Hungry for more climbs? Check out the rest of our summer summit scrambles here.
- Distance: 2.5 miles
- Time: 1 day
- Elevation gain: 600 feet
Rising above the plains of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, Elk Mountain is a popular, casual hike for families, who show up to ramble through the native grass plains and up to the 2,254-foot summit, spotting bison, elk, and (depending on the season) a riot of wildflowers, including yellow and red coreopsis, black-eyed Susans, and even purple barrel cactus, along the way.
But the more adventurous hikers don’t stop at the summit—they keep going. No, the mile-long scramble that gains 1,000 feet isn’t what makes this hike so exciting. Nor is it the 30-foot-tall, elevator-shaft entry into the belly of the Wichita Mountains. Rather, it’s the underground maze over and under boulders through the cave-like Rock Rooms, a tangle of boulders that has hikers belly-crawling, stemming, and occasionally dropping and jumping through a canyon-like obstacle course. These spaces aren’t true caves, which are formed by the chemical reaction of water or in solidifying lava, just a network of empty space created by boulders flaking off Elk Mountain’s steep, rocky sides. But when you’re navigating their dark passages, you may not be able to tell the difference.
Hiking Elk Mountain
You’ll begin this 2.5-mile loop on the Elk Mountain Trail, starting at the Sunset Picnic Area and navigating 1.1 miles over scree to the mountaintop. Tag the summit, basking in views of the oak-dotted grasslands of Charon’s Garden below, then find the near-vertical entry into the Rock Rooms on the west side of the summit. Use ledges to maneuver down the narrow, boulder-clogged chute. (You’ll need a headlamp and should consider a helmet; some hikers bring a rope and harnesses, but we didn’t feel like we needed one.) Once at the bottom, follow the openings through the various Rock Rooms; one of the rooms holds water, so depending on conditions, you may end up with wet shoes and socks. Crawl through the final tunnel to reach daylight and Charon’s Garden Trail, which loops 1.5 miles back to the trailhead.
Keep Exploring: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
While settlers plowed over most of Oklahoma for farmland, the rugged terrain around the Wichita Mountains meant that farmers left this 59,000-acre stretch of prairie and mountain mostly alone. That’s paying off today, as the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge protects one of the last undisturbed stretches of mixed-grass prairie left in the state, providing prime habitat for both grazers and and predators like bobcats and coyotes, even the occasional visiting mountain lion. One of the best ways to get to know it: grab a backcountry permit for the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area and head out overnight. Start at the same trailhead as Elk Mountain and set out on the Charon’s Garden Trail; you’ll have to hike in at least 1.5 miles to reach the designated backcountry camping zone. Along the way, take a detour to visit Post Oak Waterfall, one of two small cascades that feeds the reserve’s Post Oak Creek and Lake.