A Walk Through Keystone Ancient Forest

I wonder what it was like for the indigenous Osage people of Oklahoma to walk through the forest of Northeast Oklahoma prior to white colonization? Washington Irving, an author and explorer, wandered through Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) in 1832 and wrote a book about his experience, “A Tour on the Prairies.” He was one of the first authors to record the beauty and intensity of the Northeast Oklahoma wilds.

What was it like blazing trails into miles of undergrowth and brambles in nearly pristine wilderness? I will never know, but I can imagine it. One way to put myself in the author’s shoes and pretend I was one of the first to see this lush and varied landscape is in the Keystone Ancient Forest.

On this trail, just a half-hour drive from downtown Tulsa in Sand Springs, one can touch on this important piece of literary history while having a fabulous, family friendly walk though a unique ecosystem. This was part of the trail Washington Irving and his explorer party traveled through.

Ghost Trail Sign

What makes the Keystone Ancient Forest one of a kind is it has never been developed. The trees on this preserve have stood the test of time with Cedars as old as 500 years, and 300-year-old Post Oak trees. What also makes this preserve unique is that volunteers keep it running; therefore, it is only open a few Saturdays a year. The majority of Saturdays it is open also fall on the best hiking months in Oklahoma: March, April, October and November. You have refer to the website or follow the Facebook page to see when it is open. The hiking hours are 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. https://www.sandspringsok.org/175/Keystone-Ancient-Forest

My family took this hike in mid-August, not the most ideal time to be on the trails. But we decided to make the best of it and start early in the morning to try to beat some of the heat. As we started at the trailhead, we were greeted by the helpful naturalist volunteers who showed us the trail maps and recommended the best hike that fit our family’s needs.

There are three trails of varying lengths from the simple, paved 0.6-mile “Childers Path,” which is ADA accessible, to the longer, rugged, 2.8-mile “Frank trail” that includes some steep inclines and drop offs. There is also the Wilson trail, which was said to be the hardest.

Lost Poem

We decided to walk half of the Frank trail, enough to catch a view of Lake Keystone then turn around. We borrowed some walking sticks and set out on the path. There was a sweet sign with a poem and benches to sit on and enjoy the calm beauty of this ancient place.

Right as my family started our walk I noticed how this trail was different then the many trails we regularly trek. The plant diversity was unique and varied. As a naturalist, I see a lot of invasive species as I am hiking. This was not as much the case here. We happened upon a sign that talked about how the forest service had done “prescribed fires” in this woods. Just like a doctor prescribes medicine, the forest service does controlled fires to manage this land.

Prescribed Fire Sign

Many ecosystems need sun, wind, rain, and also fire to stay healthy and balanced. Controlled fires burn invasive species and clear tree canopy to make more room for native plants to grow. This made so much sense to me as I saw what a distinctive, natural habitat was on these trails compared to many trails around the city that don’t do prescribed fires.

Moss on Rocks, and Winged Sumac

We made our way up from the slope of the paved Childers Trail to a series of switchbacks leading us further up to dirt trails that included an overlook. At the start of the switchbacks my children became weary, and I got out one of three snacks we took to keep the young trekkers happy. To learn more tips about how to have a satisfying hiking experience with young children see my Tulsa Kids post, “Hiking With Young Children.”

During our snack break we had an opportunity to look closely at the nature around us. This included a close-up view of moss on a rock and a sighting of one of the many funnel spiders webs alongside the trail. We heard several birds and the soft chirps of tree frogs. I love taking a moment to just sit and take it all in.

When the children were satiated, we continued on our way up the slope to a pretty rolling upper forest. You could tell we were getting close to a view but could not really see it yet. This became a great motivator to continue on as the day grew warmer and attitudes towards hiking became less agreeable. “Lets just see if we can find the view around this corner,” or “I bet the view will be just up this way,” were often repeated to keep everyone moving towards the destination.

Pretty View

Eventually, after rounding several corners we did end up at a vista that overlooked Lake Keystone. Framed by ancient oak trees, the view was absolutely breathtaking and worth the sweat that took us to get there. At this vista there was a plaque dedicated to Washington Irving and his party of explorers. We learned more about the history of this trail and got to step in the shoes of those explorers for a moment while admiring the view. I wish there was a plaque dedicated to the native peoples that inhabited this land before the settlers arrival. It would be useful to know the Osage history of this place.

Mushroom Cake

On our way back down we happened upon some friends also out for a stroll that day. They clued us into a special kind of edible mushroom they had seen growing further down the path. Mushroom hunting became a fun activity as we made our way down trail. We also stopped to enjoy a few wild edible winged sumac berries that were plentiful.

Mushroom Hunt

The varieties of mushrooms were abundant after all the good rains earlier that summer and spring, making our hunt enjoyable and motivating. When we found the mushrooms we took only pictures, as the rule at the preserve is to take only pictures, leave only footprints. Back at the base of the trail we got to examine field guides about flora and fauna, and tried to identify all the interesting plant life we found while hiking. Keystone Ancient Forest is a striking and exceptional place. We plan to go back and admire the fall delights this trail offers while enjoying the cooler temperatures in this gorgeous place.

Family Portrait

Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997. She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK, where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. Margaritte is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek. You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She is a regular contributor to TulsaKids.com and also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms www.adventuresofmulletmom.blogspot.com. She was also published in Hilary Frank’s 2019 book, “Weird Parenting Wins.”


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