Strap on your best hiking shoes and have a quick flip through your memories of eighth-grade earth science class.
The prairies of Northwestern Oklahoma are home to at least a day's worth of fascinating and fun geological marvels. Travelers on a budget can get some of the state's best prairie views, dig for selenite crystals, go spelunking through a gypsum cavern and end the day watching millions of Mexican free-tailed bats on their nightly exodus.
GREAT PLAINS STATE PARK
A day's rifle through the geological marvels of Northwest Oklahoma begins just off U.S. Highway 412, about 45 miles west of Enid at Glass (or Gloss) Mountains State Park. The area was first listed on a map as the Glass Mountains in 1873, but as the Gloss Mountains on another map in 1875, creating a naming dichotomy that continues to confuse people more than 130 years later.
Photographers or daybreak buffs looking for a place to capture the "magic hour" could do worse than to experience sunrise from the top of Cathedral Mountain. A turnoff area just off of Highway 412 features a picnic area, public restrooms and grills. A hiking trail leads to the top of the mountain, which is flecked with selenite crystals that sparkle in the sun, giving the area its name(s). Trails lead over the top of the hill, from which one can spy not only the prairies and the nearby mesas, but a menagerie of colorful birds, lizards and, yes, snakes. The area also is popular with astronomy enthusiasts because of its clear nighttime skies.
About 45 miles to the northeast of the Glass/Gloss Mountains area, just north of the small town of Jet, is the Great Salt Plains State Park, where geology buffs can dig for Oklahoma's state crystal, the hourglass selenite, from April 1 to Oct. 15. Digging was suspended and the area closed in June 2007, but reopened on April 25 of this year.
The park is home to the 8,690-acre Great Salt Plains Lake, a shallow body of water that is anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent as salty as the ocean. Anglers can fish the lake's 41 miles of coastline for catfish, saugeye, sand bass and hybrid striper. Hiking, biking and equestrian trails facilitate explorers of the non-fishing variety, and the adjacent Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge is known for its bird-watching opportunities.
The journey continues with the 40-mile jaunt to Alva, home to the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1902, it is the state's second-oldest museum, continuously open to the public since 1997. The museum features one of the largest mounted bird collections in the state and the fossilized jawbone of a mastodon. Open hours vary, and interested visitors may call the museum at (580) 327-8513 to obtain the current schedule.
Almost 30 miles to the west of Alva is the small town of Freedom, home to Alabaster Caverns State Park. Alabaster Caverns is the largest publicly accessible gypsum cave in the world and one of only three places on Earth to find black alabaster.
200 MILLION YEARS AGO
The .75-mile cavern was formed some 200 million years ago when the area was covered by an inland sea. The lighting inside the cavern was recently renovated, and tours are available for a fee of $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $5 for children. Tours are conducted from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. More adventurous groups also may go "wild caving." The state park hosts miles of hiking trails, sites for tent and RV camping, group shelters, a barbecue pit and volleyball court.
No trip through the wilds of Northwest Oklahoma is complete without a sunset trip to the Selman Wildlife Management Area, where every evening in the summer, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats venture forth into the summer night in search of food. The bats migrate more than 1,500 miles from Mexico to raise their young in Northwest Oklahoma. Travelers bring blankets and lawn chairs, as well as binoculars or cameras to see the stunning sight.
Trips to the cave begin at Alabaster Caverns State Park and must be booked in advance, as the viewing is a popular attraction, and only 75 people a night may visit the site. Travel from the state park to the cave is provided. "Nathan Gunter
Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of the series "The Great Oklahoma Road Trip," a look at the lesser-known " but worth a trip " spots across the state. Check back at the start of next month for the next installment.