Tulsa, OK: Horsethief Springs Loop

Catch some of the country's first flowers in Oklahoma's Ouachita Mountains. BY ERICA ZAZO
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Catch some of the country's first flowers in Oklahoma's Ouachita Mountains. BY ERICA ZAZO

Snow blankets many of the country’s wilds in March, but here in the Ouachitas, I trek through a different kind of white: trillium. I navigate around moss-covered boulders and past pockets of springtime blooms en route to Winding Stair Mountain, where I hit sensory overload. Ribbons of purple geranium and yellow violet decorate forested hills under a cloudless sky. Not bad for the first overnight of the season.

Trip stats
Distance: 12.8 miles
Time: 2 days

Turn-by-turn
From Cedar Lake

(1) Pick up the Horsethief Springs Trail and head 2.1 miles south.
(2) Take its west fork (flip the loop clockwise for a shorter first day) and continue south to a T-junction at mile 5.3.
(3) Take the Ouachita National Recreation Trail 1.4 miles east across Winding Stair Mountain to a fork (pass the hike’s namesake spring near mile 6.6).
(4) Hook up with the Horsethief Springs Trail again and descend to camp at mile 7.
(5) Continue 3.7 miles north to close the loop (cross Cedar Creek at miles 8.8 and 10.2; it can be ankle-deep in March).
(6) Retrace your steps 2.1 miles to your car.

Campsite
Limestone bluff (mile 7)

To camp near the midway point, park it in this pine-protected social site just west (hiker’s left) of the switchbacks off Winding Stair Mountain on the backend of the loop. Seasonal streams run near the trail, but top up at Horsethief Springs, the most reliable water on the route, .4 mile back. If the bluff is claimed, continue 1.7 miles to the spots near Cedar Creek.

Flora
Scan for March blooms like green trillium, purple wild geranium (pictured), and yellow violets growing trailside. By early summer, sunflowers, like asters and black-eyed Susans, hit their prime.

Horse thieves
In the post-Civil War 1800s, outlaws—including Jesse James and the Daltons—would hide out near the natural spring on Winding Stair Mountain and ambush passing travelers.

DO IT Trailhead 34.778854, -94.692436; 18 miles north of Big Cedar on Cedar Lake Rd. Season Year-round Permit Self-issue ($3/day) Custom map bit.do/BPmapHorseThief ($15) Contact fs.usda.gov/ouachita Trip data backpacker.com/horsethiefspring

Trail Facts

  • State: OK
  • City: Tulsa, OK
  • Distance: 12.8
  • Contact: www.fs.usda.gov/ouachita
  • Land Type: National Forest