The vast plain shines almost painfully bright in the Oklahoma summer sun. Instead of waving wheat or rows of corn, the land is the shocking white of salt.
In this salt plain are selenite crystals filled with what looks like an hourglass of sand that can be found nowhere else in the world. I came to the Great Salt Plains State Park in northern Oklahoma to find these treasures. Located near Jet, the salt plains and the Great Salt Plains Lake are throwbacks to when Oklahoma was covered by a shallow ocean millions of years ago. The area where I was digging for the rare hourglass selenite crystals is one of the most unique places to visit in the Red Dirt State.
It’s also a perfect example of surprising things you can experience in Oklahoma. Home to 11 distinct ecosystems ranging from mountains to tallgrass prairie, Oklahoma has a rich Native American history, a unique culinary scene, and more miles of Route 66 than any other state.
If you’re planning an Oklahoma getaway, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Here are 10 surprising things you can (and should) experience in Oklahoma.
1. Oklahoma Has More Shoreline Than The Eastern Seaboard
You heard that right. Oklahoma has more shoreline than the entire Eastern seaboard, and just because Oklahoma is a land-locked state doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the boating, fishing, and watersports on the more than 200 lakes and one million surface acres of water.
Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City is considered one of the best sailing lakes in the United States. Weekend sailboat races are held from April to October, and the lake has some of the best views of Oklahoma sunsets.
Broken Bow Lake at Beavers Bend State Park in southeastern Oklahoma are tucked within the Ouachita National Forest, and the lake is a favorite for boating, swimming, kayaking, fly-fishing, and even scuba diving. Because this is one of the most popular state parks in the state, you’ll have to book six to eight months in advance for summer weekend and holiday cabin rentals, but if you choose to visit in October or November, you’ll get a discounted rate. Plus, the fall months display the most beautiful autumn foliage you’ll ever see.
2. Visit The Second Largest Elephant Herd In The U.S.
While you’re in southeast Oklahoma, stop by the Endangered Ark Foundation near Hugo. This is a private non-profit dedicated to caring for and ensuring the future of Asian elephants. Home to the second-largest Asian elephant herd in North America, the Ark is also a retirement ranch for circus elephants. You can book a private encounter, but public tours are held on Fridays, Saturdays, and most Sundays.
Hugo itself is a fun and quirky town in Oklahoma and is home to the Mount Olivet Cemetery, a cemetery dedicated to the nation’s rodeo greats. The cemetery also has a special Showmen’s Rest section where circus performers and owners are buried under circus-themed headstones. Guided tours are available upon request.
3. Go Whitewater Rafting In Downtown Oklahoma City
With the help of your rafting guide, you can take on Class II to IV whitewater rafting at Oklahoma City’s $45.2 million man-made whitewater rafting and kayaking center along the Oklahoma River.
You’ll need to buy a RIVERSPORT Pass, which affords you access to all of the RIVERSPORT activities. While the rafting is certainly adrenaline-filled, the water itself is actually less than eight feet deep, so if you fall out of the raft, you’ll be okay. Just stand up.
For more Oklahoma City-specific inspiration, consider these 14 fantastic things to do in OKC.
4. Witness The World’s Largest Noodling Competition
Ever heard of noodling? It’s a style of hand fishing in which participants use their bare hands to reach into a hole in a muddy riverbank to snag giant catfish. In June, more than 1,000 people show up to the Okie Noodling Tournament and Festival in Pauls Valley just south of Oklahoma City. The competition features food, crafts, the noodling tournament, and the coronation of the Okie Noodling Queen.
5. Explore One Of The Largest Gypsum Caves In The World
Out west in the town of Freedom is one of the largest gypsum caves in the entire world. The cave at Alabaster Caverns State Park is also the only gypsum show cave in North America, and you can take a daily guided tour between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on a nice, well-lit path with a park interpreter. The tour takes about an hour, and while it has a nice path with plenty of light, be sure you have proper footwear. There are another four wild caves you are allowed to go spelunking in (this requires a permit), but like all caves, they are dangerous and shouldn’t be explored by amateurs.
6. Delve Into Native American History And Art
Thousands of Native Americans were displaced to the state by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which resulted in the Trail of Tears. Today, the deeply held culture of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes can be experienced through events, museums, and art. Learn about tribes at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah; the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center in Spiro, which displays the burial mounds of an ancient civilization; the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee; the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur; and dozens more.
Indulge in Native American art at Oklahoma’s top-notch museums, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, the Red Earth Art Center in Oklahoma City (which also hosts the Red Earth Festival in September), and others. A nice guide to Oklahoma’s Indian Country can be found here.
The Chickasaw-owned WinStar World Casino and Resort on the Oklahoma/Texas border on Interstate 35 is the world’s biggest casino. Seriously, the property’s 600,000 square feet make it the largest gaming center on the planet.
7. Go Stargazing At Black Mesa
Oklahoma’s panhandle has some of the darkest skies on publicly accessible land in the entire country. The Black Mesa State Park and Nature Preserve near Kenton is an eerie, beautifully desolate place that is rich in natural wonders including rare plants, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, black bears, and even mountain lions. A 4.2-mile trail leads to the highest point in Oklahoma, but while this trail starts out flat, it goes up 600 feet in elevation. Because the trail has little shade, the mornings are the best time to take the hike. No matter what time of year you go, if you’ll be out after dark, bring your telescope for some of the best stargazing in America.
8. Go Wild Where The Buffalo Roam
It’s a humbling experience to see bison roaming wild, and in Oklahoma, you’ll have plenty of chances to do just that. At the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Oklahoma, more than 650 of these massive creatures wander freely across the more than 59,000 acres, and you’ll also have a good chance to spot elk, white-tailed deer, and prairie dogs.
The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County is not only the largest remaining tallgrass prairie on earth but is home to hundreds of bison that you can see on a 15-mile driving loop through the preserve. Bison can be dangerous creatures, so don’t get too close. Be sure to stop in at the Pioneer Woman Mercantile in nearby Pawhuska, made famous by the Pioneer Woman herself, Ree Drummond.
9. Bigfoot And Vikings Go Together
Oklahoma has its fair share of legends, and like many places, it’s known to be a Bigfoot hotspot. In fact, one of the largest Bigfoot festivals and conventions in the nation, the Honobia Bigfoot Festival and Convention, is held in Honobia every October.
If Viking lore is more up your alley, then the Heavener Runestone Park will fascinate you. Located atop Poteau Mountain northeast of Heavener, the park is home to a large sandstone slab that was discovered in the 1800s with carvings that were reportedly made by Vikings. Others claim the runes were a hoax or were carved by a Scandinavian in the early 1700s. Personally, I like to think the Vikings explored this area well before Columbus set foot in America. The park also hosts the Heavener Runestone Festival every April, which includes Viking reenactors, music, Viking games, and ax throwing.
10. Journey To The Center Of The Universe
In Tulsa, you can experience a weird anomaly of physics at the so-called Center of the Universe, located on a pedestrian bridge near Archer Street and S Boston Avenue in Tulsa. If you stand in the middle of the small concrete circle and make a noise, the sound inside the circle bounces back louder, but no one outside of the circle can hear you. This natural sonic distortion has been studied, but no consensus about its cause has ever been reached. It’s a pretty bizarre thing to experience. To find it, go directly northwest from the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Pro Tip: Always check the weather. Springtime is storm season, so the chances of thunderstorms and tornadoes are greater than normal. The summer can be extremely hot, and the winter months can produce bitter cold and ice storms. A little advanced planning should help!