We headed north after our long week in Beaver Bend State Park. According to the Army Corps of Engineers the state of Oklahoma has taken over and runs all their campgrounds. Because of this the Corp campgrounds are the same cost as state parks. We were aiming for another state park, Wister Lake State Park. I knew there were several Ouchita National Forest Campgrounds on the Oklahoma side but I assumed they were being run by the state as well. That turned out to be wrong.
I spent a long time checking the map and Google earth satellite about the trip. Mountain driving scares me and my truck is underpowered for mountains. If I am not really careful the transmission overheats and I have to go very slowly uphill in low drive to avoid that. I am still afraid from when we cooked our break system coming out of Death Valley. I didn’t want to do that again. Thus, I was nervous about going through the Ouchita Mountains but we decided to give it a try. I am so glad we did! There was one particularly hair raising multi hair pin loop downward into the town of Big Cedar but the road was otherwise not especially challenging for me or my truck. We stopped at the Oklahoma Ranger District on highway 59 far above the tiny town of Hogden and we were delighted to note that there was a National Forest Campground nearby that was not run by the state of Oklahoma. State parks cost us about $25-$30 a night, still much cheaper than a private campground and often much nicer. With the senior pass a nice National Forest stop can be a little as $8. When we got to Holson Valley Road we turned left and we ventured in to check out Cedar Lake. What a lucky detour that turned out to be!
Cedar Lake has three campsites. Shady Lane has several full service creekside campsites for $18 and we needed to do laundry for which we need a sewer hook up. Rain was predicted. Shady Lane is in a flash flood warning zone and there were signs all over reminding us of this fact. The weather forecast was for thunderstorms over the weekend so we decided we would move. After settling in we unhitched the truck and took a drive to see all the other campsites. The North Shore campsite is actually the prettiest and nicest part of the campground but it doesn’t have any hook ups. We can make do without an electric hook up but we prefer the electric if we can get it, especially in rain. I just don’t like cooking with propane inside the trailer. The Sandy Beach campsite is up high on a hillside and it has electric and water sites and washrooms with running water and showers. We checked out the equestrian campsite as well. It was interesting to see campsites with corrals but you could only stay there if you had horses.
When we arrived, Sandy Beach was full except for three walk in sites and two others that were too short for our trailer. The sites are half first come first serve and half reservable. In the morning, I dressed early and dragged out our “guest room” tent and put it in the truck. I watched the road. As soon as I saw a big rig leave I jumped in the truck and raced up the hill and put up out the “guest room” tent on an exceptionally lovely site among the first come first serve sites which had just been vacated. This site was the highest in the campsite and overlooking the lake with the prettiest view. Even though it was up high, it was sheltered by a ridge and had no really big trees making it a good spot to ride out thunderstorms. As soon as the tent was up I raced down to the pay station and paid my fee and got the tags and raced back up. By this point there were four other rigs driving around looking for an empty spot and two of them asked me if I was leaving that day. Sorry, no. We had the lower site until 2:00pm checkout so we got our laundry done and then moved up into the higher campsite. We ended up staying five more days for $10/night with the senior pass and it was easily the best campground we stayed at for the entire trip.
Just a side note on the practicalities of trailer living. If we have a full hookup, sewer water and electricity, life is not much different from a city stick house. If we have water and electric and can fill at need we only have to worry about black water and grey water tanks being full. We can empty the tanks by either moving the trailer to the nearest dump site or by using our “honey wagon” which is a small portable tank that pulls behind the truck. If we don’t have water handy, we can either move and fill up directly or we can haul water in our big tank. In this situation we had a five day stay planned and we didn’t want to be bothered with hauling water or using our honey wagon every other day. We used the honey wagon in Beaver Bend State Park because they had coin showers and it was so crowded the showers were either full or there was no hot water. At Cedar Lake we showered in the nearby showers. They had warm and abundant hot water without having to plug coins in every few minutes and we usually had the showers to ourselves. We can typically go five to seven days between emptying the tanks under such circumstances and that was one of nice things about Cedar Lake.
The rain and storms predicted for the weekend went north of us. We had lovely weather every day including afternoons nice enough to be out in just a t-shirt, all but two bright and sunny. We went on long walks and rode our bikes. We got the canoe into the water and had a wonderful couple of hours paddling around the lake. Migrating birds caught up with us and we saw eagles, herons, egrets, cranes, wood peckers, nuthatches, blue and grey jays, wrens, warblers, loons, cormorants, and many others. These are the birds that nest at our Manitoba home and we welcome so enthusiastically so it was lovely to note they had caught up with us on their migration north. While out in our canoe we saw two species of turtles. We saw a male ‘fence lizard’ in his bright blue bellied spring mating colours which was a first for both of us. Their favourite food is ticks making them one of our special favourites as reptiles go. We even saw a small rattlesnake subtly moving off the trail as we approached. There were wildflowers carpeting the ground and the trees were in bloom especially several large eastern red buds with the glorious pink/red. The southern maples with their brilliant scarlet were stunning. We saw huge numbers of water striders doing some kind of giant communal mating swarm which was also a first for us. We built a campfire and sat and talked until it burned itself out almost every evening. From our campsite we could see and hear trailer loads of horses going to the equestrian site and we got many glimpses of horses and heard their whinnies often. The angle of our place up on the hill meant we got to enjoy spectacular sunrises and sunsets over the lake. There were a lot of ordinary folks from the area who were happy to talk and we learned a lot, especially about fishing and how bad the economy still was in this area. There was no internet or TV so the days were quiet and stress free and we relaxed. It was beyond lovely. On our last day we took the three miles long (about 6km) hike on a well marked trail around the outside edge of the lake. Most people take under an hour to do it. We went slowly, stopped for rests and looked at all kinds of fascinating things and ended up taking three hours. It was worth every minute.
On a practical note, we drove to a Choctaw Nation run casino/gas station/deli in Poteau every other day because they had unlimited free internet. The food was reasonably priced and very good. I lost $40 in their slot machines. The town of Poteau is typical of what is so callously referred to as “flyover states” by people living on the east and west coasts. Poteau was full of empty buildings, empty factories, empty warehouses and an entire historic downtown district of empty stores in what had once been a thriving small city in a thriving community. There were Trump signs everywhere. The few people left in the area were older and underemployed and had not one nice thing to say about Democrats. We drove to see Wister Lake State Park on one trip and it was nowhere near as nice as Cedar Lake. It was satisfying to know our detour was the right thing to do and we had ended up in a nicer spot.
Cedar Lake Campground Ouchita National Forest
Sometimes you pull into a campsite and your heart sings and your spirit lifts and you think “This is why I do this!” That’s how I felt coming to Cedar Lake. Cedar Lake is a small lake with a color like a glacial lake, pale blue/green and gorgeous. It is fed by two creeks. There are three major sections for camping. The east side has many lovely unserviced campsites. There is a section of serviced campsites including some with sewer on the south side on of the two creeks. There is a third group of sites above that on the west side of the lake that have water and electric. The upper area overlooks a lovely brown sand beach suitable for swimming. Half the sites, including all the sites adjacent to the beach, are reservable. Half are first, come first serve. Everything about this campsite was perfectly suited to my tastes. Big, spacious, private, paved drive, fire pit, barbecue, picnic table, and two places to hang things. We started with a lower level campsite with sewer in order to get our laundry done. We moved to a west side campsite high over the lake on the ridge where we could see both sunrise and sunset the next day. There is a three mile hike around the lake that is a delight. There are numerous other longer hikes. The west campground is adjacent to an equestrian camp so we got to see horses coming and going. Two caveats. The lower campsite with sewer is in a flash flood zone. Part of why we moved up the hill was because the forecast was for thunderstorms. Also signs say the lake can be contaminated with toxic blue green algae in hot weather. During our stay, it was just heavenly. Abundant wildlife, birds, turtles, beavers, and deer and blissful long paddles around the perimeter of the tiny sheltered lake, hikes on pathways with blooming wildflowers and the sound of creeks. During the weekend it got a bit noisy and busy so go weekdays if you have a choice.
And this is our trail after almost three weeks and seven moves. Next stop Cherokee Landing State Park and the Cherokee Heritage Centre.