As I top the ridge, I look out over miles of hills laid out like a patchwork quilt. Splashes of gold and red leaves sparkle amid pines that stretch to meet the cloudless sky.
My only company is a soaring red-tailed hawk. Now I can understand why nineteenth-century outlaws like Jesse James and the "Bandit Queen" Belle Starr came to Robbers Cave.
Robbers Cave State Park, hidden in the San Bois Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma, is the state's second-largest park at 8,246 acres. Within its borders is a 12-mile network of trails that weave around dozens of caves and three crystal-clear lakes.
Secluded, primitive camping sites lie on the perimeter of the park, where an additional 25 miles of trails lead into Robbers Cave Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
Footpaths in the adjoining wildlife management area follow old forest roads, creek beds, and-some say-trails once used by notorious bandits trying to hide from federal marshals. While WMA trails are open to equestrians, I have rarely seen horses on my numerous trips there.
Most people visit Robbers Cave for its namesake sandstone caverns. But spelunking is just one attraction, and you can avoid the crowds by hitting the trails that wind through canyons and gorges created eons ago by Fourche Maline Creek.
You'll get quite a workout as the trails take you up, down, then up again. Fortunately, the area's temperate climate makes anytime the right time for backpackers. Even in the heat of an Oklahoma summer, you'll often travel under a shady canopy of hickory, sycamore, and oak trees.
Wildlife includes white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. Bird lovers can look and listen for more than 54 species that inhabit the area. I have often found myself hiking to the rhythmic tapping of a woodpecker on the hardwood trees, or stopping to listen to the hissing of a barn owl at dusk.
The colorful history of Robbers Cave attracts visitors interested in history and hoping to discover a little treasure. But get away from the crowds that flock to the caves, and you'll find that natural beauty is the real reward here.
ROAD TRIP: Robbers Cave is 200 miles northeast of Dallas, 169 miles east of Oklahoma City, and 131 miles south of Tulsa.
THE WAY: From Oklahoma City, take US 40 east for 87 miles, then go south on Indian Nation Turnpike for 35 miles. Head east on US 270 for 35 miles. Robbers Cave State Park is 4 miles north of Wilburton on OK 2 in southeastern Oklahoma.
TRAILS: There are 12 miles of interlocking trail in the park, plus 25 miles of trail in the adjoining wildlife management area, which is closed during hunting season (generally late November and early December). Primitive camping sites are always available on the edges of the state park (see Contact information below).
ELEVATION: The low point is 300; the high point is 1,500 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Dozens of sandstone caves, ranging from small crevices to 40-foot-long tunnels you can walk into.
CROWD CONTROL: Avoid annual events like the Labor Day Trail Riders Event and the Fall Festival, held the third weekend in October.
PIT STOP: In nearby Krebs, visit the Italian stores and restaurants. Loveras's Family Grocery sells homemade caciocavello.
WALK SOFTLY: Always check with rangers on the fire danger and use extreme caution with campfires.
GUIDES: Free maps are available at the Robbers Cave State Park office (see Contact below).
CONTACT: Robbers Cave State Park, (918) 465-2565. Also, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, (918) 297-0153.