The American buffalo once roamed in uncountable numbers here among the grasslands that rise to lakes, streams, and stunning canyons. Today there's a small but growing herd. Something about seeing these near-extinct creatures, grazing in apparent contentment, leads visitors to believe that in the Wichita Mountains life must be close to the way it was in the Old West.
Although the National Wildlife Refuge System technically was born when it claimed Florida's Pelican Island in 1903, the history of this Wilderness—which lies within what is now known as the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge—dates back to 1901 when the area was proclaimed a “Forest Preserve.” In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law creating the first "Game Sanctuary" here for the almost-extinct bison and a portion of that area has since become the Wichita Mountains Wilderness. Thanks to careful management, a remnant bunch of 15 buffalo has grown to a maintained herd of about 650, which live among the rugged rocky outcroppings, oak forests, and the mixed-grass prairie of the refuge.
Rare in this area, a herd of about 285 free-ranging Texas longhorn cattle shares the Wilderness with elk, deer, and buffalo. Open range allows the animals to wander through your camp, but they are not tame. At night you will probably hear coyotes howl and owls hoot, and you may be visited by the resident population of overly friendly raccoons.
The Witchita Mountains Wilderness makes up roughly 15% of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge and is split into two areas. The northern portion of Wilderness, the North Mountain Wilderness Unit, is a part of the refuge special-use area which is reserved for wild animals and has very limited public access. The southern portion of Wilderness, in the rugged southwestern corner of the refuge, is protected as Charons Garden Wilderness Unit and is open to the public. The outstanding and unique scenic qualities of this Wilderness unit attract many visitors. Two designated trails totaling about 3.5 miles are maintained by hand within the Charons Garden Wilderness. There are also some nondesignated and unmaintained trails the area.
The ruggedness of the weathered granite mountainous terrain in the Charons Garden Wilderness Area provides an experience of solitude, naturalness, and wildness. Group sizes are limited to alleviate the heavy use impacts. Temporary access restrictions are occasionally used to protect sensitive sites or resources from disturbance. In addition, temporary closures may implemented during periods of extreme heat and drought for public safety.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Wichita Mountains Wilderness.
From I-44 take Highway 49 (exit 45). Go west 8 miles to the Refuge gate. If coming from Highway 62, take Highway 115 (Cache Exit) north about 3 miles to the Refuge Gate. A map is available on the Refuge website. You will find leaflet dispensers inside each of the Refuge gates that have maps and information. The Charons Garden Wilderness Area is located in the Southwest portion of the Refuge. Contact the Refuge Visitor Center for more information.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge consists of 59,020 acres of unique habitats that embrace the ancient Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. Located about 20 minutes northwest of Lawton, Oklahoma, the natural beauty of the Refuge coupled with quality outdoor recreational uses and world-class wildlife viewing opportunities attracts between 1.52 and 1.72 million visitors each year. The outstanding scenic qualities and recreational opportunities offered by the 5,723 acre Charons Garden Wilderness area, located in the rugged southwestern portion of Refuge, renders it one of the most popular attractions for Refuge visitors. Refuge maps and other general information are available at the Refuge Visitor Center, and on the Refuge website.
Refuge visitors may hike, explore, observe and photograph wildlife and outstanding natural scenery, and climb rocks within the Wilderness area. A limited number of camping permits are available that allow overnight camping in a designated area of the Wilderness. Elk and deer hunting are allowed by permits issued under a lottery system administered by the Oklahoma Dept of Wildlife Conservation. Some guided wilderness hikes are available.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
The Charons Garden Wilderness may be subject to extreme heat during the summer, and often very cold weather during the winter. Take plenty of water, especially during the summer. The area is also subject to severe storms, including tornadoes, especially during the spring. The area is very rugged and rocky. Dress appropriately and wear durable shoes or boots suited for use in rocky and rough terrain.
Safety and Current Conditions
Most injuries that occur in the Refuge result from falls, dehydration, and heat sicknesses. Venomous snakes, primarily western diamondback rattlesnakes and copperheads, are common on the Refuge. Visitors are cautioned to avoid close proximity to bison and longhorn cattle, which freely roam throughout the Refuge.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.