School's out, the sun is (usually) shining, and you've probably been cooped up most of the year in an office or classroom. So get out! You don't have to leave the country or spend a fortune to get outside and enjoy the season. Just down the highway you'll find many tip-top Oklahoma daytrip destinations for the whole family -- some relaxing, some educational and some just downright weird. All of them are fun.
So load the kiddies and granny in the van and cruise on down the road to see what awaits you.
Museum of Osteology
Be a day tripper to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City. You'll feel it in your bones when you examine -- with sight and touch -- the bones in this place. More than 300 skeletons and 400 skulls are exhibited here. Josh Villemarette, Office Manager and Marketing Director, said the museum is "geared for people of all ages. We've even had three-year-olds go crazy looking at the bones."
Ranked the number one Oklahoma City attraction by Tripadvisor for a year now, the museum combines the emotions of excitement with its unique educational features as well as providing a shock factor of what is actually seen. The only one of its kind in America, the museum has 7,000 square feet of assembled bones (skulls and skeletal systems) all focused on form and function. Hundreds of bones from around the world are displayed. Exhibits include adaptation, locomotion, classification and diversity of the vertebrate kingdom.
So how are these bones acquired? All are legally and ethically obtained, Villemarette said, and many come from zoos. "When zoos lose a specimen, we drive there, pack it up and take it back to the museum. We then strip the meat with the aid of dermestid beetles," said Villemarette. Then after cleaning the specimen, it is degreased and whitened using a chemical process which produces not only a sanitary piece, but an attractive one as well.
Some of the museum highlights, said Villemarette, are the 40-foot humpback whale hanging from the ceiling, giraffes and an elephant. It's fine to get up close and personal with these bones: Touching is allowed, and even encouraged on many specimens. Some other bony creatures include cats, tigers, lions, apes, lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, caecilians and monkeys. Even native Oklahoma wildlife is displayed, including a scissor-tail flycatcher skeleton, the American bison, beaver, squirrels, muskrat, box turtle, mice and fox. All are in life-like poses, Villemarette added.
It was not on a whim that this museum came to be; it is an offspring of more than 25 years of experience in the skull-cleaning business. Villemarette's father, Jay, became fascinated with bones after finding a skull in the woods as a 7-year-old. From that time he began collecting bones, and today he is known as the pioneer of skull-cleaning science with his company, Skulls Unlimited International, Inc., the world's leading supplier of osteological specimens. Josh said his father's company has cleaned hundreds of thousands of skulls and skeletons for educational and medical facilities, museums, zoological gardens, collectors and taxidermists worldwide. All of this led to the eventual founding of the museum in October 2010.
Imagine having more than 1 million bats fly out of cave and over you as they seek out their dinner. For the last 100 years, that is exactly what has happened at the Alabaster Caverns State Park. This batty spectacle is open for public viewing each Friday and Saturday night in the summer at the Selman Wildlife Management Area near Woodward, the only public viewing of Mexican free-tailed bats in Oklahoma. This area is home to one of the state's largest maternity colonies of these little Mexican bats.
Melynda Hickman, spokeswoman at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Wildlife Diversity Programs, offered many fascinating facts about these flying Mexican mammals. "They are female migratory bats that arrive here from Mexico each spring," she said. They travel 1,400 miles from Mexico alongside males, mating en route somewhere over Texas, after which the males and females separate. The females travel to Oklahoma to give birth while the males are nomadic, remaining in Texas, Hickman said. The end result is a million or more pregnant bats in the cave.
They come out to feed each evening with a very hearty appetite. "They consume 20 tons of insects each night, one-half their body weight," Hickman said. "They have a high metabolic rate." They feed on moths, mosquitoes (estimated to be around 3,000 a night), beetles and leafhoppers. Another fascinating fact is that these bats have been tracked by Doppler radar and are known to leave the cave and hunt insects up to 60 miles away, Hickman said. Besides the awe the bats bring to spectators, they also provide a huge economic benefit to local farmers and ranchers by consuming pesky insects.
The event begins at the Alabaster Caverns State Park, six miles south of Freedom (about three hours northeast of Tulsa) and 30 miles northeast of Woodward. Spacing is limited, so pre-registration to attend a bat watch is a must; sign-up begins May 29. Act quickly, for registration forms to attend this summer must be postmarked no later than June 7, 2012, and July viewing dates are now open. Children must be age 8 or older because of the length of the viewing and for safety issues. Attendees will board a bus and travel to the Selman Wildlife Management Area (an area that is closed off to the public except during bat viewing times). As the sun sets in the western sky, don the binoculars and have the cameras ready to view the bats soaring overhead.
While in Freedom, be a weekender and stay another day to walk about the Oklahoma prairies, embark on a nature tour, or tour through the caverns at the 200-acre Alabaster Caverns State Park. Visitors can take a 45-minute guided tour through parts of the three-quarter-mile cavern (the largest natural gypsum cave in the world) formed of alabaster (a rare form of gypsum). Daily guided tours of Alabaster Caverns are available on the hour between 9am-4pm. For safety reasons, each tour has a maximum number of visitors who can be accommodated. There is a fee for the tour. For RVers, the park has RV set-ups and other camping areas. Hiking trails, picnic areas, group shelters with electricity, grills, water, a horseshoe pit and a volleyball court are available at the park.
For those who like to take a trip on the wild side, wild caving between 8am-3pm is also available at Alabaster State Park. Four caves are reserved especially for wild caving, or spelunking as it is also called, at Alabaster Caverns. The caves range from 550 feet to 1,600-feet. Permits are required and may be obtained at the park office.
Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art
One of the best-kept museum secrets in Oklahoma has to be the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art. Founded in 1919, this museum is located on the campus of St. Gregory's University, in Shawnee, and is one of the oldest museums in Oklahoma. An art collection which spans more than 6,000 years is a notable feature here. Artwork from ancient Egypt (which boasts the only Egyptian mummies in Oklahoma) together with Oriental, Native American, African Medieval and Renaissance pieces lands the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art as a leader in Oklahoma and this region of the country.
Dane Pollei, Director and Chief Curator, said one great reason to pay a visit this summer is the admission is free June-August because of donations made to the museum. Regarding the museum, he said "We have one of the oldest collections in Oklahoma." And while on the campus of SGU, he said "We are a non-profit organization and separate from the University." Still, as Pollei explained, there is a connection to the Benedictine University which is the only Roman Catholic University in Oklahoma and the oldest institution of higher learning in the State. One half of the museum's name comes from Benedictine monk Father Gregory Gerrer, whose personal collection of art objects from his travels to Europe, South America and Africa -- and who has a natural artistic talent himself -- set in motion what today is the Mabee-Gerrer Museum.
"We have one of the nicest Egyptian exhibits around," Pollei said when asked about special museum attractions. Tutu the Mummy is a prized aquisition in the Egyptian exhibit, he said. "We also have a good collection of Hudson River School paintings, works by Tintoretto, the last great Renaissance artist, and works by Adophe William Bouguereau, a 19th century French painter who was somewhat derided during his time, but has some fine works," Pollei said. Of Bouguereau, Pollei said while most artists of this time were into the surrealist, impressionistic and cubist scene, Bouguereau was not. His mythological scenes and religious subjects combined his sense of sentimentality with the idealism of Raphael and Reni.
Special summer exhibits include "Katherine Liontas-Warren: Oklahoma Perspectives," through June 24. Professor of Art at Cameron University, where she teaches art and printmaking, Liontas-Warren has exhibited portraits, narrative drawings, still lifes, charcoal landscapes and more in over 20 solo shows and 275 national and regional juried competitive exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe and has received numerous purchase and juried awards. On June 8, 7pm, a reception and artist talk will be held with Liontas-Warren at the Museum.
"Creatures of the World: Animals in Art" is another summer special exhibit from July 14-August 26. This exhibit, depicted on stone, basketry and paintings, shows how animals have influenced man's perception and view of art. In addition to these two special summer shows, a number of art camps are available for children of all ages through the summer months.
To the land of Will Rogers
AAA-Oklahoma is always a good source for planning and getting ideas for summer vacations. Danial Karnes, Community Relations Specialist for AAA Oklahoma, Tulsa office, said "There are many great cities in Oklahoma where people can go for a weekend trip." Karnes specifically mentioned a day trip to the museums at Claremore, the J.M. Davis Arms & Historical Museum and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
The J.M. Davis has the largest private gun collection in the world. There are more than 50,000 items to see and experience, from saddles to spurs, local ranching brands, German beer steins, World War I posters, military weapons, John Rogers statuary, Native American artifacts and more.
The Will Rogers Memorial eight-gallery museum was built in 1938 of fossilized limestone quarried nearby and frames the Rogers family tomb in the sunken garden. Lots of interesting Rogers historical information is available for viewing, including more than 2,000 volumes from the 1879-1935 era by, about, or referencing Will Rogers, such as texts on his years in vaudeville, early motion pictures and Indians. The Archives in the Museum is home to the world's largest collection of documents about Will Rogers, such as original manuscripts, his personal papers and private letters, and 18,000 photographs. The museum is open every day of the year from 8am-5pm.
For the outdoorsy types, "there are a lot of great trips people can take to area lakes and parks, such as Grand Lake and Keystone Lake. You can drive up for the day, go fishing, have a picnic at the lake and be back home that night," said Karnes. He also suggests taking a hike west on I-44 to see what the Oklahoma City area has to offer. Karnes suggested the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman, where visitors can feast their senses on the fascinating cultural and natural history of Oklahoma. Opened in 2000, the museum houses more than four billion years of Oklahoma's natural history. Five galleries feature thousands of artifacts in 50,000 square feet of exhibit space.
Night at the museum
Also, visitors will want to check out the new Science Museum Oklahoma, formerly known as the Omniplex. Science Museum Oklahoma is one of OKC's premiere educational entertainment attractions. With exhibits, a planetarium, a state-of-the-art theater, galleries and more, Science Museum Oklahoma offers a rare opportunity to experience amazing and interactive education, and fun. One exhibit, the new "Tinkering Garage" allows guests to explore the tools and create their own projects. "Destination Space" is another fun exhibit featuring one-of-a-kind space artifacts such as the actual Apollo Command Module Mission Simulator.
Imagine what it would be like to really spend the night in the museum. "Bright Nights!" is an event where families actually can spend the night at the museum, which includes access to all of the museum's exhibits and shows, plus specially designed hands-on activities. The kids will always remember this adventure, so bring your sleeping bags and pillows to one or both of the two summer sessions: June 15, Bright Night of Grossology, and August 17, Bright Night of CSI: Museum Style.
Prehistoric Indian burial grounds
A very important historical area of the state home to the only prehistoric Native American archaeological site in Oklahoma is Spiro Mounds. "For those not exposed to the past, they think these are just hills of dirt. They are more than a just a bunch of hills," said Dennis Peterson, Manager and site archeologist at Spiro Mounds Archeologist Center since 1979. He's right. Many have heard of the mounds, but have no idea about the significance of the area in Oklahoma and world history.
"This was the Washington, D.C. of the past," Peterson said. Put another way, it is one of the most important American Indian sites in the nation because of the artifacts and art which have been dug from the site's only burial ground, Craig Mound. "There's a difference between what you see in John Wayne movies and what you'll see here," Peterson said. He's referring to the American Indian sites in this area of eastern Oklahoma. "It was a much more complex society -- a lot less violent than what you would see on a TV show or movie."
The Caddoan-speaking Indians created and used the Mounds between 850 and 1450 A.D., and this part of Oklahoma became the seat of ancient Mississippian culture. Later, this area grew to be one of the most important cultural centers in what would later become the United States. The 12 mounds became a regional powerhouse to an impressive trade network, a working political system and a highly developed religious center.
Today, visitors can learn of the excavations on this site through the years, and because of the wide range of art and artifacts discovered, it was labeled the "King Tut of the Arkansas Valley by the Kansas City Star in 1935. The Archeological Center has a number of exhibits for the public to study this past. In addition, Peterson said, with the help of a guidebook tourists can take a walk along almost two miles of interpretive trails, including a one-half mile nature trail. He said it is not uncommon to see deer and bobcats, and on occasion turkeys, coyotes, black bears and cougars on the nature preserve.
Peterson encourages visitors to take part in the Summer Solstice Walks, Wednesday-Thursday, June 20-July 21, at 11am, 2pm and 7pm. Peterson leads these Solstice walks which are one mile of easy walking and two hours long and packed with historical mound information.
Peterson said visitors could easily make a day of this adventure, or even extend the trip to include visiting Sequoyah's Cabin in Sallisaw and the Kerr Country Mansion/Conference Center and Museum in Poteau. (Robert S. Kerr was Oklahoma's first native-born governor, 1943-47, and president of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries, Inc.)
A salty experience
A fun day trip like no other in Oklahoma is to the Great Salt Plains State Park in Jet. What an interesting place this is: a barren area of land comprised of salt left over from an ocean that once covered Oklahoma. An ocean that covered Oklahoma? In prehistoric times, this was the case -- and today, the Great Salt Plains Lake is about half as salty as the ocean.
About 2 hours from the UTW office (154 miles), it's a great excursion, for there are park activities such as swimming and fishing (for catfish, saugeye, sand bass and hybrid striper) in the salty lake, taking a ride along the bike trails, riding your horse on the equestrian trail or taking a walk on the nature trail.
But one of the main attractions has to be crystal digging on the plains. Digging is open April 1-October 15, sunrise to sunset on this 11,000-acre almost perfectly flat and barren terrain. This area is topped with a wafer-thin salt crust and is deemed the largest saline flat in the central lowlands of North America.
Repeated flooding, then evaporating of sea water, millions of years ago resulted in thick layers of salt to this region of the country. Today, water travels through the salt-saturated sand and comes to the surface where it evaporates, leaving the crusty salt. Concentrated crystal-cluster saline solution combines with gypsum to build selenite crystal growth on part of the salt flats. On the Plains, crystals are formed just below the surface, rarely deeper than two feet. Digging for crystals, one might be so lucky as to find an hourglass shape inside the crystal: it is a shape only found here in northwestern Oklahoma.
If you really enjoy your day visit digging for crystals, extend it to a weekend trip, spending the night in one of the newly renovated, eco-friendly cabins. Each cabin has basic essentials, such as its own bed, refrigerator and stove, and a few other amenities. RVing? RV and tent sites are available with full hookups. Shower stations are located near the sites and throughout the park. Outdoor grills and picnic areas are also available.
Summer in Oklahoma for many means a visit to Tahlequah and experiencing the historical exhibits of the Cherokee Indians. A good place to begin is with the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, just south of Tahlequah. Penny L. Moore, Development Director of the Cherokee Heritage Center, said two of the main attractions are the ancient Village and the Trail of Tears Exhibit.
"The Ancient Village is a replica of a 1700 village. It's traveling back to another time in this village," said Moore. Visitors to Tsa-La-Gi (which means "Cherokee") Village experience what life was like in a Cherokee village before European contact. Guided tours are available through the village where guests receive a historical education to the Cherokee people and their practices. Along the tour are demonstrations (reenactments) of basketry, pottery, flint knapping, stickball, dugout canoe and bow making.
The Trail of Tears Exhibit exposes the forced removal of the Cherokee people from their indigenous territory to the "Indian Territory," present day Oklahoma. This exhibit offers glimpses into Cherokee history and culture along the way.
Another contact for what's available in Tahlequah is the Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism division of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee National Prison recently opened in May of this year, and a walk through this museum allows visitors to experience the history of crime and punishment in the Cherokee Nation, as well as reliving the infamous Cherokee outlaw stories.
"It was more than 137 years ago that the Cherokee National Prison opened as the first correctional facility in Indian Territory," said Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. With the opening of this museum, "we celebrate and preserve the history of our ancestors for our people, fellow Oklahomans and visitors to the great Cherokee Nation."
The Cherokee National Prison was the only penitentiary building in Indian Territory from 1875 to 1901. It housed sentenced and accused prisoners from throughout the territory. Built of sandstone rock, the prison was made to hold the most hardened and dangerous prisoners. The interpretive site and museum shows visitors how law and order operated in Indian Territory. The historic site features a working blacksmith area and reconstructed gallows.
A new program launched May 9 is the "Cherokee Compass" program which presents adventures in every direction, from examining the historic Cherokee Phoenix and printing press of the first newspaper in Indian Territory to exploring the history of crime with infamous Cherokee outlaw stories. Visitors can even witness what life was like before and after European contact and relive the spirit and times during the Trail of Tears and the Civil War.
"Cherokee Compass is an exciting program that provides visitors with a genuine and unique perspective of Cherokee Nation's historic wonders and rich culture throughout northeastern Oklahoma," said Baker. "Visitors can follow in the footsteps of our Cherokee ancestors and discover adventures with each visit."
Guests receive a stamp in their "Cherokee Compass" booklet at each of the four destinations and, once completed, can redeem it for a free Osiyo T-shirt at the Cherokee Nation Gift Shop in Tahlequah. The booklet is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $15 for teens. The tourism locations include the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum; Cherokee National Prison Museum; John Ross Museum and Ross Cemetery; and Cherokee Heritage Center.
A fun group activity with family and friends is to embark on a Cherokee Nation group cultural tour. These group tours can be built into exciting daytrips, fun-filled weekend getaways or compelling weeklong excursions filled with culture, exploration, food and fun. "Cherokee Nation group tours offer a unique opportunity for family and friends to share in an enjoyable experience with authentic Cherokee culture and to participate in traditional Cherokee activities," said Molly Jarvis, vice president of cultural tourism at Cherokee Nation Entertainment. "The many add-ons compliment the tours and provide firsthand knowledge of Cherokee lifeways."
Some of the locations and cultural sites include the Cherokee History Tour, the Will Rogers History Tour, the Civil War History Tour, and the Cherokee Old Settler Tour. Ticketing and additional information on the Tourism program, visit CherokeeTourismOK.com.
Finally, the Cherokee Heritage Center 2012 season features a number of art shows and exhibitions, programs, education and cultural classes. Offerings this summer include Cherokee Baskets -- History Woven in Art, May 29-August 19; the 17th Annual Cherokee Homecoming Art Show, August 25-September 16; the J.B. Milam Exhibit, September 24-December 31; the Cherokee National Holiday Arts and Crafts Fair, August 31-September 2, Genealogy Classes through August, and Double-Walled Round Reed Basketry, June 2, a cultural class to experience this skill ($40).
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