So in the previous installment, I wrote about the Elk Mountain Trail hike from the Sunset Trailhead. An enjoyable, easy-going hike that’s just wild enough to be interesting.
From that same trailhead, entirely different adventures await. So on Day 2 of this little camping trip, the group I was with – a college group from my church, plus a few sponsors – decided to take a stab at the boulder field through-hike.
This requires a little strategy. We were camping at the Doris Campground, further east in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. We’d need to drive to get to Sunset, but would also have to park another vehicle at the trail’s end on the east end. This allowed us to hike through instead of having to do a circuit or simply go back the way we came. It was a good thing, because this is a more taxing trip than the previous day’s march up Elk Mountain.
At the trailhead, you turn right and head south below Elk Mountain’s west face. For awhile, the trail is easy hiking and simple to follow. There is a brief fork in the trail: If you go right and cross a creek, it will take you to Crab Eyes and toward Styx Canyon, Sunset Peak and Mount Mitchell. By going left, you’ll eventually start heading southeast into the boulder field.
The trail rises gently for awhile across easy terrain. To your left are the worn ramparts of Elk Mountain’s south face, prime rock climbing territory. To the right are some lesser ridges: sharply rising fins of stone that are, in their own right, fun scrambles that offer some pretty good views of the boulder field. As the trail continues, the gap between Elk Mountain and its neighboring ridges shrinks. The uphill climbing ends as you come face to face with your first real obstacle – the descent into the boulder field.
At this point, the hike turns into something more than just your average walk. Descending into the boulder field takes some boulder hopping and minor scrambling moves, making the route well past Class 1 (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being technical rock climbing). I’d rate is Class 2+ at this point. You’re not bouldering yet, but there are plenty of places where you’ll need to use your hands to either brace yourself or actually climb up, over or around large rocks.
Complicating matters was the weather. It rained the previous night, and didn’t quit all day. So many of the rocks were slick with moisture. Special care was needed to negotiate this section of the trip. A twisted ankle this deep into the canyon would not have been a good scene.
Once the initial descent ends, the route becomes easier. It’s somewhat steep and still rocky, but the obstacles of boulders have largely disappeared. At the floor of the canyon, the mess of massive slabs of rock, toppled from high above eons ago, create a series of chambers and shelters. Some of these “rock rooms” have some fun climbing available. Pick a shaft created by two huge boulders resting against each other and shimmy your way up to see what new, hidden rock chambers exist above. I’ve been down here before, and it is pretty fun to explore this part of the boulder field. But like anything else here, you need to be careful. Chances are, if you climb around these boulders you’re doing it in a free-climb environment, so make sure you don’t ascend into something where you can’t get back down. Just know your limits.
There’s still plenty of scenery here, even with the high walls of Elk Mountain and its neighbors rising to either side. First and foremost – the Apple and the Pear, two house-sized boulders that have an uncanny resemblance to the fruit they’re named after.
A little more scrambling and difficult hiking remained before the countryside opened up and more routine hiking resumed. After a wet winter and several days of steady rain, a babbling brook appears where in summer and fall, just a few stagnant pools usually exist. This stream would play a part in future sights that revealed themselves later on.
With the terrain opening up, lush meadows appeared, guarded, of course, by the steep granite walls of surrounding peaks and ridges. At this point, the hike was about two-thirds over, but more surprises awaited.
The trail ascends again into narrowing terrain which gets a bit rocky. It’s nothing like the actual boulder field, but the landscape and the weather make for a few tricky spots.
The route eventually runs down the middle of a small ravine, in the heart of which lies a small pool fed by the rain-swelled stream I mentioned earlier. On its east end, the granite-lined pool drops off, revealing a small waterfall. But at this point, the rock is worn smooth and steady rains made it quite slick. We chose to descend to the right of the waterfall. Despite my best efforts, I did slip once or twice, dunking both my feet into the water. Other than that, no problems.
A little more hiking led us to one of the more scenic detours of the trip. As we headed east, a spur trail jogged north over a small hill, then into yet another small, watery ravine. A little hiking and a small bit of scrambling led our group to another waterfall, but this one was significantly taller than the previous one we’d seen. About 40 feet high, this is a seasonal waterfall that only shows up during the spring, and only if there’s significant rain to feed it. We were fortunate to see it, one of the rare treats that the mostly arid Wichita Mountains offer the luckier hikers.
After that side trip, we continued on. Climbing up the last stretch, we reached Treasure Lake. We were able to get good views of the lake on a few higher rock outcrops overlooking the lake. Looking back west over the water, low-hanging clouds obscured the mountaintops and gave one of the most spectacular views of the day.
This was pretty much the end of the road on this hike, which goes somewhere just over three miles. I think most people can handle the hike, though it is more taxing than some of the other popular routes in the refuge. Special care needs to be taken when going into the boulder field, and when hiking with groups you’ll need to estimate the amount of time needed to complete it based on the physical capabilities of all your hikers, not just the strongest. A fit, avid hiker could do this in less than three hours. But others will take longer. If you’re doing this hike in summer, be sure to bring plenty of water and some snacks to munch on along the way.
The reward, however, is some pretty amazing scenery, challenging terrain and the quiet of wilderness – that is, the absence of man-made noises.
The boulder field hike illustrates what I love about the Wichitas. If you want an easy stroll with scenery, there are plenty of trails for that. If you want some of the gnarliest rock climbing this side of Yosemite, you can have that, too. And just about everything in between. The boulder field hike exists in that wonderful place somewhere between those extremes.