Charon’s Garden Trail – Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

I’d seen so many hiking blog posts, comments and videos surrounding the difficulty of the Valley of Boulders portion of Charon’s Garden Trail, by the time we’d reached the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma I’d almost completely psyched myself out.

On the other hand, I had also seen photos of children navigating parts of the boulder field with ease, so how hard could it be? We’d know for sure if we could cross it the moment the “Apple and Pear” rock formation on the west side of Elk Mountain came into view. I’d given us a 50/50 chance of making it through.

 

Charon’s Garden Trail Interactive Hiking Map

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Charon’s Garden map GPX file

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 Directions


Charon’s Garden trailhead. From the Wichita Mountains Visitor Center, head west on OK-115 N/OK-49 E. At the T junction, go north (right) on OK-115 N/OK-49 E and continue for 6.3 miles. Turn left on Sunset Lake Road towards the Sunset Picnic Area. Proceed .4 miles to a parking lot. Charon’s Garden trailhead is at the southwest corner of the lot near the restrooms.


 Difficulty


Difficult

 Hiking Time


Approximately 6 hours

 Total Distance


6.5 miles

 Route type


Loop

 Cost


Free!

 Dogs


Allowed on 10-foot leash

 Exposure to sun


Partial tree cover

 Restrooms


Yes

 Flora/fauna


Rattlesnakes, copperheads, bison, longhorn cattle, ticks, poison ivy, cacti

 Accessible?


No

 Kid friendly


Mostly, but boulder field possibly too difficult


 Hiking Charon’s Garden Trail


It is a short hike to the Valley of Boulders from Sunset picnic area — about eight tenths of a mile. What had concerned me most was the Strava heatmap of Charon’s Garden Trail.

For the most part it is a solid red and well-defined GPS heat signature from hikers who had previously forged through this wilderness.

However, the heatmap falls apart between the northern and southern entrances to the Valley of Boulders — a tell-tale sign that far fewer hikers make it past this granite graveyard than those who attempt to traverse it.

Obviously, I wasn’t the first person to be intimidated by this trek.

Red heatmap signature on a map showing a break in the line near the Valley of Boulders on Charon's Garden Trail.
Broken heatmap signature at the Valley of Boulders..

 

In Greek mythology, the newly-deceased were ferried across the river Styx by underworld dweller Charon (pronounced Karen). Passage was paid for by coins stuck in the mouths of the dead. Whoever named this region found it so challenging and rugged they believed it to be a suitable substitute for Hades itself.

Boulders known as Apple and Pear in the Valley of Boulders on Charon's Garden Trail, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
Apple and Pear.

Our descent into the underworld

Hitting the Charon’s Garden Trail early in the morning, we soon saw this beast for ourselves. When the trail opened up from a wooded canopy to a sprawling boulder field with rocks the size of school buses and small houses, we decided to sit at the edge for a few minutes and ponder our next moves.

Woman hiker navigating massive rocks in the Valley of Boulders at Charon's Garden hiking trail, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Facing south, it appeared the easiest route would be to begin on the eastern side of the entrance to the boulder field and work our ways diagonally to the western side. Although I don’t believe there is one “official” way through the field, we’d read that the western side is easier. We soon discovered why — there is a trail along much of the western side of Valley of Boulders.

That would have been helpful to know ahead of time, but luckily we found it by accident.

There were definitely some sizable steps to navigate in this early portion of the canyon, but the rough granite made for excellent traction under our hiking boots. Once we had cleared this early rugged section and found where the trail picked up, we laughed at ourselves for having been so worried.

Woman hiker scrambling over large rocks in the Valley of Boulders on the Charon's Garden Trail in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
The eastern side of the Valley of Boulders presents greater challenges and fun scrambling opportunities.

That said, some choose to take the eastern route through this area, which to us looked far more challenging. That’s what great about this hike — it’s easily customized to one’s level of ability.

 

Confident that the worst (or maybe the best depending on your opinion of boulder fields) was behind us, we began to explore offshoots of the trail that led to a maze-like network of “rock rooms” — some of which took us under the range to the eastern side of the canyon.

Woman hiker seated atop a granite outcropping in a rock room at the Valley of Boulders at Charon's Garden Trail.

It is here under this jumble of granite giants that a new world opens, one that is magical and mysterious.

Woman hiker looking up a massive rocks in a rock room at Valley of Boulders on Charon's Garden Trail in Oklahoma.

You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to explore this place as you will not be returning from whence you came (if you follow our route detailed in the map above). Charon’s ferry only takes souls one way, after all.

Next stop: Post Oak Falls

Woman hiker standing atop boulder and reflected in small water pool along Charon's Garden Trail at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Hiking south from the Valley of Boulders, head to Post Oak Falls — the only waterfall of any significant height in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Depending on the time of year, the waterfall may be only a trickle. Nevertheless, the interesting rock formations surrounding this feature make the short detour worth the effort.

Woman hiker looking at Post Oak Falls along the Charon's Garden Trail in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma.
Post Oak Falls.

From here visitors can opt to turn back, however we suggest making the roughly three quarters of a mile hike to the southern trailhead of Charon’s Garden Trail for gorgeous views of Post Oak Lake and Treasure Lake.

Woman hiker overlooking Treasure Lake off Charon's Garden Trail in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.
Treasure Lake.

 

The “easy button” route

Turning northward, to avoid taking the “hard way” back through the Valley of Boulders, veer left at the mountain and follow Post Oak Creek for three quarters of a mile to Crab Eyes Trail. This trail is less defined in sections, but because you are in a creek valley the path forward is fairly obvious.

Woman hiker standing atop rocky bluff under blue sky in Charon's Garden Wilderness, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Just before this hike connects with Crab Eyes Trail, an easily-scaled rocky outcrop is a perfect perch for 360-degree views of the Charon’s Garden Wilderness. From here the rock formation Crab Eyes is visible as well.

Woman hiking on rocky trails with tall prairie grass under blue sky at Crab Eyes Trail in Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
The climb to Crab Eyes.

Crab Eyes

It is roughly another mile and an elevation gain of about 200 feet to Crab Eyes from the Post Oak Creek trail junction. The trail is a fairly easy hike until its final rocky ascent where most of the elevation is climbed.

Rock formation known as Crab Eyes with two precariously-balanced boulders atop a rocky outcropping that resembles crab eyes.
Crab Eyes.

Although a series of “ramps” on the northeast side can be scaled to mount the absolute summit of Crab Eyes, this effort is not for the timid. We hiked about halfway up these ramps, but when we saw the final perilous scramble we knew it was our cue to turn back. We’ll leave that crazy activity to the true climbers.

 

The mile and a half return hike to Sunset picnic area was easy and felt incredibly rewarding after our adventure. Having hit the trail at about 7:30 am, we were tired and ravenous by the time we reached our truck at 1:30 pm.

We ate lunch at the nearby Meers Store and Restaurant where we recounted our amazing morning between bites of a massive “Seismic” burger and delectable home-made peach cobbler.

Meers Store and Restaurant near Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.
Meers Store and Restaurant.

 Charon’s Garden Trail FAQ


Are dogs allowed at Charon’s Garden Trail?

Dogs are allowed here on a 10-foot leash, but it is probably not a good idea to take dogs through the Valley of Boulders portion of the trail unless your pooch is part ape. If you’re taking your four-legged friend, starting from the southern trailhead might offer better opportunities.

Are there bathrooms?

Yes, there are permanent bathrooms at the north trailhead at Sunset Picnic Area.

What is the cost?

Entry into the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge is free.

Should I take the northern or southern trailhead?

Although there is a southern trailhead, we believe it is easier to navigate the Valley of Boulders by entering from the north.

How long is the trail?

It is roughly 2.1 miles from the northern trailhead to the southern trailhead. If you follow the same out-and-back route as us (see our interactive map) and include Crab Eyes, the total distance is roughly 6.5 miles.

Are there snakes?

Yes. Although unlikely, encountering a rattlesnake is a possibility.

Do you need knee pads for the Valley of Boulders section of Charon’s Garden?

We wore knee pads for our scramble across the Valley of Boulders. We may not have needed them for much of this area, but it gave us more confidence to explore.

Do you need headlamps or flashlights to explore the rock rooms?

We packed headlamps in anticipation of dark rock rooms, but we were surprised to find plenty of natural light under the boulder field. We might have used them had we explored deeper into the rock rooms. We like to keep them handy anyway for safety, but you’ll probably be fine without.

How should I dress?

Be prepared by dressing in layers and packing plenty of water. Oklahoma weather is often unpredictable.

 Use map for real-time navigation


Load this web page on your phone before heading to the trail. Once there, be sure to put your device in airplane mode in order to save battery life.

Simply tap the map marker icon on the map to show your current location and follow along.

Tap the layers icon to switch between topographic, satellite and other helpful map layers. Be sure to check out the Heatmap overlay to see where others have gone before you!

Happy hiking!

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2 Replies to “Charon’s Garden Trail – Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge”

  1. Omg those shots you got are amazing!! This looks like a good scrambling hike! Love the size of the boulders! My kind of scenery! The map is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing.

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