Take a look at the map and you won’t see many wild places left in Oklahoma.
Sure, there’s plenty of rural places. Remote, even. But wild? Not really.
Despite the abundance of wildlife — deer, coyotes, gamefowl and even bear — the fact is that just about any place in the state is accessible by road or trail. Most of it is privately owned. If you want to find a truly wild place, it takes some doing.
One of those spots is in the far western reaches of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area, with only a couple of lonely trails going through it. Where the main trail ends is where Oklahoma’s most remote peak — Mount Mitchell — begins.
Rugged and remote
The Wichitas boast a number of small granite peaks, some more famous or prominent than others. You can drive to the top of Mount Scott, the range’s monarch that overlooks Lawton. Elk Mountain is a popular hiking destination. Several others are accessible through various trail loops.
Mount Mitchell is another story. A large topographical map at the refuge’s visitor center doesn’t include it among the refuge’s named peaks, though its height rivals that of nearby Sunset Peak and Granite Mountain (Mount Mitchell is a somewhat unofficial name). There are no trails leading to its summit. And approaching the mountain requires off-trail bushwhacking that is a bit beyond what most casual hikers are ready to commit to.
I first saw this peak last year on a hike/climb of Crab Eyes, a curious formation that stands guard over Styx Canyon. My hiking buddy, Johnny Hunter, looked toward the mountain and said, simply, “Now that looks rugged.”
Months later, while doing some research on the Wichitas, I ran into a write-up on summitpost.org that described the mountain. Among its features: numerous Class 3 and 4 routes on its west ridge and Class 5 climbing on its north face.
An infatuation was born.
There are places to climb in Oklahoma, and we have some mountains. But few Oklahoma mountains exist that cannot be hiked. I wanted more. Mount Mitchell offered. There was no hiking up this one. You had to climb it.
Johnny and his sister, Ouida Plumlee, went with me on this one. Both have hiked a lot in the Wichitas, but never to Mitchell. We could have gone there more easily had we stayed on Prospector Trail, but we took a detour to Crab Eyes, then bushwhacked off-trail through Styx Canyon. If you like difficult, off-trail terrain, the canyon’s thick woods, briars and boulders will reward you. Otherwise, stick to the trail and steer clear of this scenic but rugged canyon.
Eventually, we exited the canyon and hit flatter ground that met up with the main trail. But we couldn’t stay there long. The mountain was just past a small, rocky ridge and some thick woods and underbrush. A few minutes of navigating that tangle brought us to the foot of the mountain.
What little information on the mountain I found said it has Class 3 and 4 routes along its west ridge. Its north face was mostly Class 5, which would require use of ropes and other climbing gear. We picked a ravine on the northwest side of the peak to begin the ascent.
The trickiest climbing started just above the base. We scrambled up some boulders, but finding no real “footing,” we had to resort to some low-grade bouldering, searching for handholds and footholds on the rocks and slabs that littered the ravine. The rock was solid and grippy.
(One note here on exposure: For the most part, you can avoid large, vertical dropoffs. But clinging to the rocks and navigating the traverses leaves you exposed to shorter but equally dangerous falls back into other rocks below or into narrow crevasses that can be up to 30 feet deep.)
Once we got into the heart of ravine, the climbing got easier, with only a few Class 3 moves needed before heading west on a mildly exposed ledge that led toward the summit ridge.
From here, there was a choice of routes leading to the western highpoint of the mountain. I purposely looked for some of the more difficult routes, but nothing too scary. Soon, however, the true summit came into view, still about 50 vertical feet above us.
From here, you have three choices. First, go back west and take an easy walk-up route to the summit block, where just a couple of boulder scrambles are needed to attain the summit. Second, you can go east, then find a deep crack in the rock and go through that for a more direct route to the top. Third, keep going west and climb up to a narrow, downward-sloped and highly exposed ledge that circles up toward the top. I took the second option, a nice compromise between the first and the third.
The crack was narrow — too narrow to walk through normally. So I ditched my pack there and slipped in sideways, shuffling about 50 feet until I hit a 15- to 20-foot Class 4 chimney that went straight up. Thankfully, the rock had good holds. I had to do my best Spiderman impression to get up the walls, and there’s a small boulder wedged in the crack that is not stable. But a short bit of fun climbing there gave me access to the summit block.
It was a breezy day, and at the summit the winds were quite strong. Despite that, the views begged us to linger. To the east, we could see Granite Mountain. North was Sunset Peak. Slightly northeast, we could make out Crab Eyes, Mount Lincoln and the broad plateau of Elk Mountain. A westward glance gives you views of the Quartz Mountains and the plains beyond.
Ouida’s knees weren’t feeling so swift, so she opted to stay off the peak. Johnny and I hoped to find an easier route down than the one we chose to ascend.
We failed miserably.
Johnny decided to scout what looked like gentler slopes to the east. I had to go back west to retrieve my pack. So that meant downclimbing the chimney, sliding through the split and emerging from the other side. I hoped to take a shortcut to meet Johnny on the east side, but quickly cliffed out. Luckily, I was able to reverse direction and climb out of the mess I was in and eventually meet back up with Johnny 15 minutes later.
Everything further east from where we ascended looked too steep to descend without rappelling down. We didn’t plan to do any technical Class 5 stuff, so we didn’t bring equipment for a rappel. Eventually we found a different, but more difficult ravine for our descent. Included in that was an interesting chimney climb down that eventually led to easier ground and an exit off this complicated and wild mountain.
Like most of the Wichitas, there are plenty of opportunities to test your climbing abilities here. The refuge is filled with highly technical routes for climbers more seasoned than me. But many of those places have plenty of easier hiking for those not wanting to climb. Mount Mitchell is not one of those places. For that, I’m grateful.
How to get there: Take State Highway 49 into the refuge. Drive west until you get to the access road that takes you to Elk Mountain’s western parking lot. Hike 3.5 miles southwest on Prospector Trail through the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. Once you’re clear of the neighboring ridges, hike off-trail toward the mountain.
Route classifications: Class 1 is easy to moderate hiking; Class 2 is difficult or off-trail hiking; Class 3 is scrambling (hands needed to ascend); Class 4 is climbing, with some preferring to use rope; Class 5 is technical climbing where rope and other safety equipment is needed.