If you head to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and want a longer hike that embraces the spring, you should definitely hit the Bison trail. Read on for why we loved it!
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Since this was our last hike in Oklahoma for a while, we wanted to do a long hike where we could see as much as possible on one trail. So we went with the Bison trail. It’s one of the longest trails in the wildlife refuge, and one of few that’s a loop. I always prefer loops because you see so much more scenery!
It was also our first hike since the weather had turned springlike, and it was glorious to be see fields of green grass (something not seen much in southwest Oklahoma). Even the drive into the park felt like watching spring unfold amongst the red rocks.
The Bison trail shares a trailhead with the Elk & Longhorn trails, so the first and last bits may look familiar. We started by taking the left (east)side of the loop. Just look for the bison icon on the trail markers and pass the French lake dam on your way.
Probably also because of spring, we saw a ton more animals than usual! In our 6-8 previous visits, we’d only seen bison once – a single adult from a great distance. This visit we saw at least 50! Several wandering alone, a few small groups along the creek, and a large herd was grazing right off the main road. They’re always bigger in person than I expect, and surprisingly majestic for such an ungainly looking animal. Longhorns are a common sight year round, but we’d never encountered them this close. They seem used to hikers and didn’t have much interest in us, except one calf. We always gave them a wide berth, especially since we had our dog with us, and had no problems.
I recently learned that the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge was key in repopulating the West with American Bison. In the early 1900’s about twenty bison were re-introduced to the area from the New York Zoo (they’d been completely wiped out of the southwest at that point) and now have a thriving herd in the park!
The first half of the trail follows the stream (river?) off French lake. You can see the Kite trail across the river, and we had a cool view of where some hikers had set up their rappelling gear into the Forty Foot Hole (yes, that’s the name. #OklahomaLife.)
About 60% of the way through the hike, the trail takes an abrupt right turn away from the water. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss it – like most Oklahoma trails, they’re not well-marked. We did miss it and bushwhacked back to pick up the trail! If you hit a creek coming off the main river (or more likely, a dry creek bed), you’ve gone too far.
The second half of the trail is more rocky, going up and down hills and eventually following another dry creek bed. We came across a few bones – bison or longhorn, we weren’t sure – giving another visual of just how big these animals are.
For a six-mile trail, it’s not mountainous the way many of the wildlife refuge trails tend to be. We still finished the Bison trail (complete with a detour off-trail) in about 3 hours. Make sure to bring plenty of water; it can get hot even in temperate months.
The Bison trail may be my favorite of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge’s trails. I love the feeling of accomplishment after hiking a decently long trail. It was a great way to say goodbye to Oklahoma!