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Things to do in Chickasaw National Recreation Area

by Grant
Things to Do at Chickasaw National Recreation Area

It doesn’t matter how you look at it, this place is an oasis in southern Oklahoma. Whether it’s boating on the Lake of the Arbuckles, taking a dip in the spring-fed Travertine Creek or hiking among the shade of the abundant trees, there’s plenty of things to do in Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

The History of Chickasaw National Recreation Area

People have been coming to this area for centuries, calling it the “Peaceful Valley of Rippling Waters.” The area was deeded to the Chickasaw Nation going back to 1855. Indeed, it was the Chickasaw and Choctaw, concerned with overdevelopment of the springs, who gave the land to the Federal Government, becoming a national reservation and, later, Platt National Park. 

The view from Bromide Hill overlooking part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
The view from Bromide Hill overlooking part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

In 1976, Platt National Park was combined with Arbuckle Recreation Area to create Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The end result is plethora of outdoor activities to enjoy.

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See the Mineral and Freshwater Springs

The northern end of Chickasaw National Recreation Area is dotted with both mineral and freshwater springs throughout the Platt Area. As you get closer to the mineral springs, you quickly realize how the adjacent town of Sulphur got its name. The smell of sulfur becomes quickly apparent but, thankfully, not overwhelming.

A circular sitting area surrounding Buffalo Springs in Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Buffalo Springs has a lovely sitting area surrounding the spring.

Unlike Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, there are several uncovered springs you can visit in the park. The most impressive are Antelope Springs and Buffalo Springs (both freshwater springs) which are near the end of Travertine Creek. These springs require a bit of walking to get to, but it’s relatively level and easy.

Read more about Hot Springs National Park

It’s so cool to see the water welling up out of the base of a rock face or in the midst of a large basin. In particular, Buffalo Springs is a great place to relax and enjoy the quiet bubbling of the spring’s crystal clear waters.

For those less inclined to walk to a spring, there are two within easy reach of the parking lot: Pavilion Springs and Hillside Springs. These two are in easy walking distance of each other right at a couple of different parking areas. Additionally, the underpass that connects them has a couple of unnamed springs bubbling right by the path.

Pavilion Springs bubbling up in the foreground with a sign in the background detailing the mineral content of the water.
Pavilion Springs is enclosed in an open air pavilion, hence the name.

Check out the Bison Herd

Just south of Pavilion Springs is the Bison Viewing Area. Chickasaw National Recreation Area maintains a small herd of bison in a fenced-off pasture. For the purists out there, keeping the bison fenced in is a necessary evil of the area. A highway runs right through park and there are plenty of nearby cattle operations that the bison can spread disease to.

A small herd of bison including three calves in Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Watching a small herd of bison at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area is just plain magic.

Still, it is worth the stop. Just know there are plenty of trees and the bison are not always right by the fence and in sight. Fortunately, you can walk around the periphery of the pasture to look for the herd. 

We got lucky on our third stop at the viewing area. We had given up on seeing the herd when it came running by with the calves.  

Hike the Trails

On our first day in the park, we got in about 7 miles on the trails in the Platt Area. We started walking around the Bison Pasture. The trail was well-shaded, wide and easy. We saw plenty of folks out on the trail for their daily exercise from the nearby town of Sulphur. I can certainly see why.

The wide and shaded Bison Pasture Trail in Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
The trail around the Bison Pasture (and most of the Platt area are wide and make for an easy hike.

We then followed Travertine Creek toward the springs and Little Niagara Falls. The trail remained easy and wide with a little uphill here and there but not too much.

There are plenty of gorgeous views along the way; you pass right by the park’s nature center (which was closed when we visited due to COVID-19) and on to Antelope and Buffalo Springs.

Grant taking a picture with his new camera at Travertine Creek.
Grant taking a picture with his new camera at Travertine Creek.

All told, this grand loop around the Platt Area took about three hours with plenty of stops to take pictures along the way. That said, we combined several different trails, meaning there are plenty of shorter options.

We also hiked the loop around Veterans Lake, which is an easy 2.8-mile loop on a paved, accessible trail. Honestly, this trail had a few nice views of the lake but was more about getting in a workout than a nature trail to truly enjoy the scenery. 

A view of Veterans Lake in Chickasaw National Recreation Area with the trail to the right.
Veterans Lake Trail

There are also four multi-use trails that connect the Buckhorn area with the Platt Area that vary in length from 2.1 to 4.4 miles, allowing for hiking, biking or horseback riding. We didn’t hike these trails but met a lovely couple from Oklahoma that hiked from the campground to Veterans Lake, about 5 miles one way, and really enjoyed the hike.

Take a Dip in Travertine Creek

Travertine Creek had several small cascades and plenty of swimming holes with drive up or walk up access on the other side of the creek. The real treat, visually, is the Little Niagara Falls, which is not so much a waterfall as a pretty cascade. 

Little Niagara Falls has really pretty blue water.
Little Niagara Falls has really pretty blue water.

What makes this place so special is it allows you hang out in the very blue water, cool off and enjoy the waters of the springs without bathing in the springs themselves. 

This is a really popular activity and the park has a good number of parking available for folks who want to take a dip. That said, I can certainly see it filling up quickly on hot weekends. 

Bonnie at Little Niagara Falls.
Bonnie at Little Niagara Falls.

Lake of the Arbuckels

The main attraction for a lot of folks is the boating (and swimming) at the Lake of the Arbuckles. The lake covers 2,350 acres and is known for good fishing. There are four boat ramps on the lake along with plenty of picnic and swimming areas.

We drove down to boat ramp in the Buckhorn Area for a gorgeous sunset. There were plenty of picnic tables and a place to go swimming there.

Sunset on Lake of the Arbuckles
Sunset on Lake of the Arbuckles

Where to Stay Near Chickasaw National Recreation Area

We camped in the C loop of the Buckhorn Campground, which offers both tent and RV sites. As we drove the C loop, we didn’t see a single bad campsite. They were all spacious and the ones that had connections were easy to get in and out of, as well as pretty level. We especially liked the campsite with a tent pad right by the water.

The sites were all quite shaded, with plenty of room for various vehicles and tents. The best part? The campground was peaceful. We did have one neighbor that seemed to be there to party but they were quiet most of the time. It was so nice to sit out in our chairs, enjoy the shade and the breezes through the oaks while reading and sipping on a cold beverage. Overall, this was a very relaxing campground. 

Our campground at Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Our campground at Chickasaw National Recreation Area

We highly recommend staying in one of the water and electric sites if you have your RV. While the sites do not have sewer, there is a rather nice bathhouse with showers that will help cut down on gray water use. And, there is a dump station that you can hit before you leave. If only every NPS campground could be this nice!

Pro tip: the campground is popular, especially on summer weekends, and reservations are required. Reserve a spot in advance if planning a weekend or holiday stay.

Bonnie relaxing in the hammock at Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Bonnie relaxing in the hammock.

Final Thoughts on Things to do in Chickasaw National Recreation Area

This is the perfect place for a quiet getaway. You can easily spend two or three days hiking the various trails, watching for the bison herd and enjoying the swimming holes on the Travertine Creek. If you add in a boat to want to go fishing, you could easily spend a week and not run out of things to do.

There were several small cascades along Travertine Creek.
There were several cascades along Travertine Creek.

We aren’t boaters so most national recreation areas end up not really being our cup of tea because they are often so focused on water sports. Chickasaw National Recreation Area was surprisingly great for hikers and other folks who don’t have a boat. 

Our biggest regret is the visitor and nature centers were closed due to COVID-19. We always like to visit the visitor center. Still, we are grateful to have been able to visit this wonderful park and we are looking forward to stopping here more in the future to unwind.

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