Looking for the best Oklahoma national parks? Historic battlefields, pristine memorials, prairies, recreation areas, grasslands, and more.
Oklahoma National Parks
Oklahoma National Parks! They’re worth singing about. Remember the lyrics to that wonderful old musical by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein?
They go like this: “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet. When the wind comes right behind the rain. Oklahoma, Ev’ry night my honey lamb and I Sit alone and talk and watch a hawk Makin’ lazy circles in the sky.”
From a state rich in history to a state blessed with natural wonders, Oklahoma is a place to sing about. It’s also a place to explore. I am excited to share some of the best places to visit in the state of Oklahoma. Here’s our list of 7+ Oklahoma national parks.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!
1. Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Activities: boating, skiing, sailing, fishing, swimming, hiking, camping.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area is Oklahoma’s oldest national park area. Here’s a little history. In 1902, the U.S. Government purchased 640 acres from the Chickasaw Nation to protect the mineral and freshwater springs.
In 1906, it was renamed Platt National Park at which time additional acreage was added. In 1976, Platt National Park and Arbuckle Recreation Area joined to form the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Today this beautiful national park is a lovely oasis of water, foliage and wildlife. It all comes together to create the perfect outdoor experience. The park is located in south-central Oklahoma.
If you enjoy a good hike there are more than 30 miles of trails for both novice and experienced hikers to enjoy. Newcomers to the park should begin their experience at the Travertine Nature Center. It’s the park’s main educational center.
It provides interactive learning opportunities, informational exhibits and other Ranger-led programs including guided hikes and educational tours on the flora and fauna found within the park.
2. Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge
*Deep Fork is technically not a national park site – managed by US Fish & Wildlife.
Established in 1993 to protect the rapidly disappearing bottomland hardwood forests of eastern Oklahoma, Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge is a truly breathtaking wilderness area.
It’s a 10,000 acre refuge, which offers a crucial resource for waterfowl migrating along the Central Flyway in the spring and fall. This beautiful bottomland hardwood forest features trees which include the black walnut, bur oak, cottonwood, hackberry, pecan, pin oak and river birch.
If you enjoy watching wildlife, four of the state’s species dwell here: alligator snapping turtle, Bell’s vireo, the northern scarlet snake and the river otter.
There are 254 bird species to be found on the refuge for at least part of the year. There are also 51 confirmed mammal species in the Deep Fork River basin. Okmulgee County is a great place to see wildlife as it is home to over 50 species of reptiles and 22 species of amphibians.
3. Oklahoma City National Memorial | Oklahoma National Parks
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This horrific bombing happened at 9:02 a.m. It killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others. The bomb destroyed more than one-third of the building, which then had to be demolished.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial is a memorial honoring the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were affected by this tragic event. It was authorized on October 9, 1997, by President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Oklahoma City National Memorial Act. The Memorial is located on NW 5th Street between N. Robinson Avenue and N. Harvey Avenue.
Visitors are encouraged to check out the Memorial Museum. It’s an interactive learning experience. It takes visitors on self-guided tours through the story of those who were killed, those who survived and those whose lives were changed forever.
The Museum includes 35 interactive exhibits as well as hundreds of hours of video and artifacts to show visitors each personal detail. Admission fees help to maintain the Memorial.
4. Santa Fe National Historic Trail | Oklahoma National Parks
Westward Ho! Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was a highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The route was originally pioneered by Missouri trader William Becknell.
Once Bucknell showed how it was done, others decided to follow. By 1825, goods from Missouri were being traded in Santa Fe, as well as other points farther south.
There were two major routes. Some used the Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water, but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Others took the Cimarron Route. It was shorter and faster, but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located. It you ran out of water then you weren’t likely to survive the journey.
Now here’s an interesting fact. During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army actually followed the Santa Fe Trail westward to successfully invade Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended this war in 1848.
Afterward, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.
The Santa Fe Trail Today
Today the Santa Fe National Historic Trail extends between western Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the way, there are museums, historic sites, landmarks, and original trail segments located all along the length of this historic trail.
There’s a wonderful book filled with amazing stories about life on the legendary Santa Fe Trail. Written by David Dary, it’s titled The Santa Fe Trail: Its History, Legends, and Lore.
If you’re planning a trip then I would recommend that you definitely see the following five sights:
Rabbit Ears Mountain served as a vital landmark for Santa Fe Trail travelers on the Cimarron Route.
Santa Clara Cemetery was a landmark for covered wagon trains and traders going up and down the Santa Fe Trail. It’s now the Wagon Mound National Historic Landmark.
Starvation Peak is a butte that sits at over 7,000 feet, located along Interstate 25 between the town of Pecos and Las Vegas.
Raton Pass which was one of the segments of the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. It cut through the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, allowing wagons access to the vast western territory.
Santa Fe Spring which was an important water source for Santa Fe Trail travelers heading West.
You may want to do some research before you go, however, as there are other amazing historical and natural sites that you may find to be of particular interest to you.
5. Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
As a former history teacher, I believe no study of American history is complete without an understanding of the Trail of Tears. This history lesson begins in 1830. It was in that year that Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.
This infamous piece of legislation forced various Native American tribes to relinquish their lands in exchange for federal territory.
Most of the major tribes – the Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws – agreed to be relocated to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma).
As the National Park Service reports, “U.S. Army troops, along with various state militia, moved into the tribe’s homelands and forcibly evicted more than 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia.”
“The impact of the resulting Cherokee “Trail of Tears” was devastating. More than a thousand Cherokee – particularly the old, the young, and the infirm – died during their trip west, hundreds more deserted from the detachments, and an unknown number – perhaps several thousand – perished from the consequences of the forced migration.
The tragic relocation was completed by the end of March 1839, and resettlement of tribal members in Oklahoma began soon afterward.” (Source: National Park Service)
The Trail Of Tears Today
This incredible trail stretches 5,043 miles across nine states. You can follow the trail on foot, by vehicle, over water, by bicycle or by horse. Along the way, you will see sacred sites which tell the story of death and suffering as well as survival.
While in Oklahoma, check out the Cherokee Heritage Center. It’s on 44 heavily wooded acres in the Oklahoma foothills of the Ozark Mountains. The Center honors the rich Cherokee history and culture. It includes a fascinating exhibit on the Trail of Tears among other informative displays.
6. Washita Battlefield National Historic Site | National Parks In Oklahoma
On November 27, 1868, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his famed 7th US Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack on a Cheyenne village. In his military dispatches, Custer referred to it as the Battle of Washita.
The strike was hailed by the military as a significant victory aimed at reducing Indian raids on frontier settlements as it forced the Cheyenne back to the reservation set aside for them.
For a long time it was seen as a glorious victory for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer against Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne Nation. Instead of winning against Cheyenne soldiers, however, Custer and his troops reportedly massacred more than a hundred people, including Chief Black Kettle and his wife.
From the numbers of women and children who were senselessly slaughtered at the site, it has since been determined to have been not a battle, but a massacre.
The Dust & Fire Trail
Visitors can learn about this time in history at the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Roger Mills County. There is a one and a half mile trail which is self guided with many brochure stops along the way.
There’s also a shorter Dust & Fire Trail. While walking it, you can learn about life on the prairie. Visitors can also explore flora, fauna, a dugout house, and a working windmill.
If you’ve never been there before then I would highly recommend starting your visit at the visitor center. It provides interactive and educational experiences including a 27-minute park film called Destiny at Dawn.
The film describes the engagement which happened on the site and the events leading up to it. There’s also a museum providing views of the Washita River Valley, which includes the Western National Parks Association Bookstore.
Little Big Man
If you’re a film buff, there’s a 1970 western movie titled, “Little Big Man.” It’s based on the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger of the same name. It’s the story of a white man who was raised by members of the Cheyenne nation during the 19th century.
The film is sympathetic in its treatment of Native Americans. The main character of this story incredibly survived both the Washita Massacre and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Of course, remember that it’s fiction.
The film depicts the surprise attack made by Custer’s 7th Calvary on the Native American village at Washita.
Actual filming locations for Little Big Man included: Virginia City, Billings, Alberta and Calgary Canada, on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, the Montana, Crow Agency, Montana, Nevada City, Montana, the Crow Indian Reservation in Hardin, Little Big Horn River, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Los Angeles, California and Thousand Oaks, California.
National Parks In The Movies
To learn about so many other films which were made in our national parks, check out this article where you can learn about twenty-five other movies featuring some amazing national parks and forests.
List of Oklahoma National Park Sites
- Chickasaw National Recreation Area
- Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge
- Oklahoma City National Memorial
- Santa Fe National Historic Trail
- Trail Of Tears National Historic Trail
- Washita Battlefield National Historic Site
Map of Oklahoma National Parks
What About National Parks In Television Shows?
Check Out Our Comprehensive Guide
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some amazing places to visit in Oklahoma. If you’re interested in learning more about our national parks please check out our comprehensive guide to all 63 of them.