Amid the pandemic, people are headed to national parks in record numbers. While Oklahoma doesn’t have a National Park, the state does host seven sites run by the National Park Service.
“Day use has probably tripled for Chickasaw National Recreation Area since the pandemic started,” said Bill Wright, superintendent of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Oklahoma probably doesn’t come to mind when you think about the National Park Service. You’re most likely to think of The Grand Canyon, The Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Yosemite and many more national parks, which boast millions of visitors each year.
But, along with managing the nation's national parks, the National Park Service also manages several other sites — national recreation areas, national historic sites, national memorials and national historic trails — all of which are available to visit in Oklahoma.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many businesses shut down to slow the spread of the virus. So, many Oklahomans turned to the outdoors for recreation and entertainment.
Oklahoma is home to seven sites which are managed by the National Park Service, three of which have National Park Service staff members present and one of which is brand new to the list.
The Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur, Oklahoma
“From prehistoric times to the present, access to the combination of cool water, mineral springs, cool breezes, shade and wildlife has created at Chickasaw National Recreation Area an experience that sets it apart from the surrounding environment.” - National Park Service
Once known as Platt National Park, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area has been an officially protected area since 1902, before Oklahoma gained statehood. It is one of three sites that has on-site National Park Service staff members. The park is located near the Arbuckle Mountain range, one of the nation’s oldest mountain ranges. Structures in the park pay homage to work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps nearly 100 years ago.
Visitors can enjoy the following outdoor activities: boating, fishing, hiking, swimming, birding, horseback riding, camping, hunting and biking. The Travertine Nature Center, which offers the only indoor activity at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, is currently closed. Click here to see a full list of pandemic-related park closures.
The Fort Smith National Historic Site on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border
“From the establishment of the first Fort Smith on December 25, 1817, to the final days of Judge Isaac C. Parker's jurisdiction over Indian Territory in 1896, Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves almost 80 years of history. Explore life on the edge of Indian Territory through the stories of soldiers, the Trail of Tears, dangerous outlaws and the brave lawmen who pursued them.” - National Park Service
Fort Smith has been stationed on the east bank of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers for more than 200 years, but was largely abandoned after its initial seven years of operation. According to the National Park Service website, “the need to establish peace between the Osage and Cherokee led to the establishment of Fort Smith on the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers.”
Visitors can walk the grounds of Fort Smith which include the federal court house, Officer’s Gardens and the Commissary Building- which is the oldest standing structure on the grounds. The trails around the fort are known to provide great bird-watching opportunities.
The indoor areas of the Fort Smith park are closed due to COVID-19, but the grounds and surrounding trails remain open. Click here to see a full list of pandemic-related park closures.
John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma
“As we approach the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, this site will continue to serve as a national platform for Tulsans and others to learn from our past as we work toward healing and justice for the Tulsa community.” - G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma
The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park was added to the National Park Service roster in June 2020 as the 29th site in the African American Civil Rights Network, which is facilitated by the National Park Service. The park is located in the historic Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The site honors those who survived the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and Dr. John Hope Franklin, a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree and author of the bestselling book From Slavery to Freedom.
The African American Civil Rights Network features the people, places and events associated with the civil rights movement in the United States. It includes programs, buildings, and landscapes, such as the Freedom Riders National Monument in Alabama, The Lorraine Motel in Tennessee, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
The memorial was created, “to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever – in short, all who were touched directly or indirectly by the bombing,” according to the Memorial Museum website.
The museum and memorial honors the victims of an unprecedented attack of domestic terrorism on the morning of April 19, 1995. That day, 168 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.
The park is made up of the Memorial Museum and The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial. The Museum offers an in-depth look into the events leading up to the attack through to the aftermath. Outside, visitors can walk the grounds of the memorial, which include the Field of Empty Chairs, the Reflecting Pool and much more. For more information click here.
The Santa Fe National Historic Trail near Boise City, Oklahoma
The Santa Fe Trail spans five states and allowed for trading between the U.S. and Mexico from 1821 until 1846 when the Mexican-American War broke out. After the war, it became “a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.” - The National Park Service
From Santa Fe, New Mexico to Missouri, there are numerous sites associated with the Santa Fe Trail. The trail passes through Oklahoma’s panhandle, near Boise City, Oklahoma. There, the Cimarron Heritage Center is home to an exhibit about the Santa Fe Trail in Oklahoma. Approximately seven miles west and seven miles north of Boise City is Autograph Rock and Cold Springs Creek, a popular resting point for travelers.
Although these sites are on private property, they can be visited at certain times between May and September. According to the National Park Service website, interested visitors can contact the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City for permission and arrangements to visit the site.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail in Eastern Oklahoma
Nearly 200 years ago, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. “The Cherokee Heritage Center is designated by the National Park Service as the interpretive site for the western terminus of the Trail Of Tears for the Cherokees and other tribes forcibly removed to Oklahoma during the 1800's,” - Cherokee Heritage Center
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail spans thousands of miles weaving through nine states. Oklahoma has a limited amount of trail comparatively, because of its history as Indian Territory being the final destination.
The Cherokee Heritage Center is located in the heart of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but is closed due to COVID-19. For a list of other sites associated with the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, click here.
The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Cheyenne, Oklahoma
“Ancient hills of red dirt rim the horizons. This peaceful setting offers us hallowed ground to contemplate this watershed event in our shared history, a place to find understanding, meaning, and perhaps healing in the wake of tragedy.” - National Park Service
Though the site is classified as a battlefield, it is where “the attack by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th U.S. Cavalry on the Cheyenne encampment of Peace Chief Black Kettle” took place, according to the National Park Service website.
The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site has a visitor center, where a 27-minute film is shown. After the film visitors can explore the museum and touch tables, where guests can explore items that were familiar to the Cheyenne and U.S. soldiers. Outside, visitors can take a self-guided tour on the park's 1.5 mile paved trail. For more information click here.
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