The National Parks TravelingMom takes road trips across the continent exploring parks. However, a former national park in a neighboring state escaped her to-do list. A recent road trip to South Central Oklahoma had her kids splashing in a natural pool, watching the sun fall below the Arbuckle Mountains and tracking down bison in Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
A few hours north of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex, I found the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The area is filled with natural pools and scenic mountain vistas. With a recreational lake open for boating, historic structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps along with a resident herd of bison, families can play in Chickasaw for a long weekend with ease.
History of Platt National Park
A little known fact about Sulphur, Oklahoma – it’s home to demoted Platt National Park. It doesn’t happen often, but national parks can lose their designation and be “demoted.” That was the case for Platt National Park (1906 to 1976).
The Federal Government purchased 33 mineral springs to preserve the area from private overdevelopment in 1902 from the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The area was known as Sulphur Springs Reservation, but it would be renamed. At the time in the U.S., hydrotheraphy was fashionable as tourists and bathers flocked to the area along with Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In 1904, the area was enlarged. In 1906, the area was renamed Platt National Park, after Congressman Orville Platt of Connecticut. Early in Platt National Park’s history, attendance at the small park exceeded the visitation at Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.
In 1976, Platt National Park lost its national park designation. It was rolled into the newly-formed Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The original Platt National Park area is now the Platt Historical District, right outside the town of Sulphur.
Roosevelt’s New Deal and the CCC at Platt National Park
Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, shortly after his inauguration. Nicknamed Roosevelt’s Tree Army, the New Deal program employed 3 million people over its term from 1933 until 1942. In all, 4,500 CCC camps were established to restore or construct national parks, national forests, state and community parks across the country.
Unmarried men from 18 to 25 whose parents were on assistance could join the CCC. Participants earned $30 a month with $25 a month sent home. Participants enrolled for 6 months initially and could renew for 2 years.
Like the work in most CCC projects, Platt National Park’s work is organic with a heavy use of local materials. The CCC constructed the majority of the small dams along the rivers to provide natural swimming areas and built trails, pavilions and bridges.
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Lodging and Camping in Sulphur
During my visit to Sulphur, my family stayed at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center. It’s located next to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. With over 1,700 acres to explore, the Chickasaw Retreat offers the ultimate refuge for relaxing and reconnecting as a family.
Located next to the Platt Historical District in Sulphur, The Artesian Hotel offers families refined lodging steps from the park. The original hotel opened in 1906 and named after the mineral water found on the property during construction.
After an extensive rebuild in 2010, The Artesian offers visitors and locals a respite of refinement with upscale yet family-friendly dining, mineral bathing and notable spas for adults and kids alike.
For families wanting a rustic getaway, Chickasaw National Recreation Area provides six campgrounds with over 400 sites, some reservable and most seasonal.
Chickasaw National Recreation Area for families
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Our first stop, the Travertine Nature Center, is the place to start with kids. The building resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style architecture. We even found a creek running under the nature center.
My kids loved the interpretive area with live animals, including a live barn owl and several native snakes in aquariums. Kids run from one display to the next. I also found displays on the geologic features of the area.
I picked up a map and the Junior Ranger booklets. The Chickasaw National Recreation Area offers Junior Ranger programming over the weekends to earn the badge and patch. Take a hike, or if the weather is warm, swim in the natural swimming areas created by CCC-built waterfalls.
Swimming at Chickasaw
Families can swim in the Lake of the Arbuckles, Veterans Lake, Travertine Creek and Rock Creek. Boating and fishing rules the lakes though kids can splash and even swim in Travertine Creek, near the nature center.
Family Hiking in Chickasaw
During our visit to Chickasaw National Recreation Area, we hiked on several of the trails. I suggest any of the following.
- Antelope and Buffalo Springs, a 1.2-mile trail, labeled easy, originates from the Travertine Nature Center.
- Bison Pasture Trail, a 1.9-mile trail labeled moderate, originates from the Bison Viewing Area.
- Flower Park, a .5-mile trail labeled easy, originates from the Vendome Well.
- Travertine Creek Trail, 1.5-mile trail labeled easy, originates at the Travertine Nature Center.
Bison Viewing Area
Kids love animals, so stop at the Bison Viewing Area located off U.S. Route 177, just south of Sulphur. A herd of 10 buffalo roam in Chickasaw Natural Recreation Area.
After several attempts at bison viewing, we caught the bison near twilight in the viewing area. To our delight, we saw a couple of baby bison grazing near their mothers.
Where’s Chickasaw National Recreational Area
Chickasaw National Recreation area features several units. The Platt Historic Unit, right outside of Sulphur, features the Travertine Nature Center, the CCC buildings and swimming area. Arbuckle District offers Lake of the Arbuckles access at each of its three campground areas, Guy Sandy, The Point and Buckhorn. An additional boat launch is located at Upper Guy Sandy area too.
Chickasaw National Recreation area is 140 miles north of Dallas/Ft. Worth and 75 miles south of Oklahoma City. Located near the town of Sulphur, 12 miles east of Interstate 35.
Details for Chickasaw National Recreational Area
Chickasaw National Recreation Area is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. This area is a fee-free area.
Travertine Nature Center is open every day, except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. Explore from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m and 5:30 p.m. during the summer.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Bring some water shoes and towels. My kids waded across all the waterfalls and splashed in the natural pools.
- Swim at your own risk. No lifeguards on duty.
- Stay on marked trails. Watch kids near water and overlooks.
- Several venomous snakes live in Oklahoma.