McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area, Oklahoma
The McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area (NSRA) is comprised of 8,900 acres of woodland and small prairies in Southeast Oklahoma. With 30 miles of trails, it makes a great place for a weekend of outdoor fun.
The Map: The map is true 1:24,000 scale based on the USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles. The free downloadable image is accessed by clicking the map on the right. Color, weatherproof versions (11x17) of the map are available for $5 plus S&H by emailing email@example.com.
The trails were tracked with a GPS in November 2013. The NSRA is multi-use so the trails on the map are colored accordingly: hike, bike and horse are red; hike and bike are blue and hike are green. There are also some "other" trails colored purple that are not part of official list of named trails. They are probably hike, bike and horse. I have also marked major trail intersection with waypoints (MG-xx) to make it easier to reference locations in the following text and on the mileage charts. Some of the roads are based Google Earth imagery.
GPS File: Right click this link to download the tracks in a gpx format. Save it to your computer and use your GPS software to load it to your GPS. There are over 1,000 track points so if it exceeds your saved track capacity, you will need to break up into more digestible bites.
Google Earth Track: Right click this link to download the track in the Google Earth kml format and trace the route in interactive 3D. Save it to your computer and open it with Google Earth. Alternatively, you can click on the map to the right and view the trail using the Google Earth API.
Mileage Chart: A mileage chart showing all the trails and segment mileage has been prepared from the GPS data and is available by clicking the link.
Background: McGee Creek Lake is a 3800 acre impoundment competed in 1986 to supply water to Oklahoma City and SE Oklahoma. It is surrounded by 3 different administrative blocks. Around the dam at the south end of the lake is McGee Creek State Park. To the north and west of the lake is the McGee Creek Wildlife Management Area operated by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. To the north and east of the lake is the McGee Creek Natural Scenic Recreation Area (NSRA), which is where the hiking trails are. It is managed by the State Park.The State Park has free maps, on-line and available by mail or at the park headquarters. The trails are not accurate and do not show how some are now connected.
Geology: The McGee Creek area is located at the very west end of the Ouachita Mountain Range. The range runs another 300 miles to the east to Pinnacle Mountain outside of Little Rock, Arkansas. The McGee Creek area does not have the same topographic relief that you find further east. Whereas the peaks in the Winding Stair area east of Talihina can exceed 2500 feet, the maximum you will find here is a tad over 1000 feet. (For those familiar with some of the other hiking trails in SE Oklahoma, the Winding Stair area is where the 223 mile Ouachita Trail begins and is home to the Boardstand, Horse Thief Springs and Billy Creek Trails). The rocks are the same. Just as the Jackfork and Atoka Sandstones dominate the ridges between Talihina and Mena AK, they are the ridge formers in this area. The faulting is a little different. The Winding Stair area is formed by some rather intensive low level thrust faulting and the faulting here is less severe. However, the relief you see, such as between the North Rim and Wildcat Canyon, are eroded fault scarps.Ecology: The native Ouachita ecosystem is a pine-bluestem assemblage consisting of oak, hickory, shortleaf pine and bluestem grasses. In many parts of the Ouachitas, the pines were logged to near extinction. The National Forest Service has a program to restore the original ecosystem but has a long way to go. The McGee Creek area is different. I don't know if it is due to the fact that it is Bureau of Reclamation land rather than national forest, but this is the best example of the pine-bluestem ecosystem that I have seen. While there are plenty of oak and hickory (tons of hickory nuts on the ground this time of year), I would guess that shortleaf make up around 40% of the trees. The long and short bluestem grasses were present under canopy, in little glades and in the larger meadows such as south of Wildcat Canyon. The forest undergrowth has been managed with prescribed burns so the canopy looks and feels more open. I did a bit of bushwhacking while mapping and found it easier than anywhere else I've been in this part of the country. There many other forest treats that are only present in the fall. The beauty berries will stand out with their purple fruit, the trails were littered with hickory nuts, big green horse apples were present and there were lots of huge white mushrooms. There are also several native flowers that bloom in the fall.
I didn't see any animal but squirrels and distant birds. However, there was plenty of bear scat and deer prints on the trail and lots of bird songs throughout the forest. I heard a lot of turkeys north of Rocky Point Trail and one of the guys I met with an AmeriCorps work team said he saw a big buck. I found evidence of a snapper, too. There is no hunting in the NSRA so the buck just may make it another season.
Getting Started: Hiking in the NSRA is by permit only. However, permits are free and it is just a matter of filling out a brief form at the ranger station located at the entrance. The station is usually unmanned so it is self-serve. There is a box in the breeze way and some instruction. Leave the yellow copy in the yellow box and take the white one with you on the trail. When you get back, put your copy in the other box in the breezeway.pine needles and leaves. In spite of the fact that most trails are multi-use for hiking, biking and equestrian, I found them in excellent shape (no motorized vehicles allowed!). Usually the trails are so well maintained that no blazes are necessary. The intersections are well marked with bright yellow and black signs that announce that trail name and remind the users who have the right-of-way: hikers and bikers yield to horses and bikers yield to hikers. When you do encounter a blaze it will be a big roundish orange splotch on a tree trunk, or maybe a plastic colored survey ribbon.
Trail Descriptions: The South Rim trail is a very flat trail that takes you from the trailhead (MG-01) to the North Rim Trail. The first intersection is with the Little Bugaboo (MG-02, 0.3 miles), but there are also signs for the West Branch and Rocky Point Trails. At 1.2 miles, the trail passes an old stone chimney, visible through the trees on the other side of the NSRA boundary. A few hundred feet later is MG-03, the beginning of the Boundary Trail. The Boundary Trail is pretty much a straight shot along the south, east and north fence lines. It is a wooded walk and at times a little rough, but in most places it is as wide a road and very straight. As a hiker, my preference is a narrower trail that meanders through the woods. However, access to Cabbage Head Rock is only by way of the Boundary Trail.
At 1.6 miles the South Rim Trail passes a wooden sign that says "Closed". I have never seen an official name so I call it the Bog Spring Trail. It is considered a sensitive area and closed to horse and bike traffic. Most of the trail is a single width foot path and very scenic: some creek crossings, some glades and open woods. It is 2 miles long and it ends at the Hog Camp Trail.
Continuing on the South Rim Trail, you will cross the Little Bugaboo Creek and reach MG-09 at mile 1.8. As with all of the creek crossings, under normal conditions, an adult can do it with a slight stretch in their stride. MG-09 is the junction of the Little Bugaboo and Whiskey Flats Trails and the location of the Equestrian Camp E1 and Box Spring. From here to the end of the trail you will follow the rim of Bugaboo Canyon. If you walk over to the edge you will see a small escarpment formed by the Jackfork Sandstone. At 2.7 miles is Backpacker Camping Area B4. As with most of the backpacker sites, it is dry. There is no water. However, if you interpret the word "area" to mean "at-large camping," you can hike about 0.2 miles west of the trail to an intermittent stream. When I was there, there was not much flow but there was plenty of water in pools. It looked inviting because I would rather be in deep woods in an LNT camp than sitting by a fire ring next to the trail.
The South Rim Trail ends at MG-08, the junction of the North Rim Trails and Hunters Cabin Trail. The total length is 3.2 miles.
The North Rim Trail heads west following the North Rim of Bugaboo Canyon. At 0.4 miles is another "Closed" sign on the north side of the trail. The original topos show a track that leads to upper Bear Creek. The track is very evident and according to the Bureau of Reclamation, the plan is to open it back up as a trail. The park maps show Bear Creek as a "sensitive" area so if you decide to explore, tread lightly. At 1.2 miles (MG-15) is the junction with the Wildcat Canyon Trail, beyond which the North Rim Trail follows the north rim of Wildcat Canyon. At 1.6 miles is another "Closed" sign marking another old trail to Bear Creek. It is 2.2 miles from here to the end of the trail (MG-16, 3.8 total miles). The trail starts to degrade as you approach the turn to the south and begin the descent to the lake. But they are still good trails! The park maps show the North Fork taking off to the west about half way down the hill. I looked but never saw a trace of it. The Bureau says they hope to re-establish it in the future and have it loop around along the lake to rejoin the North Rim Trail. At the bottom of the hill, the North Rim approaches McGee Creek Lake but does not go to it. Instead it turns northeast and finally ends. I was headed for Canoe Camp C2 so had to bushwhack. There is a path along the lake that will get you part way there. Hiking a bench a little higher in the woods is another option.
C2 is an okay camp. Wildcat Creek is a good water source so there is a lot of animal activity closer to the lake. It is quite muddy there so you will want to move upstream to where it is rocky for your water. There are also a couple flat areas to camp.
When I left C2 I bushwhacked up the nose across the creek to the Wildcat Canyon Trail. With the forest as open as it is, it was not difficult. About a quarter mile up the hill the woods open up to meadow and stays like that until you reach the trail.
The Wildcat Canyon Trail begins on the North Rim Trail at MG-15. It crossed the saddle between Wildcat and Bugaboo canyons and follows the south side of Wildcat Canyon. At 1.1 miles, situated in a small drainage, is Camp B3. There is a fire ring near the trail and a little water nearby. At 1.4 miles the trail breaks out into the meadow. The park maps show the trail going southwest to the lake, but it has been rerouted. Instead, the trail crosses the meadow, enters the woods and heads southeast. It reaches Bugaboo Canyon creek at 2.0 miles. Bugaboo Canyon creek flows along a dipping bedding plain of Jackfork Sandstone and is some of the best water in the NSRA. At 2.2 miles the trails joins with the Whiskey Flat Trail at Camp B2. A hundred feet later the Whiskey Flat Trail goes east and the Wildcat Canyon Trail continues south. At 2.5 mile, the trail crosses rocky Little Bugaboo Creek, another good water source. The trail ends a little further into the woods and up a small climb at the Rocky Point Trail (MG-11, 2.6 miles).
The Whiskey Flat Trail is 1.6 miles running from the South Rim Trail (MG-09) to the lake. It is marked for bike and hike but the horsemen don't seem to differentiate. The first mile is downhill through woods and an open area where the trail get a bit rocky. At the bottom of the hill are Camp B2 and the Wildcat Canyon Trail junction. When I passed by, there were six tents scattered in the woods housing an AmeriCorps trail crew so there is plenty of room for a larger group. Good water is a short hike down the Wildcat Canyon Trail to the Bugaboo Canyon creek. The Whiskey Flat Trail continues west through flat woods until it reaches a big fire ring and the lake.
The Little Bugaboo Trail 1.6 miles and begins at the South Rim Trail (MG-02) and ends at the South Rim Trail (MG-09). It leaves the South Rim Trail at MG-02 going north and intersects the West Branch Trail at 0.2 miles (MG-10). Stay east and cross Little Bugaboo Creek in a tenth of a mile. The rest of the trail follows the general course of Little Bugaboo Creek. At 1.0 miles is the sign for Camp B1. This looks like another place to embrace the "at-large" concept and move into the woods for privacy and to be a little closer to water.
The Rocky Point Trail is 1.0 mile long connecting the West Branch trail near the Little Bugaboo Intersection (MG-10) and the Carnasaw Nature Trail. Its greatest utility lies in connecting the Wildcat Canyon Trail with the main trailhead to open the opportunity for a grand loop of the eastern part of the trail system. Near the junction with the Wildcat Canyon Trail the trail splits to go around an outcrop. The upper trail is the official trail.
The Carnasaw Nature Trail starts at the parking lot situated at the end of the park road. The 0.8 mile loop begins at the northwest side of the parking lot (MG-13) and ends on the southwest side. In spite of it being titled a "nature" trail, there are no signs identifying the trees and plant. It does give access to the Rocky Point Trail (MG-12) and has an overlook. The overlook is more of the view down the small bluff than a vista.
Going back towards the east boundary are the Hog Camp, Hunters Cabin and Coons Way Trails. The Hog Camp connects the south leg of the Boundary Trail and Hunters Cabin Trail. It provides access to Backpacker Camp B7 (0.1 mile) and Equestrian Camp E2 (0.7 miles). B7 is dry. There may be water further west in the intermittent stream but I went a little ways and didn’t see any. The Bog Spring Trail intersects at 0.7 miles and Equestrian Camp E2 is just a few hundred feet further. Hog Camp ends at the Hunter Cabin Trail (MG-06, 1.1 miles).
Hunters Cabin Trail starts at the Boundary Trail, about 0.2 miles east of MG-06. It passes the spur to the old cabin site at 0.7 miles. There is a small glade at the site but no sign of any foundations. MG-07 (1.1 miles) is the Coons Way. You can use Coons Way to access Camp B6, but it is dry with no evident source of water. Another 0.1 miles on Coons Way is the Boundary Trail (MG-19). Back on the Hunters Cabin Trail, it is another 0.5 miles to B5, another camp without water. The 3-way junction with the North and South Rim Trails is at mile 1.7 (MG-08).
The West Branch Trail goes from the Little Bugaboo junction (MG-10) to the lake and Canoe Camps C1 and C3. It is a fine wooded walk. It crosses the park road at 0.1 miles and hits the junction of the South Boundary Trail (MG-17) at 1.3 miles. The South Boundary Trail is nicer than the Boundary Trail, but it still mostly follows the fence line. It is a shortcut back to the ranger station: 1 mile versus 1.8 miles via the West Branch, Rocky Point and South Rim. Right after this junction, the trail begins its descent to the lake. Just before MG-18, the West Branch Trail enters a rocky meadow and passes a sign for Camp B8. No water and not a site I would recommend. At MG-18 (1.8 miles) the trail splits. The park map shows the West Branch going north to the lake but no camp site and no trail going northwest to the peninsula. Both trails exist and both camp sites exist. The Bureau GIS shows the trail to the peninsula and C1 as the West Branch Trail and considers the one to C3 (my nomenclature) a spur. The trail to the peninsula is a good trail and you can't miss it… until you cross the narrow point on the peninsula. I came in from Camp C3 on a bushwhack and only had hints that the trail existed from Google Earth. I stayed too far west and never saw it. It is smack in the middle on the far side of the narrow spot, behind a tree and some downed logs. You can't miss it if you are patient enough to look for it. C1 is a real nice campsite on the lake. The lake is your water source which is not my first choice…unless it is the only one.
The West Branch Spur comes off the main trail just after the meadow and Camp B8 (MG-18, 1.8 miles). It is less defined as the main trail but it is easy enough to follow. C3 is a nice campsite near the lake and, with a small stream to the west, has a better source of water than C1. The only negative is an old freezer chest floated in when the lake was filling. It is not that close to the camp site so I think I would still opt for C3 with better water.All in all, I really liked this area. I'd rate the trails easy, but that's okay sometimes. Thumbs up!
Info: USGS 7.5 minute Quadrangles: Lane NE. The Scenic Area is federal land but managed by McGee Creek State Park, 576-A S McGee Creek Lake Rd, Atoka, OK 74525. Phone: 580-889-5822.
Directions: The Scenic Area is accessed from OK Highway 3, between Atoka and Antlers. From the intersection of Hwy 75 and Hwy 3 in Atoka, take Hwy 3 east 20.8 miles to Center Point Road. From the Hwy 3 exit on the Indian Nations Turnpike outside of Antlers, take Hwy 3 west 9.5 miles to Center Point Road. There was new highway construction at the intersection of Hwy 3 and Center Point Road when I was there in November 2013 and there was no signage from Antlers. If you have trouble finding it, look for the McLeod Correctional Center sign. Take Center Point Road 10 miles north until you see the wooden sign and the ranger station (probably not manned).
Free Map. Click on the map image at the top of the page and it will load a full size 1:24,000 scale version on you browser. Down load it and print it on you own computer. Color, weatherproof versions (11x17) of the map are available for $5 plus S&H by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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OuachitaMaps.com - Hiking Trails of the Ouachitas and Ozarks