Elk Mountain hike, Sunset Trailhead
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a family-friendly outdoor adventure in the Wichita Mountains: hiking Elk Mountain.
Lacking in that post were a few details and photos of what you can expect if you go there. So over the weekend, on a damp camping trip to the Wichitas, I decided to revisit this place and get a few more details for people who are interested in checking this place out.
First, a few facts about the trip. After two straight weeks of warm, windy and sunny days, Oklahoma got three straight days of cool temps, overcast skies and ever-present rain. So the photos will reflect that.
Second, a few facts about Elk Mountain. As you drive through the Wichitas, Elk Mountain is the first major landmark you see that marks the beginning of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness Area. It’s a broad, rocky plateau that has its mix of everything: Easy hiking, fun boulder-hopping and, for the more adventurous and skilled, technical rock climbing. For rock climbers, reaching Elk Mountain’s summit isn’t the goal. Instead, they prefer to scale its many vertical rock faces.
For those looking for views, wildlife and a summit view without having to dangle from threadbare handholds, the hike from the Sunset Trailhead is the way to go.
Fortunately, the rain held out much of Friday evening during the hike. The trailhead starts at Elk’s northwest side, then works its way east, then south to the top.
After crossing a small metal bridge, you’ll hike up to a small dam and a stone staircase leading into the middle portions of the route. The trail can be a bit rocky in places, but for the most part it’s pretty easy hiking (Class 1 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being technical rock climbing with ropes) and a steady, manageable incline. The trail itself is well-maintained. Some people use the route for trail running.
I’ll confess to having never been to the Wichitas in the spring. Every other season, sure. But not spring. I’ve been missing out.
The range is always colorful, but most of the greens are reserved for the cedars or the faint hues of dried-out grasses and thirsty pin oaks.
Not so in the spring. During this season, the trees and grasses are lush with different shades of green. Soon, flowers will begin blooming all over the range. This was just beginning last weekend. Given the gray skies and moist air, I could almost picture the Wichitas being somewhere in Ireland or Scotland rather than southwest Oklahoma.
Closer to the top, the landscape opens up as the trees and brush give way to grasses, rocks and open sky. After ascending to within the final hundred feet to the top, the trail turns south and ends on the mountain’s flat summit.
With less vegetation around, hawks riding the currents came into view, hovering over open ground looking for their next meal. Ah, the circle of life in action.
The reward here is an excellent view of Mount Lincoln to the south and the boulder field directly below. All around you, boulders litter Elk Mountain’s flat top. Many of these are huge, bigger than houses. This view gives hikers a glance into Charon’s Garden’s wild heart.
It was pretty windy on top. So after a few minutes of snapping pictures and enjoying the views, it was time to head down. It was here that a minor problem developed. There’s a lot of little side trails and game trails that lead to nowhere, and for those not familiar with the route, it can be a bit confusing finding your way back down. Hint: If all else fails, point yourself opposite of Mount Lincoln (north) and go that way until you pick up the trail. Don’t ask me how I came to that piece of sage advice.
This is about a two-mile round-trip hike. Most people, even those not in top physical condition, can handle the trail, though the rockier parts might be ankle-busters to the unwary.
Those planning more aggressive forays into the Wichitas should consider using this as a warm-up hike. And for others looking for some great natural scenery in a thoroughly accessible way, the Elk Mountain Trail from Sunset is a great choice.
The next installment will detail a different, much more rigorous route to the south: The boulder field through-hike.