Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Washita National Wildlife Refuge (Blog Hike #483)

Trail: Riverside Hiking Trail
Hike Location: Washita National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: northwest of Clinton, OK
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2014
Overview: A gravel nature trail with good prairie viewing opportunities.

Directions to the trailhead: From the east, take I-40 to SR 44 (exit 53).  Exit and go north on SR 44.  Drive SR 44 north 13.9 miles to SR 33 and turn left on SR 33.  Drive SR 33 west 5 miles to N2090 Road.  Turn left on gravel N2090, then immediately turn right to reach the refuge’s Riverside Recreation Area.  The trail starts at the left side of the parking area as you enter.  There is a vault toilet at this parking area.  From the west, reach this same parking area by taking I-40 exit 41, SR 34, and SR 33.

The hike: My first visit to Washita National Wildlife Refuge came on a whim.  I had started the two day drive from New Mexico to South Carolina that would conclude my major hiking trip for summer 2014, and I had no plans to hike in Oklahoma.  After all, July in Oklahoma usually means scorching sun, 100 degree temperatures, and high humidity.  Then I got to western Oklahoma, and the weather was 64 degrees and cloudy.  I had to capitalize on such a golden opportunity, so I stopped at Washita National Wildlife Refuge to squeeze in one more hike on my way home.
            On its own merit, Washita National Wildlife Refuge protects 8075 acres mostly of reverting prairie farmland along its namesake river.  The Washita River is a true prairie river, slow-moving and mud-bottomed, and this land is true prairie land.  The refuge was established in 1961 to provide feeding and resting opportunities for migrating waterfowl.  Thus, the best bird-viewing opportunities come in the winter.  This refuge also lies in the Anadarko Basin, an area famous for oil and gas production.  In fact, 6 wells operate on the refuge’s land.
            For hikers, the refuge offers only two short trails.  The 0.3 mile ADA-accessible Centennial Trail features a wetland overlook.  The Centennial Trail is not described in detail here, but the trailhead is on the south side of SR 33 on the west bank of the Washita River.  The refuge’s other trail, the 0.5 miles one-way Riverside Hiking Trail, connects the refuge’s Riverside and Turkey Flats Recreation Areas.  Because the Riverside Recreation Area lies closer to paved SR 33, this description will start there, hike the trail south/east, and then give some options for getting back to the trailhead.
Trailhead: Riverside Hiking Trail
            The Riverside Hiking Trail leaves the south side of the parking area and heads into a small cluster of black walnut trees.  The trail has a fine grey gravel surface with wooden edging for its entire length.  Interpretive signs help you identify the refuge’s flora and fauna.  Many bird songs can be heard, but the tall prairie grass will largely prevent the birds from being seen during the summer.  The same can be said for the Washita River, which lies largely out of sight less than 100 feet to your right.
Hiking through tall prairie grass
            At 0.25 miles, you cross an old gravel road.  If you walk about 100 feet to the left along this road, you will find a rusty piece of farm equipment, a relic from this land’s agriculturally productive days.  Near this area I met a bird photography enthusiast from Oklahoma City who helped me identify some of the area’s birds.  In particular, he showed me a roadrunner perched in a nearby tree that I would have overlooked otherwise.  I learned not to hike these refuge trails too fast, or else you miss seeing too many things.
Old farm equipment
            Past the gravel road, the trail curves left to head away from the river and climb slightly.  At 0.4 miles, you cross an area where red mud has washed across the trail.  200 feet later, the trail enters an area of small trees.  I heard a large number of grasshoppers chirping away in these trees on my visit.
            0.5 miles into the hike, you reach the south end of the Riverside Hiking Trail at its junction with gravel N2090 Road.  Several options now present themselves to complete the hike.  The obvious choice is to retrace your steps along the trail for its entire distance.  Alternatively, you could form a lollipop loop by turning left on N2090 Road and then turning left again in just over 0.1 miles to hike around a white metal vehicle gate.  This route takes you past the rusty farm equipment to reunite you with the Riverside Hiking Trail at its midpoint.  As a third option, you can keep walking up N2090 Road almost back to SR 33 to reach the road you drove in on, then turn left on the Riverside Recreation Area access road to form a true loop.  Whichever option you choose, keep your eye out for wildlife as you conclude your visit to the prairie of western Oklahoma.

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