Just as the Piney woods of East Texas will shatter the illusions of what many consider Texas, the eastern corners of Oklahoma will do the same for visions of open farm land as far as the eye can see with tornadoes passing through every other day. Much more than foot hills of the Ozarks than the red dust pasture lands most commonly associated with the state, Broken Bow and Beavers Bend State Park is a heavily wooded and hilly wonderland for the outdoorsman looking for any number of a wide range of adventures.
I, like many in the greater DFW area, came to know about the area from any number of radio and TV advertisements in recent years touting the hidden gem that is McCurtain County, Oklahoma. Intrigued by this destination only 3 hrs from Dallas, I made my first visit in June of 2013. While the trip was cut short, I could easily see the draw that this region of the state had and vowed to return. It took over a year, but I returned again in fall of 2014 and then again in the fall of 2015. Each time exploring new corners of the region, both within the State Parks and surrounding area. And each time, coming home with more ideas and plans for a future trip.
The nearest major town to Beavers Bend and Hochatown State Parks is Broken Bow. A fairly easy 3 hr drive from Dallas, it’s actually further from Oklahoma City at nearly 4hrs drive time. The route from Dallas takes I-30 to Greenville and then up through Paris and into Oklahoma, or up Highway 75 through McKinney before veering further east on 121 through Bonham then across to Paris and then on into Oklahoma. As I live on the far north edge of DFW, I typically take the 75 route. Paris makes for a nice rest stop to stretch legs and grab a quick bite (and a few photos of the down town area, train depot or replica Eiffel Tower with a cowboy hat perched on top). Do pay attention to both your gas gauge and the speed limit signs, one isn’t always around as often as you might think during stretches of the drive, the other can pop up without much warning.
Beavers Bend State Park sits just down stream from Broken Bow Lake on the Mountain Fork River. Just up the road on the shores of the lake is Hochatown State Park. Signage for both parks is quite large and difficult to miss in the daylight, though at night a keen eye is needed to make sure you take the correct turn as there are many entrances to various areas of the two parks. There is no entry fees for Beavers Bend or Hochatown State Parks, so you are free to come and go between the parks. In Beavers Bend State Park, highway 259A forms a loop that passes through the park then across the dam for Broken Bow Lake with some beautiful view points and additional hiking trail heads.
Once at the park, a stop at the headquarters will supply you with maps and local information, or take care of any camping reservation costs. Then head down to the Forest Heritage Center or down to the river near the Resutrant to start exploring the area.
Warning: Water level on all sections of the river downstream from the powerplant fluctuate greatly when power generation is started. Warning sirens are in place but keep a keen eye on the water around you if at the water’s edge anywhere downstream of the camping area / powerplant.
Other areas of interest:
Beavers Bend Fly Shop & Beavers Bend River Floats – the featured photo above is taken from this bridge crossing of the river.
Spillway Creek – Following the flooding that occurred spring of 2015 the road washed out here and was still closed during my last visit in November 2015. The creek through this area was quite picturesque, but fear it might be a while till nature heals itself completely.
Swim Beach and Island – another great stop for photos and on the opposite side of the river, maybe even some fishing. Like the road bridge at Spillway Creek, the small foot bridge that spanned the gap out to the island here was washed out last year. I hope a new bridge will be built soon.
Old Park Dam – downstream from the Restaurant a little ways, there’s a very rough road that leads most of the way out to this fishing destination. High clearance vehicles a must, do not attempt in most cars or lowered trucks. The walk isn’t bad if you need to take it by foot, and if it’s recently rained, be on the watch for cascading waterfalls in the rocks. (This area is below the powerplant)
Broken Bow Lake Dam & Overlook – decent options for either sunrise or sunset depending on cloud cover if you’re looking for a vista across the lake.
I’m giving this it’s own header simply because there are so many options when it comes to where to stay in the area. There are hotels in Broken Bow, but I’d only choose that as an option of last resort. Rental cabins are plentiful and range from budget friendly but clean spots nestled into the woods to luxury cabins with hot tubs and full kitchens that’ll hold twelve or more. There is also a lodge hotel on Broken Bow Lake that is certain to be a better view than in the city.
Both Hochatown and Beavers Bend State Parks offer both RV and primitive tent camping sites. Most of the sites in Beavers Bend are situated along the river or a very short walk to the water. These are all above the power plant so water levels here are constant regardless of power generation. Likewise many of the camp sites at Hochatown are on the lake spots offering lake front views right from your tent. Top Tip: camping rates for both state parks are per-tent, not per-site. Prices are very reasonable, but if you’re comfortable crashing in the same tent as your companions, take the big 8-man tent instead of a number of small backpacking tents.
Photography Gear Suggestions
Your standard kit of landscape lenses are very well suited. I used both my ultra wide 16-35mm, the longer 24-105, as well as the 70-200mm during my day trip. Also of great use almost any time of year is a macro lens for doing close up nature study shots. The featured photo above was taken at my ultra-wide lens’s maximum of 16mm. The photo below was also taken at the wide end of the excellent 16-35mm F4L.
At the other end of my recommended focal length range, it was the 70-200 F4L along with the 100mm Macro lens that I used primarily during my short hike along part of the 4.5mi trail through the park. I find the longer focal lengths and depth of field compression a vital part of my lens kit during hiking excursions.
Most of my visits to the region have been off-peak times, most recently in the late fall. Fall colors were not great during my trip, but can be spectacular and probably one of the closer really great autumn color destinations to Dallas. The Featured Photo above shows good color, but only with a little coaxing in post production editing. In spring wild flowers and budding out trees make for a peaceful and beautiful hike.
My first trip I rented a cabin just outside Hochatown, a guest house adjacent to the permanent residence of the owners. Nicely kept and great for a solo adventurer who wants a real roof over their head at night or a couple. It was also plenty dark to see the Milky Way peeking through between the tree canopy overhead. Arriving just before sunset, I spent my first evening on the shores of Broken Bow Lake watching a peaceful though not all that colorful end to the day. The following morning a short hike along the hills near the dam in Hochatown State Park was a great way to start the day. The Spillway Overlook has a great view in addition to a trailhead leading to more great views of the lake and surrounding area.
Returning in the fall of 2014, I again opted to stay at one of the many vacation rental cabins in the area. This way I was able to focus more on the photography and hiking plans and less about where to set up camp and if I was going to get rained on in the middle of the night. The trade off was being further from the ‘action’ for sunrise each morning meaning an even earlier start to the day to get in position in time for first light. My early mornings were rewarded with a number of beautiful images that more than made up for the truncated visit the year previous. I focused much of my time with the camera along the Spillway Creek as well as the stretch of river just down stream from the Restaurant to the Old Park Dam. There are few stretches of the river through Beavers Bend State Park that does not offer a photographic opportunity – or an opportunity to cast a fly-fishing line. Something I’ve yet to try myself, but I can certainly see the draw to the idea.
One of the greatest differences between my photographic journey in 2015 versus years prior was the foundation of a core group of local Dallas photographers with whom I have been able to grow as a photographer as well as form friendships in our shared passion. So it would be this past fall in 2015 that I would return to Beavers Bend, not as a solo adventure but with two friends along side. This time opting to camp within Beavers Bend State Park itself. Heavy rains our first night was in fact a blessing in disguise, first it gave us an excuse to head into Hochatown to the Blue Rooster for some amazing friend catfish and a few beers, over which we discussed shoot locations and ideas. The following morning we found the normally calm quiet creeks that feed the Mountain Fork River flowing with vigor as well as cascading waterfalls in the rocks that are often dry except for times of storm run off. This allowed for some fantastic and rare photographic options, quite the blessing after finding other areas of the park still quite raw from spring flood damage. The creek that flows behind the Headquarters building down next to the Restaurant as well as a rock cascade that we discovered on the road down to the Old Park Dam both were prime photo locations for this trip. In addition to our exploration around Beavers Bend State Park, we also ventured north not only to Hocahatown State Park on the lake for an afternoon but also all the way up to the Talimena Byway an hour north in hopes of capturing the weather moving through. As with any adventure, especially with friends and fellow photographers along, I think we added more wish list shots to the todo list than we checked off during the trip. But that is what true adventure does, it feeds your need but also deepens your craving for more.
Beavers Bend and Broken Bow Lake offer huge amounts of activities for every sort of pursuit you or your friends and family might crave. From casinos and wineries to kayaking and fly fishing some of the best trout waters in the south, even your non-nature loving or photographer companions should be able to find something to occupy their time. The Visit McCurtain County link below has a great listing of all sorts of options, but here’s my take on a few of my own experiences and observations.
Food: the Blue Rooster and Grateful Head Pizza both offer great food and cold beers for those times when sitting around the camp fire just isn’t quite going to cut it for one reason or another.
On the Water: be it fishing for trout or bass, the rivers, streams and lake have your fishing needs covered. Wade the streams, setup a trip with a guide service or rent a canoe, kayak or even a tube for a peaceful float in the summer months. Beavers Bend also has paddle boats if it’s your legs that need the work out.
Talimena Scenic Byway: Well worth the drive north to drive section(s) of this beautiful scenic ridge road. Plentiful pull outs give you ample spots to safely pull off and take in the view of the rolling hills both to the north and south. Queen Wilhelmina Lodge and State Park is situated along the route and offers another fantastic lodging and camping opportunity either as part of a larger trip or even weekend get away.
Golf: Yup, there’s a full 18-hole championship course in Hochatown as well as miniature golf at Beavers Bend depending on what your aims might be. Haven’t tried either myself, but if you do, please report back.