Apr 22, 2011

Salty Plains, Rock Star Cows and Mother Nature’s Light Show

Our daughter, Callie, is 13 years old and as teenagers so often do, she has a memory like an elephant. Two weeks before spring break she says, “You’ve been promising for-eee-ver that we’d go on a family camping trip. Now is the time.”

We intuitively realized that if there was to be any peace in the Struby household again, the family camping expedition could no longer be delayed. We sorted through sleeping bags, got the camping gear in order, browsed TravelOK.com for just the right spot, and finally settled on the Great Salt Plains State Park near Jet. Callie was fascinated with seeing plains made of salt, and I knew from researching there were plenty of things, in addition to the Salt Plains, to keep my crew entertained.

By cruising the back roads, our favorite way to travel, we made the drive from Oklahoma City in an easy two and half hours.


We camped for two nights right on the shores of the Great Salt Plains Lake, ate gloriously tasty food cooked up on our handy camp stove, and survived a big rain storm in our tent just fine -- no drips, leaks or miserable, soggy sleeping bags. And by the way, it’s no lie that everything tastes better outdoors.


On a chilly afternoon with storm clouds skittering across the sky we headed out to the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, 32,000 acres of open water, wetlands, prairies, woodlands and farm fields that lie just a few miles north of the lake, and one of nine National Wildlife Refuges in Oklahoma. The refuge is a very special and important place, habitat to more 300 species of birds, designated a Globally Important Bird Area, a Member of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, and it’s critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.


On the way to the refuge we happened across this picturesque old farm house resembling a watercolor painting.


Being a hobbyist photographer, I made the whole family stop and while I was clicking away, far in the distance we heard a mooing ruckus, and looked up to see a herd of cows trotting toward us, obviously on a mission. Whether they thought our arrival signaled chow time or they were just curious, by the time they arrived the sun was peeking out and they were ready for their close-up. They posed and posed and posed some more, reminding us a bit of rock stars.


At the refuge headquarters, this pretty sight greeted us. Even though we visited before spring kissed everything green, the beauty of the refuge is reflected in Bonham Pond, where refuge staff offer Wildlife in the Classroom programs to kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.


Bird, birds, birds were at every turn on the Harold F. Miller Auto tour, a 2.5-mile drive that meanders through the refuge by ponds, wetlands and farm fields. There’s ample room to pull over and walk or take photos and we did so several times, serenaded by a symphony of bird songs and calls.


Spring was busting out all over.


Silvery trees made a splash against the dramatic backdrop of storm clouds.


And then it was time to visit the Salt Plains. That white stuff isn’t snow – it’s salt, real salt. After the forested wetlands and throngs of birds at the refuge, the Salt Plains seemed wildly empty, and although we were disappointed we couldn’t dig for the rare hourglass selenite crystals found here (digging time is April 1 through October 15) -- we were suitably impressed by the plains’ grand scale.


Even though it was coolish, cloudy and stormy during some of our visit, the weather didn’t keep Callie from exploring the shoreline. And way out in the lake what looks like an island in the distance is just that. It’s Ralstin Island, a very important part of the refuge. At about six acres, the island is Oklahoma’s largest rookery a.k.a. bird nursery for nesting birds, and hosts more than 30,000 birds during breeding season. Shhhh. Human visitors not allowed – don’t want to wake all those babies – but the refuge office offers live footage of the island via their remote cameras from April through October.


It’s never too cold and you’re never too old to play in the sand.


The sun came out and everything went sparkly.


And then along came dusk and a stunning light show from Mother Nature that beat anything on the movie screen hands down. We pulled our camp chairs to the water’s edge, sipped on a bit of wine, and reveled in the glory.





  1. Thanks for posting this, I grew up 6 miles from the Salt Plains Lake, and hardly get there anymore, but sure revived the want too!! Thanks

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. It's a very special place and we can't wait to return -- wonderful place to camp and explore.

  3. Great Salt Plains is so interesting. You should go back and dig crystals sometime. And I have pics of that same farmhouse with the windmill!!-- Amy D