Quirky (in a Good Way) Northwestern Oklahoma
After a wicked thunderstorm Wednesday night, Thursday morning at Black Mesa State Park dawned bright and sunny. I crawled out of my truck at 7 a.m. and ate breakfast under a gnarly old tree, then walked around the campground a bit. I’ve only been to two State Parks in Oklahoma so far, this one and Lake Thunderbird near OKC with its Restroom from Hell, and from what I’ve seen, I’d rate the Oklahoma State Parks system as just so-so. From my many road trips around the country, I’d say that Oregon and Minnesota have the best State Parks, while the southeastern states generally have the worst, typically with poorly-maintained facilities and big, scary spiders in the showers. But I’ll evaluate them as I travel around the country more and will post a webpage that ranks State Parks in the U.S., so stay tuned. It's been 15 years since I've camped in the southeast, so maybe things there have improved.
Above: I spent the morning in northwestern Oklahoma, visiting all kinds of quirky things. Then I drove into New Mexico and stopped at Capulin Volcano National Monument for an hour. From there I headed north to Colorado, where I finally found a campsite at San Luis State Park near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
I wasn't expecting too much of northwestern Oklahoma but it turned out to be surprisingly interesting. As I was driving out of Black Mesa State Park, I saw an interpretive sign next to petrified trees that were, according to the sign, several million years old (some religious zealot had crossed out the term “several million years old” on the sign), which I thought was pretty cool. And on the park’s bulletin board, they posted directions to the highest point in Oklahoma, on Black Mesa, just a few miles away. They also posted directions to the tri-state marker just a few miles beyond that, where the boundaries of Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico meet. Being the Extreme Geographer, I definitely wanted to check out both. In fact, the tri-state marker was the whole reason I came out all the way out here.
My first stop was Black Mesa, about 20 minutes away down a narrow county road. At 4,973’ – just a shade short of a full mile – Black Mesa is the highest point in Oklahoma. I parked in the gravel parking lot, hoping it would be a quick trip up to the top and back, but no luck. It’s actually a 4.2-mile hike one-way to top of the mesa, so I decided to forego the hike and instead took some pictures from the parking lot. Maybe someday but not today, because I had to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado that evening, where I hoped to camp.
I got back in the truck and continued down the county road for about a mile until I hit the Colorado border, then following the directions posted at the bulletin board, I headed west, still in Oklahoma, down a dirt road. Sure enough, at the second cattle guard I spotted a stone marker to my right so I pulled over and took a look. Yep, it was the tri-state marker: Oklahoma to the east, New Mexico to the west and Colorado to the north. I’ve been to the Four Corners marker (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado) once, which marks the only place in the U.S. where four states converge, but I’d never seen a tri-state marker. They’re not as rare as you might imagine, though. Just for fun, several months ago I looked at a map of the U.S. and tallied up all the tri-state points and counted something like 42. I hope to visit at least a few more on this trip and, of course, I plan to re-visit Four Corners, as well.
It was a beautiful area and the tri-state marker itself is pretty impressive, so I took a panorama picture of the whole scene. Just as I finished, a pickup truck pulled up near me and a mustachioed fellow got out and hitched a nearby trailer, which I surmised was a water wagon, to his truck. We started talking and he told me his name was Justin and was a rancher nearby, and he introduced me to his two young daughters who were riding along with him. I told him about my Extreme Geography road trip and gave him one of my cards. “My wife uses the Internet a lot, so I’m sure she’ll check it out,” he said. After we talked for a few more minutes, he said goodbye and the three of them climbed back in the pickup and left.
Along with the petrified trees, the highest point in Oklahoma, and the tri-state marker, there was one more site I wanted to check out here in the quirky northwestern corner of Oklahoma. According to the bulletin board back at the park, there was a set of petrified dinosaur tracks about a mile away and I wanted to see them, since I’ve never seen dinosaur tracks before. I’ve seen petrified bones and skeletons, of course, but never petrified tracks.
I followed the instructions from the bulletin board (I’d snapped a picture of it with my Canon DSLR), driving down a dirt road to the end, then I got out and walked down to the dry river bed, just as the instructions had said. And there, in the middle of the river bed, was a set of nine huge, round footprints, each several inches deep. Millions of years ago (despite what the religious zealot at Black Mesa wanted me to believe), a dinosaur had walked here in the mud, then the mud was quickly covered up, hardened, and eventually petrified. Over time, everything else was eroded away leaving the footprints in stone. It was really amazing, I thought, to walk exactly where a dinosaur once had a hundred million years ago.
So considering all the fascinating things I’d seen in the past hour, I’d say this area of the Oklahoma panhandle was pretty darn terrific for anyone interested in old stuff (dinosaurs, petrified trees), high stuff (Black Mesa) and extreme stuff (the tri-state marker). Perhaps that’s why the campground was so crowded last night – though I doubt many folks came all the way out here to northwestern OK just to see the tri-state marker, like I had.
No Room at the Inn
It was now noon so I said goodbye to the dinosaur, got back in my truck and hit the road. After I got back on Highway 325, I headed west through the nearby town of Kenton, which is the westernmost town in Oklahoma (one more point of interest out here), then crossed into New Mexico a few miles further on. From there I headed south and reached the town of Clayton an hour later, where I fueled up at a Love’s and got ice and a big Diet Pepsi, then it was back in the truck and on to Capulin Volcano National Monument, a few miles up the road.
I’d been to Capulin once before, about 20 years ago during another major road trip. And while I recalled it not being too spectacular, it was right by the highway so it was well worth another visit, I figured.
The Capulin volcano is a large cinder cone that erupted about 60,000 years ago, relatively recently in geologic time. There’s only one road in the park and it spirals around the volcano, all the way to the top. From there you can either hike around the rim or down into the crater, and on this visit I chose the rim. It was a nice 30-minute hike and provided spectacular views of northeastern New Mexico. There’s not much else to do here at Capulin, and there’s no campground to stay at, so most people who visit the park spend only an hour or so and then drive on, myself included.
I crossed into Colorado on Interstate 25 an hour later, then headed over the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains, dropping into the San Luis Valley, which in the winter time is one of the coldest places in the country. It was now about 6 p.m. and I wanted to find a campsite, so I headed north to Great Sand Dunes National Park, figuring I could find a site there since it was a Thursday night in early June and shouldn’t be too crowded. I had driven through this area several times when I was a ranger working in nearby Lake City back in the 1980s, but for some reason, I'd never stopped at Great Sand Dunes National Park so I didn't know anything about it – other than it apparently had some great sand dunes. Yep, I'm pretty smart.
I drove up to the kiosk at the park entrance, braked to a stop and showed the ranger my National Park pass, then inquired about the campground. “Sorry, the campground’s full. Normally in early June it doesn’t fill up, but this year it’s been filling every night for some reason. You might want to try the small BLM campground at Zapata Falls or the San Luis State Park nearby.” I thanked her, turned the truck around and in the dwindling light, headed off to San Luis State Park, about 10 miles away.
Boy, was that a mistake. The park looked pretty plain and miserable, so I decided to try Zapata Falls campground, about 10 miles in the opposite direction. And boy was that a mistake. By the stream of cars headed towards me on the dirt road, I could tell that Zapata Falls was filled, so I turned around one more time and decided to stay at San Luis State Park, figuring I’d be able to find something there since it had over 50 campsites.
It was a pretty drab campground, perched high on the sagebrush plains, very exposed with little vegetation, and quite windy. And to top it off, the campground was filled with mosquitoes. But even with all this going for it (har, har), for some reason the campground was also nearly full. I found what appeared to be an empty campsite, though, and in the growing darkness, set up my camp and started making dinner (i.e., taking some fried chicken out of the cooler).
Twenty minutes later, a car pulled into my campsite and two young women got out. “I’m sorry, but I’ve reserved this campsite for tonight,” the driver said. And then we looked at the post by the campsite and, in tiny letters, a park ranger had indicated that, sure enough, the campsite was reserved that night. By now, after dealing with the situation at Great Sand Dunes, and then here at San Luis State Park, then Zapata Falls, and then back here and now this, I was pretty frustrated and frazzled. About half of the campsites in the campground seemed to be vacant, but apparently you’re supposed to read the inscription on each post to see if the campsite was reserved or not.
So after throwing everything back in my truck and pulling out of the campsite, I walked around the campground with my flashlight, searching for a site that was marked “vacant.” I finally found one, sort of, so in the darkness I dragged out my stuff one more time and ate dinner (fried chicken from the cooler again) by the light of my candle lantern. It was a really windy night, but despite that, the mosquitoes were out in full force. Gee, what a great evening this had been.
Searching for a campsite here in the San Luis Valley this evening had turned out to be the worst camping experience of my trip so far, and one of the worst in recent memory. I kept scratching my head as I ate dinner, wondering why this campground would be filled – either this night or any night – since this park had no apparent redeeming qualities. “Why would anyone want to camp here?” I asked myself, unless like me, they were all refugees from the full campground at Great Sand Dunes. Finally with a sigh, I called it a night, crawled into the back of my truck, turned off the light and went to sleep.
New Mexico and Southern Colorado