Landlocked and situated in the South Central region of the U.S. is Oklahoma, aka the “Sooner State”. Most famous for its ranching and cowboy heritage, as well as vast landscape of mountains, mesas, forests and prairies, this state boasts a diverse beauty.
Not often considered to be touristy, people tend to overlook Oklahoma when planning a trip in the US with most believing that the state only has agricultural value. This couldn’t be more wrong and what most tourists don’t know is that this southern state is an important cultural and historic landmark for the nation.
Sitting at a “cultural crossroads”, Oklahoma is home to a blend of three cultural regions that are significant in the US. The merging includes Native American traditions, cattle drive routes, and Southern settlers. Together, these cultures preserve the history of the American West and the state’s identity in the modern world. For those that know where to look, Oklahoma comes to life as a vibrant, beautiful, and historic destination.
History of the “Sooner State”
The earliest known people living in Oklahoma were Paleo-Indians with evidence of inhabitation dating back to 11,000 years ago. In fact, North America’s oldest known painted object, the Cooper Bison Skull (dated to 10,900 and 10,200 years ago) was found in Harper County.
Like most of the southern US, the Caddoan Mississippian culture was dominant in Oklahoma. Mississippian culture is most famous for its mound earthwork with the largest archaeological site in the state found at Spiro Mounds. It was these early people that were ancestors to modern Native Americans, who were living on the plain when first contacted by Europeans.
The earliest known Europeans to explore the area was the Hernando de Soto expedition in the first half of the 1500s. By 1682, the land that makes up Oklahoma was claimed by René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle for France. In 1763, France was forced to give much of its territory, including Oklahoma, to the British.
The US acquired Oklahoma during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Prior to gaining statehood, Native Americans were forcefully removed from their lands as part of the infamous Trail of Tears. It was after most were removed that the land became a part of the Kansas Territory.
As a southern state, Oklahoma was more loyal to the Confederacy, but what set it apart is that its supporters were Native Americans. At the time the land was known as Indian Territory and five of the larger tribes chose to support the Confederates. Even after showing their support, prior to the Civil War, Native Americans lost their land and were relocated.
Oklahoma would not become a state until November 1907 when it was the 46th state to enter the Union. Since then, the local economy has relied heavily on agriculture, natural resources, and farming.
Capital City of Oklahoma City
Often called “OKC”, Oklahoma City is the capital and largest city in Oklahoma with a resident population of 681,054 as of 2020. A major hub for the Great Plains and southern region, the city sits almost in the center of the state. It was first settled in 1889 during the “Land Run” when settlers moved into the area after removing Native Americans.
In recent years, the city has been revived with new construction projects and urban expansion. For easy accessibility, most of OKC has been divided into districts that each have their own unique character. Downtown is a very popular place for tourists, as is Bricktown, which has converted warehouses into museums, shops, restaurants, and event spaces.
Specific attractions in the city include the Oklahoma City Zoo, Myriad Botanical Gardens, Science Museum Oklahoma, Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, Oklahoma History Center, and Frontier City.
Sometimes called “T-Town” or even the “Oil Capital of the World”, Tulsa is the second largest city in Oklahoma with 413,066 residents as of 2020. The city relies heavily on big business companies to fuel its economy, but it’s also turning into a trendy tourist hotspot. The Art Deco architecture is dazzling and many of the historic landmarks are keen points of interest for visitors.
The downtown area is filled with a variety of restaurants and bars, as well as artistic and cultural venues. For those that enjoy creative diversity, Tulsa will surprise you with its wealth of attractions. Among the paved streets, there are also a few green spaces for visitors to enjoy a walk or picnic. With a little bit of everything, Tulsa shines as a top destination.
Tourists in Tulsa should check out the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, Tulsa Botanic Garden, Route 66, Blue Dome District, Tulsa Zoo, Woodward Park, Gathering Place, and the Philbrook Museum of Art.
Norman, A University Community
The third largest city with a population of 128,097 as of 2020 is Norman. Although still fairly large in size, the city is most well-known for being home to the University of Oklahoma. The youthful energy of the city is further supported by its proximity to outdoor recreational areas. Balancing urban with nature, residents can hop from shops and restaurants to state and local parks.
In the city, the best attractions are the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, the Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art, Riverwind Casino, Westwood Golf Course, Moore-Lindsay Historic House Museum, and the Jacobson House. Just outside of town, large recreational areas include Lake Thunderbird State Park, the George M. Sutton Wilderness Park, and Parmele Park.
Sulphur, A Thermal Resort
Home to about 5,000 people is the small city of Sulphur. Nicknamed the “City of Springs”, Sulphur is most famous for its thermal waters and mineral springs. The city has been a resort destination since the late 19th century because of the belief that the sulfur-rich water has medicinal properties. At the Artesian Hotel, the main accommodation spot in the city, guests can enjoy thermal pools and a spa.
Additionally, Sulphur is considered to be the gateway to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and Chickasaw Cultural Center. Educating visitors about Chickasaw history and culture, these two attractions are very important to Native Americans. Particularly popular is the national recreation area, which is perfect for hiking, swimming, boating, and fishing.
Broken Bow, A Woodland Resort
Deep in the woodlands is the small town of Broken Bow. Founded by the Dierks Brothers, the town originally thrived and depended on the lumber industry. Now, it has become a quiet resort destination where visitors can explore dense forests, hidden coves, and riverfront.
Although the town is small, some of the best attractions include the Cedar Creek Golf Course, Beavers Bend State Park, and the Hochatown State Park. Visitors also like to see plenty of deer, as they are abundant in the region. It is important to be mindful of deer hunting season (October to mid-January), as many hunters head to Broken Bow for their trips.
Guthrie, A Southern Beauty
Another small town destination is Guthrie, which began as a railroad station in the late 1800s. Rapidly growing during the 1889 Land Run, the town now has just over 10,000 residents. Part of the allure of this charming southern beauty is the Victorian architecture that lines the main historic district. Once shops and entertainment spaces for early settlers, Guthrie has remained as an important landmark in Oklahoma.
Visitors can take trolly car tours of the historic district or walk the streets to see the details of the architecture up close. Particularly stunning buildings include the Pollard Theater and Oklahoma Frontier Drugstore Museum. Other attractions include the Oklahoma Territorial Museum and Carnegie Library, Guthrie Ghost Walk, and the Stone Lion Inn.
Lawton, The Best Museums
Surprisingly, some of the state’s best museums are located in the small city of Lawton, which is home to 90,381 as of 2020. Once owned by Native American tribes, European settlers founded the city of Lawton in 1901. Now this historical gem is a major destination for history buffs because of its excellent exhibits and attractions.
Pretty much all of Lawton is historic, but to digest the overload of information, tourists should head to the museums. Some of the best are the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, the Museum of the Great Plains, and the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum. Additionally, the city is close to the Wichita Mountains, so visitors can enjoy the great outdoors too.
Great Salt Plains State Park
From first glance, the Great Salt Plains State Park looks incredibly barren. In truth, it is. What makes this state park special is its geologic history and mirror-like surface. Once an ocean that dates back to prehistoric times, the majority of the water evaporated leaving a much smaller surface. In turn, the lake’s high level of salt has turned it into an incredible field of white. While there is still water, much of the lake is dry and covered in salt crystals.
Visitors are permitted to dig for selenite crystals. Any that are found can be kept. Staying overnight is also allowed with the state park providing the option of cabins, campsites, and RV sites. Reservations are required and must be made in advance online. For daytime use, there are picnic pavilions and outdoor grills.
Beavers Bend State Park
One of the most popular state parks in Oklahoma is Beavers Bend. Situated in the dense forests, the park’s rugged terrain includes Broken Bow Lake and Mountain Fork River. Tourists can enjoy hiking, fishing, biking, boating, and horseback riding throughout certain areas of the park.
Onsite accommodation includes 47 cabins, 393 campsites, and 50 RV sites. There is also one lodge called Beavers Bend that has a limited number of rooms.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge
To see some of the native flora and fauna, the best place to go is the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near the town of Cache. Covering nearly 60,000 acres, some of the larger animals that can be seen in the refuge are buffalo, elk, deer, Texas longhorn cattle, and prairie dogs. Visitors can hike, bike, rock climb, and picnic at the refuge or enjoy exhibits at the Quanah Parker Nature and Visitor Center.
Specific landmarks in the refuge include the Holy City of the Wichitas, Quanah Parker Lake, Parallel Forest, and the Forty-Foot Hole. Overnight accommodation options include sites for tents, RV, and backcountry camping.
Cascading down a 77 foot drop on Honey Creek are Turner Falls in the Arbuckle Mountains. With crystal clear water, the falls are wildly popular during the summer months as tourists travel to the creeks and pools to cool off from the high temperatures. Beautiful backdrops and hidden caves also attract curious hikers. Additional activities include panning for minerals and fishing.
Accommodations near the falls include sites for tents and RV, as well as privately owned cabins. Visitors should note that pets are not permitted in the park and all children under 12 must use a certified flotation device when spending time in the water.
Talimena Scenic Drive
For some of the best views of Oklahoma’s landscape, tourists should travel the 54-mile long Talimena Scenic Drive. Built to highlight the beauty of the area, the road passes through various mountain ranges and counties. Panoramic viewpoints along the way ensure that travelers don’t miss out on the amazing scenery.
The busiest times to visit the Talimena Scenic Drive are fall and spring. The autumnal leaves are stunning to see as they change color and during the spring, the vibrant green landscape is often speckled with beautiful wildflowers. Attractions that are worth stopping for along the drive include Talimena State park, the Cedar Lake Recreation Area, and the Ouachita National Forest.
Looking past its reputation as a dull and lifeless destination, Oklahoma is actually a vibrant, diverse, and beautiful place. For those that know how to see beauty in the plains, this state will inspire with its majestic landscapes, rich culture, and stoic history. Filled with plenty of attractions and unique destinations, this southern state packs on the charm.