By Bonita James
If it wasn’t for the National Park Service, we couldn’t make the memories we did during Spring Break, 2016. Huge shout out to the National Park Service for celebrating 100 years! Join in on the fun with #FindYourPark
We had a trip to plan. A big trip.
This trip had to do three things:
1. Be a meeting point for our family.
2. Accommodate seven children . Yes, I said seven.
3. Have tons of inexpensive things to do as a family.
We do not have seven kids, but we are aunts to seven incredible children. In lieu of Christmas presents, we promised them a surprise during Spring Break. The trip planning (and saving) was on.
I personally love taking staycations in Oklahoma. As I inched into my 30s, my impromptu trips across the United States became less and less. Darn adulting! During one of my whinefests to my Grandma about this devastating reality, she offered some great advice. “You’re always in a hurry to get out of Oklahoma. Why don’t you go explore your own state?”
It was a “duh” moment for me. Since then, I’ve explored beautiful Green Country (eventually deciding to move here!), traveled the Talimena Drive, and learned that I prefer “glamping” over camping at beautiful Beaver’s Bend. One of the stipulations for the trip was it needed to be only five hours from Lubbock, TX. Cousin Leslie was traveling with her 9-year-old son, and five hours was the limit.
Being the super efficient planner and Okie traveler that I am, I hit up my favorite travel site, TravelOK.com. Bingo! With only a 2.5 hour drive for us and 5 hours for Leslie, we staked our claim on the Chickasaw National Park. After prepping, packing, and major grocery shopping, Lost Lake Lodge became our home away from home. We barely stepped out of our vehicles before the kids took off in different directions. They set off to explore the house, the deck, the private walkway to the water, the canoe, the hammock, and before we could get the cars unloaded, a serious game of table tennis was well under way.
Score. We did good.
We arrived around noon on Friday and spent the day at the cabin. The kids took turns in the canoe. A table tennis tournament would pick up and dissipate off and on. I managed my way into the hammock for a little cuddle time with my oldest nephew. My youngest nephew decided he wanted to take a bath in the jacuzzi tub. As the sun set all around them, the youngest splashed away in the hot tub. Our two oldest bonded over single fishing pole at the pond.
Aunt Ashley handled the sleeping quarters with a genius idea. Since our cabin had two living rooms, she tucked the blow-up mattress into the open space of the sectional. Boom. The Kid’s Cove took on a life of it’s own. All the boys claimed their spots as the night settled in. Our only niece got her own room. Leslie had the comforts of a California King all to herself, and we cozied up with a floor to ceiling view of our beloved Oklahoma.
Lost Lake Lodge could not have been more perfect for our crew of seven kids and three adults. Windows stretched across the length of the cabin bringing outside indoors. If I was to have one gripe about the cabin, it would be the hanging cabinets in the kitchen. They blocked the windows and were unnecessary. I kept having to scrunch down to peak out at the kid’s chaos while preparing meals.
Saturday was our day to explore the Chickasaw National Recreation Park and Turner Falls. We packed a picnic and headed out. Being off season, it was only $4 per person to enter. As much as I wanted to bring Augie, our Boston, no dogs are allowed at the park or at our cabin.
Instead of driving my Prius through a spillway, the kids in my car and myself hopped in the back of the truck. I enjoyed one of my favorite past times as we climbed up a steep hill to the parking area.
I was surprised how high we were. It was incredibly windy during our picnic, but it just added flavor to the trip. I created easy peasy scavenger hunts, and everyone got a small paper bag to put their treasures in while we hiked down. I wasn’t sure how this would go over, but most of the kids and Leslie loved it.
We learned a valuable (and scary) lesson within the first five minutes of exploring. Seven kids can move out of sight quickly. The oldest kids jetted toward the sound of water. Next thing we knew, it was a game of Marco Pollo except they were to come back to us. The first trail we set on was a little too much for our 5 yearold. Once we had our crew all together again, we laid down some ground rules.
Oi! When you hear us yell it, you better yell it back and come back.
In groups of two or more, never alone.
Whew! Round two.
We found a look out overseeing the top of Turner Falls. Here we could see all 77 feet of the falls. Rushes of white flowing gracefully against Mother Nature’s shades of green.
Turner Falls are the largest falls in Oklahoma. Better yet, the falls lead into a natural swimming pool. This part of Oklahoma is breathtaking.
As we hiked down from there we found the historic castle-like structure. I had learned about this castle from my sister. I am not sure what my expectations were but they were far exceeded.
Story goes, this castle played an important role in telling the story of what this land has to offer. It was built in the 1920’s by Dr. Ellsworth Collings, a professor at Oklahoma University. Here he housed students to study the landscape and wildlife.
We were not the only one’s who had the idea to explore Turner Falls over spring break. There were tons of families and travelers ducking in and out of the rooms and taking photos. I heard more than one language while we were there. The fact that so many people are interested in a part of Oklahoma made this girl swell with Okie pride.
The castle doesn’t rest in one location. It expands from one part of the landscape to another, connected by crumbling stairs and stone. Some rooms still had original art depicting the local wildlife. Others were multileveled with steep stairs burying down into the land. There were fire pits built into corners with rusty metal doors to keep the flames in check. Simply put, this place is unique and cool.
Our kids were on a mission, exploring every nook and cranny of the castle. Pretending to be prisoners and kings and who knows what else. The only time phones came out was to take pictures. (Score again!)
The hike down lead us to the bottom of Turner Falls. It was a bit chilly but the sun beaming through the trees kept us warm. Crossing the bridge and overlooking the swimming hole we spotted a cave that went behind the falls. Plans were made to come back in the summer when we could swim and explore behind the falls.
Just past Turner Falls, we took the Crystal Cave Trail. The creek was the trail with water-worn rocks taking on a smooth and fluid shape. Perfect for walking across, right? So I thought.
Someone had to bite it, and it was me. I took the fall like a champ! With only one wet foot, we kept on.
We were met at the end of the trail by a much smaller fall than it’s brother down the way. This beauty was an oasis in it’s own right. The kids could hike up and stand right in the middle of it. With a short hop across, they could hike right back down to us. This was probably my favorite part of the day.
Ash and I, with our questionable knees and grace, stretched out and rested along the rocks, soaking up the sun. Leslie finished up her scavenger hunt. Our kids were out exploring Oklahoma without a screen in their faces. This beat any purchased item we could have ever gotten them for Christmas.
What I didn’t anticipate was the hike back up to where we had parked. There are two ways. Back up through the castle or up the steep hill we climbed before in the truck. I’m not sure why we chose the road, but we did.
Be prepared for this folks. This road is steep.
We were all grumbling and breathing heavy. There’s nothing like having seven kids moaning and groaning while you’re just trying to not fall out. I felt that hike for days after.
After coming back to the cabin we made an epic meal of grilled chicken and dogs, sweet potato fries and corn on the cob. Happy bellies all around. Ashley took on the role of fire goddess and the last bit of s’mores were enjoyed by all. Except me. I managed this entire trip while on a detox. (Super happy personal win!)
On Sunday, Leslie and her son went through the Arbuckle Wilderness before heading back to Texas. We weren’t able to manage with all of our kiddos but I’m happy little Peyton got to experience a roadblock of Llamas. It’s great fun and I highly suggest it.
The kids played and whined that they wanted to stay. I couldn’t blame them but our trip had to come to an end. The Arbuckle Mountains, Turner Falls, and the Chickasaw National Park was a great way to spend time together as a family. To give you an idea of costs, each of the adults averaged around $350. This includes groceries and the cabin. It’s important to us to experience our world around us with our kids. And, I’m happy to say, my Grandma’s advice is being passed on. I hope as they get older they keep exploring our incredible state.
P.S. During this trip we didn’t get to go to the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, OK. This will be high on our agenda when we visit again this summer.