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Spelunkingin Oklahoma R By Charles W. Sasser


obbers Cave’s claim to fame came from outlaws like Jesse James, the Dalton Gang, and Belle Starr who hid out in the region and pressed by deputies from Hanging Judge Parker’s court in Fort Smith, Ark., prior to Oklahoma statehood. Eight thousand years


before that, the fi rst people to migrate into what is present-day Oklaho- ma crouched in caves for protection against weather and fi erce prehistoric beasts. Archaeological sites dating to before 6,000 B.C. dot the state, 124 of them in Latimer County alone, where Robbers Cave is located in Kiamichi Electric Cooperative service territory. The National Speleological Society ranks Oklahoma No. 17 in the nation in the number of known caves. Ken Lyon, treasurer of Tulsa Regional Oklahoma Grotto (TROG), estimates there may be as many as 300 under- ground caverns in the state, many of which are still “wild,” meaning unex- plored or largely unknown. TROG is one of two primary spelunker (caving) organizations in the state dedicated to exploring, surveying, mapping and preserving the ecology of caves. Oklahoma caves are most numerous in three areas: the Ozark-Cookson Hills in northeastern Oklahoma along the fringes of the Missouri-Arkansas cave complex; the Blaine Gypsum Formation in northwestern Oklahoma; and the Arbuckle Mountain region of the southeast. Cave ecology is extremely fragile and often home for endangered bat species. Conservationists are concerned cavers will spread White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease in guano that has been known to wipe out entire bat populations. Most caves on federal and state lands are therefore closed to spelunkers. The ecosystem of Oklahoma’s largest cave with over 9 miles of mapped


passages, the Duncan Field cave complex in Adair County in Ozarks Electric Cooperative territory, includes 59 different animal species. TROG is cur- rently surveying it for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Access to it is otherwise restricted. “For the protection of caves and their environments,” Lyon says, “we try to keep cave locations secret.” However, a number of spectacular Oklahoma caves are available to the public through the Oklahoma State Parks system. The three most popular are Robbers Cave State Park, Turner Falls State Park and Alabaster Caverns State Park.


28 Robbers Cave, situated in the heart of the San Bois Mountains north of


Wilburton, Okla., in Kiamichi Electric Cooperative territory, was established in 1935 as one of Oklahoma’s original state parks. Whether or not Jesse James and the boys used Robbers Cave as a hideout is up to legend and speculation—but he did in fact operate in the general area. The grounds of the 8,246-acre Robbers Cave State Park also include a number of satellite caves open to public exploration for the more adventur- ous. Hiking, fi shing in the park’s three lakes, rock climbing and rappelling, mountain and ATV biking, and both primitive and RV camping are among other park activities.


Practically every type of rock or stone that underlies the entire state is included in the formations at Turner Falls State Park near Davis, Okla., in People’s Electric Cooperative service territory. Located in the Arbuckle Mountains, the 77-foot-high Turner Falls, dominates the scene. A steep trail up a rock wall to one side leads to Wagon Wheel Cave whose gaping eye overlooks a rugged landscape of forested hills, rock patterns, and clear, cold mountain streams that, according to assistant park manager Roger Adams, provide some of the best trout fi shing in Oklahoma. The park has a number of caves open for public exploration along a 3.5- mile hiking trail that meanders through forest, past the magnifi cent ruins of a historic rock “castle” constructed in the early 1930s, and along sheer cliffs pockmarked with caverns bearing exotic names like Outlaw and Wild Woman. But of all the Oklahoma caves, perhaps the Alabaster Caverns in Alfalfa Electric Cooperative service territory are the state’s gemstones. Located off Highway 50 south of Freedom, Okla., in the Oklahoma Gypsum Hills, the 200-acre Alabaster Caverns State Park hosts the largest natural gypsum cave in the world open to the public. The cave is set in alabaster, a rare white or tinted fi ne-grained gypsum. The park offers daily guided tours throughout the year. On-site campers may obtain permits to explore other caves a short hike nearby in Cedar Canyon.


In addition to known caves, many other “wild caves” remain hidden in the rugged wilderness hills of eastern and southeastern Oklahoma. Nearly every farm community knows of at least one or two caves that remain vir- tually as they were when the fi rst primitive man sought shelter in them. Most of them are on private land, which means permission must be obtained to enter.


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