Located in northwest Oklahoma – an hour and a-half from any major interstate – the biggest event in Waynoka is the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, a festival that draws people interested in witnessing a yearly culling of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake.
While the decapitation of thousands of slithering prairie critters isn’t my personal cup of tea, I have, in fact, paid my own way in to the Den of Death, a live snake pit on Waynoka’s main drag where tourists can see the reptiles up close and personal during the Roundup. But snake slaughter wasn’t what brought me to Waynoka on a recent weekend. This trip was for one of those off-the-beaten path places that, in order to know of it, you must be a multi-generational Okie.
Mad Max in the middle of the prairie
Like the name suggests, Little Sahara State Park is a desert landscape in miniature. Its 16,000 sandy acres were formed from the sediments of the Rocky Mountains being carried away by the Cimarron River over thousands of years.
Today, the area is considered one of the best areas for ATV riding in the Midwest, and an abundance of wild-looking 4x4s bears testament to that. Not only do they climb and crest impossible-looking dunes, they lend themselves perfectly to Mad Max fantasies that can creep into your head.
I rented my group’s ATVs for a half-day from Stewarts ATV & Buggy — really friendly people who come up first in Google searches. After you’ve signed away your right to a lawsuit, they will rent you either a four-person dune buggy or one-person ATV. By suggestion for first-timers, my friends and I settled on ATVs. After a hefty deposit and more paperwork, we donned our goggles (not provided) and helmets (provided) and were riding swiftly through Waynoka to the entrance of Little Sahara State Park. Once there, we paid a $10 fee and were off, riding and murdering for gasoline and water! (Well, not yet, at least.)
A freeing experience
We started at the northern side of the park and entered a wooded area crisscrossed in every direction by sand trails. This is where we were supposed to find our footing and experiment with the machines before we headed out into the middle of the park to find larger dunes. Within an hour, we had a knack for handling the shifting sand, so we headed out into the dune area.
The largest of the dunes tops out at about 75 feet, which I can say was more than enough for my first-time experience. I know the expression is tired, but off-roading through the dunes was freeing. Most activities that society allows have built-in safety features to make them idiot-proof. This is not one of those places.
Rather than water the experience down by making more rules, park officials built a helipad next door. According to locals, one to two people usually die at little Sahara annually. While those numbers could be exaggerated, I do see the possibility for danger if the park was really crowded. Luckily for us, we were there on a beautiful weekday at the beginning of the season, so it wasn’t really busy at all. We were able to explore, learn and make mistakes without the extra hazard of a busy park.
After five hours of riding, we rode back to Stewarts, buying gasoline to top off on the way rather than pillaging and looting it Fury Road-style, unfortunately.
Little Sahara State Park, like most of Oklahoma’s natural wonders, doesn’t lend itself to superlative adjectives. Largest, greatest, tallest: None apply to this little gem, but it might be in the running for most fun minication.
Hungry? Make sure to have a reservation
After all of that riding, we had built up quite an appetite. Luckily for us, Waynoka plays home to a delicious German restaurant called Café Bahnof. The proprietor is a surly German named Dieter whose demeanor resembles a certain soup purveyor seen on Seinfeld. From prior experience, I knew that it was very, very, very important to make a reservation beforehand. When I was searching for the restaurant to double-check my spelling, I couldn’t help but read this last review:
We were a party of 9 from out of town and were turned away because we didn’t have a reservation! There was only one other table of 4 people in the place! When I asked if there was another place to eat the owner replied “I am not the town information center””, which sounds about par for the course. If you make the attempt, go meekly and tread softly at first, and you will be rewarded with really delicious German food and great German beer that can be enjoyed inside or from the garten in back.
If you’re still hungry for more northwestern Oklahoma adventure, then travel via Carmen and Cleo Springs on your way home. Off of Highway 8, you’ll pass by the Sod House Museum, a surprisingly interesting place where they have preserved the last original sod house in existence. Sod houses were the structures the first pioneers would construct on the treeless Great plains.
The friendly people there will dress you up in pioneer outfits and take your picture while pointing out that sheets hung over the beds were not to prevent mosquitoes from biting but rather snakes from falling out of the sod and on top of you as you slept.
That little fact just might be enough for you animal lovers to turn your head the other way while they harvest the rattlers a little further down the road.