’ve got beaches!

Our first stop was Spring Creek.

Admission is the same at each gate: $7 for a car with up to five occupants.

The cove-shaped beach is tree-lined, with plenty of grass and shade. About a hundred guests splashed, lounged and picnicked at the site and the lake water was cold, which was a relief in the 99-degree heat.

The red playground was completely shaded, and Rusty’s snack shack serves up fare until 8 p.m. Typically, you get ripped off at snack stands, but not at Rusty’s. How does a .50 bag of chips sound? Or a hot dog for a buck? Coolers are welcome, but no alcohol or glass is allowed on the beach.

Edmond Park was less crowded and provided a beautiful vista. But, we found some broken glass on the shore, and the sand was mostly rocky, so swim shoes would be a stellar idea.

The grassy hill was a nice spot for watching boats whiz by and relaxing under the shade. While there wasn’t a snack stand, each park has trails, a pavilion and plenty of picnic benches.

Behind beach gate No. 3, we found Central State Park, which provides a “wisp” of a beach, picnic tables right next to the water and Rusty’s Store. The store provides more than the snack shack, including charcoal and fish hooks. This park had the most picnickers, bicyclists and big gatherings, perhaps because of the ample shade and the choice location.

Fishing, boating, water skiing and jet skiing all have designated spots around the lake, and the multi-use trail and equestrian trail provide even more opportunities for adventure in one spot. The lake is stocked with catfish, blue gill and bass, but it’s BYOB — bring your own boat — since the lake doesn’t offer watercraft rentals.

If you want to make a weekend of it, the parks have overnight camping available at both primitive and RV-friendly sites. All the campsites are first-come, first served.

The best part of our day adventure was realizing that being close to home can also mean being close to nature, where s’mores and spooky stories around a fire ring can make an unforgettable memory. While we may not have forgotten we were in Oklahoma, it did make us realize that being in Oklahoma can be cool, even when the temps are hot. —Malena Lott

Water (and) parks

The storefront of Pauls Valley’s Toy and Action Figure Museum had me a little nervous. It looked like it may have been a Sears in a past life — not exactly the place you’d expect to find a museum.

But once inside, you forget all about what might have been and focus on what it is. All around, up above and stacked high are toys, action figures and other odds ’n’ ends that only a serious collector would think to save.

Pauls Valley is about 60 miles south of Oklahoma City and a perfect stop on the way to the outdoor playground of Sulphur and Davis. We thought it’d be a blip on the map, but we ended up spending close to an hour inside the museum.

The focus of the Toy and Action Figure Museum is pretty self-explanatory, but what you don’t account for is just how overwhelming it can all be — and I mean that in a good way. Just check out the “Bat Cave” in the back, dedicated completely to Batman. Or, simply wander around, wondering who saves some of the stuff on display (like the lineup of adult-sized superhero undies or the unopened bag of Batman tortilla chips). It’s bright, colorful and a ton of fun.

Nearby, fuel up for the trip farther south at Bob’s Pig Shop, a Pauls Valley institution since 1933. The restaurant is smack in the middle of a neighborhood and has the look of someone’s homebased diner that got out of control.

If you’re going for authenticity, don’t pass up the pig sandwich, a chopped pork sandwich topped with a relish that has been on the menu since opening day. And don’t leave without trying some of the cobbler — blackberry on the day we visited.

Avoid the interstate for the county roads that take you south, then east, toward Sulphur, home to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the new Chickasaw Cultural Center.

The wooded trails and cool springs of the national recreation area are perfect for wandering during these hot months. But be warned: The natural swimming holes inside the park can get really crowded on the weekends. (Although, the people-watching is fantastic.) Find the swimming holes along the stream just off the road on the way to the visitor’s center.

Make the trip

Here’s how far you can expect to go and what to do when you get there. (To keep things simple, we’ve calculated mileage from the center of Oklahoma City.)

Arcadia Lake - 17.8 miles -edmondok.com/parks/arcadialake

Sulphur - 84.5 miles -paulsvalley.com -nps.gov/chic/index.htm -chickasawculturalcenter.com -arbucklewilderness.com

Wichita Mountains, 92.6 miles -fws.gov/southwest/ refuges/oklahoma/wichitamountains -theholycitylawton.com -meersstore.com

Nearby, the new Chickasaw Cultural Center is really well-done. The Chikasha Poya exhibit center is small, but interesting and educational, and the Spirit Forest you walk through to get to the exhibit space is very cool. The room is dimly lit, and the “trees” that open their branches overhead make it feel like you’re walking through an ancient forest. It’s pretty spectacular. But the real beauty of the cultural center is the expansive outdoor grounds, dotted with water features, art and gardens. The highlight is the bridge and viewing platform that overlook the traditional village.

It’s easy to make a weekend out of it in the area, especially when you consider nearby Davis, just a few miles down the road toward Interstate 35. The outdoor adventures continue at the ever-popular Arbuckle Wilderness, a drive-through animal park that seems like a throwback to the types of spots you’d see on the Mother Road.

With a smorgasbord of attractions, a variety of places to stay (everything from camping to resorts) and even some fine dining — check out The Cliff in Davis! — this compact area of Oklahoma is endlessly accessible and an easy getaway. —Jenny Coon Peterson

Mountain time

It took somewhere on the order of half a billion years — give or take — to carve out one of Oklahoma’s most popular road trip destinations. The rounded granite hills of the Wichita Mountains, near Lawton, began to arise long before the dinosaurs and took on their current appearance only after eons of weathering.

“Take your time” serves as a good mantra on a road trip to the Wichitas. Blasting down Interstate 44 will get you there faster, but routes abound that allow the scenery to unfold and places to stopand enjoy it. Come down State Highway 115 through Mountain View, for example, or follow U.S. Highway 81 through Rush Springs. Stop for watermelon.

It’s hard not to get excited once those mountains are in sight. Native Okies, prairie dwellers by habit, are gravitationally attracted to anything that breaks a flat skyline. But a drive through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge can result in a number of exciting sights.

First stop is the Quanah Parker Nature and Visitor Center. With interactive displays on the history and wild life of the Wichitas, it is the place to plan the rest of your trip. Guided tours are offered throughout the year.

You won’t need a guide to notice most of the area’s fauna, however. Longhorn cattle roam free, and the area is home to a herd of American Bison. Both occasionally cause minor traffic backups when crossing the road. Animal lovers flock to the area’s prairie dogs, the highly social rodents whose sprawling “towns” can be viewed from the side of the road.

One of these towns lies at the entrance to one of the mountains’ most popular sites, Holy City. The 66-acre park is home to one of America’s longest-running Easter pageants, started in 1926 by the Rev. A.M. Wallock. Holy City, as it exists today, was built in the 1930s using area stones. A statue, “The Christ of the Wichitas,” stands vigil over the site.

Another kind of religious experience is just up the road atop Mt. Scott, one of the highest points in the state. The winding road to the summit ends in a mountaintop parking lot with scenic vistas overlooking historic Fort Sill, Lake Lawtonka and the rest of the mountain range.

Staring in awe at the work of a half billion years’ creation can work up an appetite. Which is why no trip to the Wichitas is complete without a trek to Meers, the former gold rush town (there was no actual gold; just a rush) nestled just to the northwest of Mt. Scott.

This hamlet is the home of the famous Meers Burger, a gargantuan burger handcrafted from Texas longhorn beef. Wash that down with a teamonade (iced tea and lemonade) and save a tiny bit of room for fried peaches. Meers accepts no credit cards, so come armed with cash and a very empty stomach.

And, after all that wildlife, all that splendor and all that food, hop back on the highway for the trip home. You’ve earned it. —Nathan Gunter

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