You’ve heard the expression, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” But when you look at the Keystone Ancient Forest, and you see the trees, you are looking at some of the oldest living inhabitants in Oklahoma.
I find it fascinating that the oldest tree found in the Keystone Ancient Forest is more than 500 years old. So where else can you go to see something that was perhaps a seedling or a sapling, which happened to be alive the day Washington Irving passed underneath on horseback?
The Keystone Ancient Forest, which is managed by the city of Sand Springs and located along the shoreline of Keystone Lake, covers 1,360 acres and is one of the largest intact Cross Timber Forests within 20 miles of Tulsa and just more than an hour’s drive from Oklahoma City. You will not find giant redwoods there but sturdy post oaks and cedars, hanging on for life on the rocky hillsides. And those are the remnants of the Cross Timbers, a wooded belt that straddled Oklahoma from Texas to Kansas for centuries. Most of the Cross Timbers have been lost to farming or development.
Many of you know Washington Irving as the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But did you know in 1832, as part of a military expedition, he went into what was then Indian Territory? His group camped in the Cross Timbers near the site of the Keystone Ancient Forest. Apparently, the journey through the forest was not an easy one, for the thick growth was an impediment to man and beast. Irving wrote in his journal called “A Tour on the Prairies,” the struggle through “forests of cast iron.”
Now, those post oaks and eastern cedars are indeed quite tough, as tough as the rocky soil in which they grow. And they have survived centuries of fire and wind to what seems as if to lift their twisted limbs to the sky to challenge the passage of time.
The Keystone Ancient Forest was opened to exploration many years ago after a project that included the city of Sand Springs, Osage County, The Oklahoma Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.
They cut trails through the property for hiking and nature study. The preserve is open for hiking on select Saturdays. No reservations are needed. The gates open at 8 a.m., but the trail guides will lock the gate at 2 p.m. No pets are allowed on the trails. Port-a-potties are available on-site. You will find volunteers to help you, but if you choose, you may hike alone, or if there are enough volunteers and you want some company, I promise it will be an informative hike.
Along the way, some of those volunteers can help you find scarlet tanagers and buntings and some of the migratory birds that use Oklahoma as their flyway in the summertime. So, yes, this is a place that is truly alive with those birds. And the property has deer, American eagles, bobcats and more than 80 species of butterflies.
But on your hike through the Keystone Ancient Forest, while looking for those birds, deer, American eagles and bobcats, pay attention to what many consider the real stars of this outdoor theater. And that would be the trees, of course.
This forest truly has a story to tell. And we can look at what Oklahoma looked like over the centuries.
For more information on visiting and hiking the Keystone Ancient Forest, visit tinyurl.com/y5tqug9m. And to plan a trip to the Sand Springs area, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department website, travelok.com can certainly help.
Dino Lalli is the producer, co-host and one of the reporters for the weekly television travel show Discover Oklahoma.