6 Oklahoma National Parks: Insider Tips + Guides

Moving memorials. Campgrounds in the forests. Historic forts and battlegrounds.

If you’re wanting to experience Oklahoma’s great outdoors, check out these Oklahoma national parks for a good mix of natural scenery and American history.

Oklahoma has been both a place of refuge and of tragedy for Native Americans, and you can learn more about Native American history at sites such as the Trail of Tears and the Washita Battlefield.

Those wanting some military history can head to Fort Smith to see the ruins of historic forts, and if you want some freshwater springs and hiking, head to the Chickasaw Recreation Area.

waterfall in Travertine Oklahoma
Image: Little Niagra on Travertine Creek, Sulphur Oklahoma Jonathan C Wheeler. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

In a more somber note, visitors to Oklahoma City can visit the Oklahoma City Memorial where you can pay tribute to the lives lost in the tragedy in 2000 and wander the grounds and museum dedicated to never forgetting.

For each Oklahoma national park area, we’ll cover the most popular things to do there, specific tips about visiting, and more.

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What to Bring to National Parks

As you’ll see, not all of the properties associated with the NPS are the same, but many of them do include outdoor components, if not the entire thing!

Here are just a few essentials that you might not have thought of when it comes to taking a trip like this.

National Parks in Oklahoma

There are two National Historic Sites in Oklahoma, Fort Smith and Washita Battlefield.

1. Fort Smith

Fort Smith Visitor Center
Image: Fort Smith, Arkansas. aquiamigo. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Along the Arkansas River, Fort Smith is the site of historic forts and plenty of Oklahoma history.

Not only does the site have the remains of the First Fort Smith, but you can also visit the second historic fort constructed in this area, as well as a reconstruction of gallows used by the federal court and a commissary.

In the main visitor’s center, you’ll find exhibits on everything from the Old West to Native American culture, as well as the original partition of the jail from the 1800s.

There is also plenty of outdoor space and trails to explore, providing gorgeous views of the river.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history here and its history on the border of what used to be known as Indian Territory, there is a film in the visitor’s center to give you some more context about what you’re seeing.

wagon at Fort Smith
Image: US Mail. Ed Schipul. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

The entire area is surrounded by historic buildings and makes for a wonderful day out (technically Fort Smith is in Arkansas, right along the border between the states, but it is considered one of Oklahoma’s national park sites as well).

Insider Tips:

  • Visitors recommend spending about 3 to 4 hours here
  • Entrance to the visitor center is $10 per person
  • During special events, you might find reenactments here, which are really fun!

Website: https://www.fortsmith.org/fort-smith-national-historic-site/

2. Washita Battlefield

Washita trailhead sign
Image: Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. Grand Central USA!. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Back in 1868 was the Battle of Washita, where a southern Cheyenne Village was attacked by the US military.

At the time, it was heralded as a success, as many Cheyenne died, but in present time we know that the American sentiment towards the Native Americans in the 1800s was a tragedy.

This national historic center protects the land and the stories of the Cheyenne who were forced from their lands, and today’s visitors can watch a 25+ minute film in the visitor center’s to give you a more historic background on the events leading up to the Battle of Washita.

Get gorgeous views of the surrounding area from the visitor’s center as you look out into the Washita River Valley, and go on a walk on the self-guided trail that spans 1.5 miles.

washita battlefield national historic site
Image: Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. Grand Central USA!. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

If you’re interested in learning more about Native American culture, visit the Washita Native Garden, filled with plants traditionally used by the Cheyenne people and information on medicinal, spiritual, and other uses for each type of plant.

Insider Tips:

  • Entrance is completely free
  • Call ahead and arrange for a tour for a truly memorable and informative experience led by a ranger
  • If you visit during the warmer months, come prepped with water and snacks as it can get hot and is in the middle of nowhere!

Address: 18555 Hwy 47A, OK 73628

National Historic Trails in Oklahoma

While not considered national parks, these national trails are great for exploring and discovering the Oklahoma landscapes.

3. Trail of Tears

trail of tears map
Image: B24 04 Trails_of_Tears_en. howard_morland. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The Trail of Tears is one of the more solemn trails in American history, as this marks the route that Native Americans were forced to take as they were cruelly evicted from the lands under the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The removal began in what is now the southeastern United States, and ended for many near around the Oklahoma area, in areas that were then called “Indian territory.”

Part of the route in Oklahoma runs past historic sites and museums, including the Trail of Tears Association National Office and Webbers Falls Historical Society Museum in the eastern part of the state.

man on horseback on trail
Image: Corps invites public to hike rediscovered segment of Trail of Tears. U.S Army Corps of Engineers Nashville DIstrict. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

You can also visit the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Oklahoma, Hunter’s Home Historic Site, and the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge.

Like some of the other historic trails, this is not a walking trail that can be followed like other trails in the US, but you can see the route here and drive along it.

4. Santa Fe Trail

santa fe trail sign
Image: Santa Fe Trail Crossing. Jeffrey Beall. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

A trail crossing the northwest portion of Oklahoma, the Santa Fe Trail spans almost 800 miles from Missouri to New Mexico.

It’s considered one of the oldest commercial highways, used until railroads made the journey easier.

The route in Oklahoma is the smallest of all of the state’s portions of the trail, with some of it passing through what was known as the Cimarron Route.

Today, you can walk parts of the trail or stop by historic sites such as Autograph Rock and the Cimarron Heritage Center.

Insider Tips:

  • The trail is best explored between March and October when weather conditions are better
  • It’s not necessarily easy to follow the trail and is not well-marked, so have a good sense of adventure and a map with you!

Other NPS Sites in Oklahoma

5. Oklahoma City National Memorial

oklahoma national memorial
Image: National Memorial Oklahoma City 3. Tony Hisgett. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Many are familiar with the Oklahoma City tragedy that occurred in the year 2000 at the Murrah Federal Building.

The memorial and museum pay tribute to the victims, as well as give you an idea of what it may have been like to be in the building, to live in Oklahoma City at the time, or to be one of the first responders who bravely arrived on scene and tended to the wounded.

The grounds are peaceful and reflective, with thoughtful architecture that celebrates the lives of the 163 people lost far too soon and tries to give hope for the future.

If you are interested in learning more, the museum is where many of the artifacts and information is, including interviews, documentation from the day, and personal items of the victims.

It is a moving and respectful experience, both inside and out, and the empty chair statues are a must-see for anyone who wants to pay tribute to the lives lost.

OKC memorial
Image: National Memorial Oklahoma City 2. Tony Hisgett. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

It is free to enter the grounds, but paid entrance to the museum.

Address: 620 N Harvey Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73102, United States

6. Chickasaw National Recreation Area

chickasaw recreation sign
Image: Chickasaw National Recreation Area – Oklahoma. Tony Webster. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

From campgrounds to mineral waters, the Chickasaw National Recreation Area is Oklahoma’s oldest national park area and well worth a visit.

The land was purchased by the government from the Chickasaw Nation in order to protect the freshwater springs.

Today, there are actually two parks within this area, the Platt Historic District and the Lake of the Arbuckles.

Go swimming or boating to explore the freshwater and the lake, or go explore the forests by hiking or cycling.

Visit the Travertine Nature Center where you can see information exhibits about the natural and cultural resources of the park, or head to the campgrounds where you’ll find showers, picnic areas, outdoor grills, and pavilions.

log cabin at chickasaw national recreation trail
Image: Cold Springs Campground, Sulphur Oklahoma. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Explore waterfalls, walk over stone bridges, and appreciate this gorgeous part of the US.

Address: 901 W 1st St, Sulphur, OK 73086, United States

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