Trans-America trail trip report: part 3 (Oklahoma to Westcliffe, Colorado)

March 30, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Like most TATists, I was wondering if Oklahoma might be boring. Even driving fast it was going to be a minimum of two days across. I crossed the border into Oklahoma from Arkansas early afternoon and immediately was blocked by flooded roads. After some work-arounds, I made it to Big Cabin, Oklahoma and stayed for the night in a Super 8 hotel. The country between the border and Big Cabin is rural farmlands and forests, very similar to Arkansas. There are lots of interesting old farms to photograph along the way. I spent more time in this area on the TAT Backwards trip as it was a favorite on the way west.

On my TAT backwards trip in July I stopped for gas and lunch far out west in Oklahoma and happened to run into 3 motorcyclists (one solo, and a father and son) all travelling west on the TAT. They'd been doing 80 mph across a large part of the state and were going to end up making the crossing in a little over a full day. I, however, loved Oklahoma and on my trip eastwards I spent a lot of time photographing old farms. I found Oklahoma anything but boring. Functionally, one can just head cross country on any of the gridded farm roads, either the official TAT route, or other roads parallel to the TAT. On my trip across the region in December 2017, I took the same strategy in Kansas, just using GPS and making ad hoc decisions about which roads to take across the plains and thoroughly enjoyed it. 

But, back to running the TAT westwards... After Big Cabin, the flooding continued through eastern Oklahoma. The road at Whippoorwill was under a lake but it was a relatively minor diversion. From here, the TAT runs right up to the Kansas border. Turning west, I managed a slippery, muddy water crossing of Coon Creek but was completely stopped by Cedar Creek (N36.998 W96.241). This road looks rarely traveled. I didn't need a camp at the time, but the area past the Coon Creek crossing would be good for camping. I backtracked just a touch and headed up country roads through Elgin Kansas and Hewins Kansas (a depressing town) before heading south again to pick up the TAT. This region is the transition from the rolling forested farm lands to the Great Plains.

Below - a bridge just east of Whipporwill, Oklahoma. 

Below, storm clouds over the grasslands near Lenepah Oklahoma.

Oklahoma skyOklahoma skyEastern Oklahoma was very stormy and wet on my first 2017 crossing, late-May on the Trans-America Trail. This shot was taken on a remote country road somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, 30 May 2017.

Farther west, things dried out in some areas. There were wind farms, hog farms, a cowboy cemetery (N36.967 W99.150), abandoned farmsteads, run-down towns, huge ranches, huge fracking operations, and friendly people who would pull up beside me to talk when I’d pulled over to send a text or make a call.

Cowboy cemeteryCowboy cemeteryIn the middle of nowhere in northern Oklahoma, I came across this small memorial. On the Trans-America Trail, 31 May 2017.

There was a potential camping spot at N36.968 W97.661. A little further west, there was a real good camping spot at an abandoned farmstead, N36.987 W97.861. 

 

I had intended to camp at Great Salt Plains Lake halfway across the State but the whole area was flooded, so I ended up staying in a hotel in Cherokee. Note that a number of maps show a free campsite just north of Jet but that is not the case - the road to the lakeshore 'camp' is private and just runs into a small community of mobile homes.

Motorcyclists can get away with camping in lots of places out here as they are pretty inconspicuous on what is almost all private property. A big red jeep is a little more noticeable though. On my TAT Backwards trip, however, I did find some abandoned farmsteads that had some secluded areas you can pull a jeep into and camp out. Watch for groves of trees in the distance - lots of time those are where the abandoned farmsteads were. 

Farther west, there are camping opportunities at: N36.765 W101.152 and at Black Mesa state park N36.843 W102.882. After 2 hotels earlier in the state, I camped on my third night at Black Mesa State Park in the far northwest corner of the State, a fabulous oasis in the grassland and highly recommended for a cost of $12 per night. Just south of here, there's also a bunkhouse that is right on the TAT - watch for a motorcycle on a pole in the middle of nowhere!

Typical looking farm roads in central Oklahoma: Northern Oklahoma farm roads on the Trans-America Trail, photo by Murray Rudd, Tendrel Images, 3633x5450.JPG

The farm roads of Oklahoma were a real challenge in places. If dry, it was easy to drive 50+ mph. If they were wet, the mud was so slippery that driving >20 mph was difficult. Travelling solo, getting stuck was a real concern here as there really were few areas that had any trees that one could use to winch out of. Getting stuck probably meant finding a kind farmer with a tractor to extract a vehicle, so easily a half day job if stuck in a really remote area.

The other driving challenge on the farm roads was deep ruts. Roads made of topsoil can support a bike or jeep just fine, but when wet they could not support heavy oil tankers. When big trucks had earlier driven a road in muddy conditions, there were huge ruts left behind, sometimes for miles, and which, when dry, solidified into rock-like grooves. Not fun…

Throughout this part of Oklahoma, there's all sorts of great photo opportunities at the abandoned farmsites that dot the area.

Grasslands monochromeGrasslands monochromeDeep in the heart of north central Oklahoma, monochrome photo of sparse vegetation, 31 May 2017

The TAT cuts briefly across the extreme northeast corner of New Mexico and one gets, after seemingly driving through someone’s farm yard, the first steep hill of the trip (well, there was one other in Tennessee but it was brief and rough). Once up the hill, then it is on to Colorado (past a wonderful abandoned farmhouse) on good gravel road. This is a good camping spot prior to hitting the private ranchland of southern Colorado – I camped here on the TAT Backwards trip. Note that it is also possible to go north from Black Mesa campground, then head west on scenic country roads (Dry Cimarron Highway) to re-connect with the TAT prior to heading up to the Colorado border (this would be a little faster than driving across New Mexico ranchlands if you are in a hurry). Trinidad has hotels but on weekends it can be really hard to get a room - I tried on TAT Backwards but could not find a room in the city, so ended up driving until 1 a.m. to get back to the old farmstead near the NM border to camp.

I had expected southern Colorado roads to be quite rough and isolated but there were a lot of backcountry residences through the section to Westcliffe. There was also a stunning old church in the middle of nowhere that might not be standing much longer. Coordinates are N37.676 W105.097. 

 

This area is still Great Plains type of scenery, and there's lots of opportunities for photos of cool trees, grazing land, and landscapes. The selection below are more infrared shots from the region south of Gardiner Colorado.

 

Storm clouds (infrared)Storm clouds (infrared)A juniper in the high plains of southern Colorado, on the Trans-America Trail, 1 June 2017.

Just before arriving in Westcliffe the TAT does its first mountain diversion, heading up into the San Isabel National Forest on scenic, easy roads - easy but the extreme washboard shook off my hood RAM mount video camera. Of course, I ran over that and crushed it just before coming around a corner to find a mom bear and yearling, neither of which were too concerned about my presence. 

If you want to camp rather than to push to Westcliffe and get a hotel (reserve early - it is hard to get a room there on weekends), there is a campsite at the top of the hill going into the San Isabel National Forest, just where the first road intersects with 165 (N 38.066 W 105.105).

I took a few extra days in Westville for a ranch photo shoot (run by Dan Ballard Photography and highly recommended) and then a couple of days in Colorado Springs for some front-end Jeep maintenance prior to rejoining the TAT. 

 

The next installment of the blog will cover the Colorado mountains.

 


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