Keystone Ancient Forest now a hiker's must

Sand Springs' new primitive 3.55-mile Falls Trail adds full range to KAF offerings

Sand Springs Parks and Recreation Department Operations Manager Joe Medlin, center crosses the falls on Brush Creek Saturday with hikers Dana Callery of Tulsa and Dori Bell of Broken Arrow, and KAF trail guide volunteer Marla McMahon. (KJBOutdoors photo)

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The soft smooth trail under my feet, almost like walking on peat moss, and the nearly silent strides I enjoyed on a path wide as a sidewalk through what would be a crunchy carpet of leaves with hidden hazards underfoot made the first great impression.

The new 3.55-mile Falls Trail at Keystone Ancient Forest opened early Saturday and I was one of the first down the route as I jumped ahead of a group of park volunteers and city staff who gathered to walk the trail in celebration that morning.

Smooth and pleasant as that first third of a mile went, however, the early portions of this trail should not fool anyone. The yellow sign with black lettering at the head of the trail says it all.

“ONLY YOU are capable of deciding if you can hike this trail.”

It is incredible what City of Sand Springs Parks Director Jeff Edwards, city staff and volunteers created in the space of about three months. It’s a winding, up-and-down 3.55-mile trail through rugged terrain that was hand cleared with loppers, a little chainsaw work and folks who walked even the toughest terrain while toting backpack leaf-blowers.

“We went over it about eight times with the blowers,” Edwards said.

The City of Sand Springs has upped its game at Keystone Ancient Forest and it’s a fantastic opportunity for Oklahomans to get a closer look at what a crosstimbers wilderness is all about.

With the addition of the new trail the KAF now can brag it has 12 miles of available path—from handicapped and family friendly routes to the Falls Trail that fully fits the definition of “primitive.” The new $1 million Sharna and Irvin Frank Visitors Center (with indoor restrooms and everything) opens with a ribbon cutting ceremony Friday. They’ve hired a full-time park manager to look after the place, and they’ve increased the hours the gates are open to 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Thursdays and 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday.

The KAF now is officially a must-visit for Oklahoma’s hikers.

The clean, leaf-blown path of Falls Trail may not sound like much, but to someone who has often walked this kind of rocky don’t-trip-or-else terrain while hunting rattlesnakes the cleared leaves made an incredible difference that made me appreciate how others will be able to enjoy a type of landscape I’ve come to appreciate but have recognized is one that’s tough for most people to reach.

That clean-blown path also makes for an unmistakable trail. This is one “primitive trail” where you’re going to have to try really hard to get lost.

Now, could you slip and fall? Yes, I even took an unexpected knee in one wet spot.

Trip over a root or a rock and tumble? That’s a definite possibility.

Wander too close to an edge and fall or lose your footing and seriously injure yourself? Sure, that could happen.

Step on a rattlesnake or a copperhead? That’s less likely but possible too.

I made it around the route early Saturday at a leisurely pace with a pair of heavy camera bodies hanging off my neck. I trailed first-time hiker Dori Bell of Broken Arrow and she made it around just fine too—with a few assists from the trail-breaking Parks Operations Manger Joe Medlin, who guided folks as he walked the route with the parks group.

And I finished up the walk with longtime Ancient Forest trail guide volunteer Marla McMahon, who made it around the route in a pair of street-ready Nikes.

“This is the first I’ve been out since last year with the pandemic,” she said while catching her breath. “I walk a mile and a half every day but I can tell I’m out of shape.”

I was impressed with the experienced hiker’s footwork, proof that age and experience counts for something.

A good walking stick will be a big help to some hikers. Some obstacles and steep slopes will challenge those unsure about best foot placement and inexperienced at keeping their balance in such places.

Edwards and Medlin both shared tails of sore legs after walking the route many times to clear trail. Edwards said one volunteer group that walked out to help one day “struggled immensely.”

Walking a trail marked “difficult,” or in the case of this trail with signs marked “difficult” and “more difficult,” is not just a walk in the park. This isn’t a path for people wearing shorts and flip-flops—or the faint of heart or the woefully inexperienced.

The overall route is relatively kind. It has its obstacle courses and steep sections and tough downhills and some slick muddy spots, but they are interspersed with some level and easy downhill sections.

The first waterfall is at mile 1.8, about halfway in. For those who might think they’ve had enough at that marker and want to turn around, don’t. The second half is actually a little easier walking than the first.

Edwards and Medlin said Parks planners have known about the waterfall for years and eyed it for an eventual trail route. Medlin said during the process of pinpointing features of interest this winter they discovered the upper reaches of Brush Creek actually has two waterfalls. The trail crosses both.

It also parallels Brush Creek in spots that are very narrow, with rocky bluffs rising from one side and a 30-foot drop straight down to the rocky valley on the other. Upper portions of the trail bring hikers up close and personal with incredible rock formations, the big 500-year-old red cedars and 300-year-old oaks of the crosstimbers.

On Saturday the falls were neat but several people commented they might like to come back and hazard traversing slippery trails if it meant they could see the falls with more water flowing. In a couple cases that subject might have come up because I am among those who would like to do that.

Even so, the sweeping views and a chance to experience the crosstimbers along a clear and open, guided, but primitive, path is well worth the trip—err, don’t trip, just visit.

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