The Best DFW Family Getaway You’ve Never Heard Of – Wichita Mountains, Oklahoma

Pssst…..I’ve got a secret.

I’ll tell YOU, but please keep it to yourself.  I don’t want it to get out everywhere, because one of the beauties of this place is how undiscovered it is.  So let me tell you {quietly} about….

The Best DFW Family Getaway You’ve Never Heard Of:  The Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma.

Just 3.5 hours northwest of Dallas-Fort Worth (or 5 hours if you’re in an RV), this family destination near Lawton is a treat for those of you who like the outdoors, local color, and chicken fried steak.  I grew up near the Wichita Mountains, and only recently have I learned to appreciate them.  If you’re looking for a nice place to visit with your kids, you seriously need to check it out.  Here’s your game plan.

What to Do:

Hike / sightsee in theWichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: One of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, the Wichita Mountains were formed almost 600 million years ago.  They were once much higher, but now the highest peaks are around 825 ft tall from their base (meaning some would question whether they can really be classified as mountains).  But the hiking trails and rock climbing are fun, even for younger children; my family of young ones likes the trail leading to this cool tower by Jed Johnson Lake particularly well (pictured below right; photo credit).  There are actually more than 20 lakes, numerous streams, and lots of canyons where you can fish, hike, or just look at cloud pictures in the sky.

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You can also drive a nicely paved and maintained road to the top of Mount Scott and see for miles around the surrounding countryside, which includes wide open spaces, wind farms, lakes, and more of the mountain range (see the picture at top of this section for the view; photo credit).  The Wichita Mountain Visitor Center has trail maps and information to help you make the most of your visit within the national park; it’s worth a stop just to watch the half hour video that tells of the Refuge’s history and see some of the exhibits inside of the wildlife you’ll be able to see from your car as you drive through.

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Speaking of wildlife, you’ll be able to see buffalo (upwards of 500 live in the refuge), longhorn cattle, elk, and other animals in the refuge.  Don’t be surprised if you need to stop your car to let a wandering one or two cross the 2-lane highway through the park.  You’ll certainly have ample photo opportunities for close-ups; no zoom lens required.  But our kids’s favorite stop is Prairie Dog Town, where you can watch these fun little creatures engage with each other – and you.  (Just please don’t feed them!)

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Finally, another must-see in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is the Holy City of the Wichitas.  This “city” is the site of the longest running Easter Pageant in the U.S., which started in 1926.  There are over 20 buildings constructed of native granite that are used to illustrate the life of Jesus Christ, as well as a beautiful chapel that has handpainted murals on the walls and ceilings and is a popular wedding location.  I personally think the white statue of Jesus Christ on the hill as you enter the Holy City area resembles the one that towers over Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil (although this one is about 100 feet shorter!).

Have some water sport fun atLake Elmer Thomas Recreation Area (LETRA)andLake Lawtonka: Lake Elmer Thomas is a small lake at the southeast end of the Wildlife Refuge.

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During their summer season (Memorial Day – Sept 1), you can rent paddle boats and canoes, swim from the beach, slide down the waterslide into a 4′ splash pool, or fish.  There’s a great video on the TravelOK website that shows how scenic this lake is, and all the things you can do there (picture shown is from that video, with Mount Scott towering over LETRA).  Lake Lawtonka is a larger lake very nearby, with boat ramps, a marina, swimming beach, and campgrounds.

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Visit theMuseum of the Great Plains: This small but jam-packed museum in Lawton is a real gem.  I loved going here for field trips when I was a kid, and my own children now enjoy every visit.  You can learn about the history of the pioneers in Oklahoma, the history of development in this area, and a little bit about the original Native American culture in this part of the country (but if you’re REALLY interested in that topic, check out Indian City USA in Anadarko, OK which is about 30 minutes away from Lawton).  They also have various traveling exhibits that come through and are featuring one now called 321-Blast, an interactive exhibit with several simulators, models, and games to teach kids about space travel, missions on Mars, and aerodynamics.  (Picture to left is from their website of their General Store exhibit.)

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Go to theFort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum***:***That’s a really fancy name for a museum, but this IS a pretty cool one.  There are 26 buildings in all…and I don’t claim to have been in all of them.  Fort Sill is one of the major artillery training bases for the U.S. Army and they have an impressive collection of historical weaponry.  They also have the “supposed” grave of Geronimo.  Don’t let the website scare you; it’s actually a great museum with lots to see and do, especially if your kids are into army or military games.

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Stroll through one of America’s “Coolest Small Towns”,Medicine Park: This tiny community of cobblestone buildings is one of the most eclectic places you’ll find anywhere in the U.S.  A mix of new entrants like retirees, internet telecommuters, artists, and military mix pleasantly with rural Oklahomans who’ve lived in the area for generations.  It is the site of Oklahoma’s first planned tourist city, which was built to capitalize on the Native American reverence of Bath Lake and the mineral waters in it.  The one main business street, East Lake, is barely 2-lane.  A one-lane auto bridge and a footbridge cross Bath Lake and connect the businesses with many of the cute in-town cabins and residences (see pic above; photo credit).  You can stroll along the trail leading by the Bath Lake Swimming Hole, and during the summer you’ll find lots of kids splashing there.  You could also shop in the unique (to say the least) boutiques along East Lake, like “Chaps My Ass” (a motorcycle accessories store), the Laughing Lizard Trading Post (a gift shop), or the Medicine Park Ice Cream and Candy Company (you guessed it).

Medicine Park is currently #8 in the voting for America’s Coolest Small Towns by Budget Travel;click here to vote for it to win.  Contest runs through May 8, 2010.

Where to Eat:

If you don’t like fried food or ranch dressing, eating may be a bit of a challenge around the Wichita Mountains.  Fortunately for my family, we consider eating the “local” food part of the fun of getting away to this little corner of southwest Oklahoma.  There are several typical chain fast food restaurants in Lawton, but here are 3 suggestions for where the locals go:

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Meers Restaurant – Almost a tourist destination itself, the Meers Store & Restaurant is the only visible remainder of what was once a mining town of 500 residents.  They have been given several accolades by restaurant and tourist organizations, for good reason.  Their longhorn burgers are awesome, as are the Texas Toothpicks (which are fried slices jalepenos…and seem to be only served in Oklahoma, my husband and I have decided since we haven’t seen them on any Texas menus).  Go early or be prepared for a long wait – even during the week.

Ann’s Country Kitchen – This restaurant hasn’t received any awards or glossy reviews (that we know of) but it is your best source for an amazing chicken fried steak and side of fried okra, among other things.  They also have a wide variety of homemade pies and cobblers, so TRY to save room for dessert.  There is no website, but the address is here on the TravelOK website.

Riverside Cafe – Located in Medicine Park, this restaurant is friendly and popular.  It has outdoor seating so you can enjoy your meal overlooking Bath Lake (you might even get a local tomcat begging for some scraps if you do eat outside).  Just follow the signs from Highway 49 into Medicine Park – it’s on the main street (and I do mean THE main street) in town.

The Old Plantation Restaurant Also located in Medicine Park, just across the street from Riverside Cafe,  this restaurant was very popular when I was growing up but had been closed for several years before a huge renovation in 2008.  The new place serves steaks, seafood, salads and has a big bar area as well.

Where to Stay

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This is where your fun family getaway in the Wichitas could get a little sketchy — if you didn’t have an insider (that’s me) giving you the scoop.  Rural Oklahoma is not known for its 5-star lodging, and call me a snob, but I happen to like central air, good water pressure, and clean sheets.   All of the places mentioned below have been personally used by me and/or my family, so I feel comfortable recommending.  A website that lists many available options (many more than these below) is ; there are probably many more good options that I just don’t know about.

Scenic Ridge Cabin – OK, full disclosure here, this cabin is currently owned by my sister…but basically that (to me) means it is the cleanest, best maintained cabin in the area.  Located 4 miles northwest of Meers, it has a great view of the Wichita Mountains.  It also has a king bed (essential!) in a larger separate bedroom, with a loft open to the living room/kitchen/dining that has two full beds in it.

One of the Lone Oak Cabins –  These cabins are located within Medicine Park, just across Bath Lake from the business district.  They are a cute little collection of one-room, part-cobblestone cabins, and are rented out by two different owners:  Whitehorse Lodging (3 cabins) and Lone Oak Cottage (1 cabin).

Stardust Inn – A wonderful bed & breakfast, this newly constructed inn (pictured above) on the north side of Medicine Park along Medicine Creek has four guest rooms with private baths.  The only downside is they don’t allow children, so if you are lucky enough to be able to snag a couples getaway, this is the place for you.

Lake Elmer Thomas Recreation Area (LETRA) – This campground, lake, fishing, and recreation area is owned by the military but is open to civilians.  We camped here on our RV Trip and thought it was very well maintained, friendly, and quiet.  Even if you don’t have an RV or motorhome, they have cabins for rent.