My father-in-law and I visited the J।T. Nickel Family Nature And Wildlife Preserve on Saturday, February 7, 2009. The Preserve is located about 10 minutes north of Tahlequah, Oklahoma along Highway 10. Very little info is publicly available about the place, save for a few bland details on the Nature Conservancy website, such as:
"The J. T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve is the largest privately protected conservation area in the Ozarks. The preserve was formed in 2000 as the result of a land gift from the John Nickel Family. This 17,000-acre landscape rests in eastern Oklahoma's rolling Cookson Hills and overlooks the Illinois River. Spring-fed creeks meander amid a rugged topography of steep slopes and narrow valleys harboring a mosaic of oak-hickory forest, lofty pine woodland, and a diverse mix of savanna, shrubland, and prairie. The preserve provides optimal habitat for a suite of uncommon breeding bird species, including some whose survival requires large blocks of intact habitat."
There are no trail maps or really even good reviews online. (There won't be a need for other reviews though, because this one is going to be awesome.) Anyhow, I figured the preserve probably doesn't get much traffic if it isn't publicized and I was right. We arrived around sunrise and saw a total of zero cars inside the Preserve throughout the day. The weather was overcast, but unseasonably warm (70+), so if there was a day to get out, this was it.
The park has one main road that runs east to west through the middle. Just as we turned in, 40-50 white-tailed deer were grazing in a pasture 150 yards to the North. That's the most deer I have ever seen together and a great start to the day. The deer were unafraid of the car, but the minute we opened the door to take a picture, they spooked. So, these weren't park deer accustomed to people gawking at them. That's a good thing as far as natural surroundings go, but bad for wildlife sighting.
As we drove into the park along the gravel road, we crossed through a steep, wooded area seeing about 20 more deer. We then pulled into an open tall grass savanna and immediately began seeing some big birds. Bald eagles, in February, are all over the Illinois River. Though the Preserve doesn't quite touch the river, it comes very close. We saw 4-5 eagles throughout the morning. We saw a couple that looked more like Golden Eagles than immature Bald Eagles, but there's no way to confirm. Tons of hawks and buzzards as usual. We also so a Norther Flicker and some other small woodpeckers along the main road.
We drove the 5 mile diameter of the Preserve to get to the trail heads at the Visitor Center I'd read about in a birding trip review. I'll never understand why a Visitor Center for a place like this is closed on the weekends. We had another deer encounter with three less weary doe that were so comfortable that one took a leak as we parked the road. I know that's crude, but it's uncommon to see deer that relaxed. It's rare to even see them without their white tails showing. I could have left this detail out of my review.
We took the woodland and savanna trails, which adjoin. It took about an hour to do both. The park has 3 official hiking trails, none more than a mile or so and all located far from the places where we saw wildlife. While well maintained, these are definitely family friendly and thus very short and easy. I get the sense that the Nature Conservancy has a policy of including trails on their property, but is more concerned about maintaining large tracts of man-free habitat. Fair enough. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is the same way... tons of acreage and a tiny trail over in the corner. I think that's a good policy, but like everyone else, I think we are the exception, as we don't pollute, hunt, or do anything else harmful. We take only bad pictures and leave only when our wives call and make us.
So, we looked at the map and figured we would just drive closer to the river from the outside of the preserve, find a place to park, and hike along a creek bed or road from the south back into the preserve. We drove the road that surrounds the park from the east going south. The road didn't offer a good place to park and walk in. Well, it did, but we didn't have the balls. They have some really threatening signs about trespassing and I don't like getting into trouble in the country. We did find where the road crosses a creek and has a pretty weird formation that they call the Bathtub Rocks. My car was barely high enough off the ground to cross the creek, as in up to the door. I hate my car, so it felt good, but you may consider taking a truck if you have the option and do not hate your car.
The Bathtub Rocks themselves, along with a small waterfall are beautiful. The formation is made up of a radioactive martian element. I'd have better info if the Preserve had a better website. I don't know what the rocks are, probably limestone. They were black rocks that have formed 1-2 feet wide and deep pits that water flows through on its way to the river. The problem is that they put a public road over it. Naturally, it's completely covered with trash and gunk. Why is this road here and this land not protected? Because this is Oklahoma. Still, the rocks are worth going to see and it's fun to hold your camera at the perfect angle to keep all the beer bottles and Skoal cans out of the frame. To be fair, "dirt-roadin'" is a primitive form of entertainment that consists of an old pick-up and a 12 pack of something cold and cheap, and it predates clean flowing rivers and wildlife, so the local drunk drivers here have their right to clean floorboards too.
We drove back into the Preserve and decided to hike along one of many of the roads that were cut when the property was J5 Ranch. It's cleaner in there. In fact, there is virtually no trash at all. There are cattle guards at the front gates of the property that probably knock the beers out of drivers' hands and shake up all the others. That explains the conditions. Cattle guards may be the ultimate "dirt-roadin'" deterrent. Or maybe not.
We picked a road that seemed to be shown on the map, leading to Tully Hollow. That should have gotten us closer to the river, but we picked wrong. We went south, but chose to veer to the west each time the road forked. This took us nowhere near any signs of water and only fecal signs of life. We saw tons of poop. From what I looked up, it was all elk, deer, raccoon, and a surprising amount of bobcat. I think we saw some black bear poop as well, but who knows what it was. There's a picture of it in the gallery.
We also came across a very dense collection of large woodpecker holes. We probably saw 5-10 holes in the bases of trees, both dead and alive. Most of the holes were oval shaped, at least 4-6 inches across, and just as deep. Holes like this are characteristic of Pileated Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers... and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. Seems like as good a place for them to hide out as any.
The road we took had not been traveled in awhile. A bad ice storm occurred a week earlier and trees were everywhere. We went 3-4 miles south before we decided to turn back and then learn that we had been going downhill most of the way. By the time we got back, I was exhausted. But it was a long, quiet hike in the most pristine, unbothered forest I've been in in a long time. While the wildlife was sparse, the terrain was incredible. Our road was along the top of a really steep ridge. 30 yards on either side dropped off at sharp angles into valleys with dry creek beds below.
The hike of 6-8 miles took a few hours and made us feel like we hadn't yet seen the best of the Preserve. We never came across the elk that were introduced there a few years ago. We saw more signs of wildlife than actual wildlife. We never saw water inside the property. I know that the Visitors Center offers to take you around the property in a truck and show you the good stuff. That's probably a better option than blindly choosing a road and walking down it, but not nearly as fun as immersing yourself in a natural environment. But, the area is steep all over, with the exception of the prairie along the road, so it would take days to see it by foot... months for someone in my shape.
The J.T. Nickel Preserve is definitely a hidden, promising spot for serious hikers and families alike. This is the largest protected area of Ozark Forest in the region, and certainly in Oklahoma. For whatever reason, nobody goes there, and that's great news. Expect to see an unbelievable amount of open and wooded space and few people, making this a great retreat to enjoy the world as it was before us. I'd like to hear back from the staff here and go back with a better idea of how to get to the lower parts of the property. I may have to break down and use the phone like real people do. Even unguided though, we saw some incredible sights and I look forward to seeing more of the Preserve in the near future.