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Artsy population meets rich western heritage in Oklahoma City

As much as I am not ready for fall, it is quickly approaching and our thoughts are turning to heading south. On our years of fall runs to warmer weather, one of the places that we often drove past or through, but never stopped in, was Oklahoma City, Okla.

That is, until we drove down from Montana after the monster tornado hit Moore in 2013, and spent three weeks helping the volunteer cleanup crews. The next spring we returned to help install storm shelters, and our time there both years helped us to see what a gem we had been missing. OKC has so much to offer travelers, whether you are a family on a roadtrip, fulltime RVers, or winter Texans!

Oklahoma City may be a major metropolis, with a vast artsy population, but it still retains a rich western heritage culture that extends from prior to the plains land run to beyond the oil boom.

Field of Empty Chairs (photo courtesy of National Park Service)
Field of Empty Chairs (photo courtesy of National Park Service)

The one stop that everyone who visits OKC should do, no matter their interests, is a visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial.  There are actually two distinct destinations here, the first being the incredible outside memorial that is managed by the National Park Service, which is free, and is set on the actual grounds where the Murrah Building was bombed on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, and wounding hundreds more.

The memorial is staffed by National Park Service rangers who are very knowledgeable, and the site offers a Junior Ranger program, too.  Consider being at the memorial at dusk when they light The Field of Empty Chairs.

The second part of the memorial is a two-story museum (admission fee required) that takes you chronologically through the day’s events.

After visiting the memorial both years that we were in OKC, I would highly recommend that visitors, upon arriving at the site, do a quick walk-through of the memorial to get a feel for the location and setting, then set aside a few hours to tour the museum. Then revisit the memorial, which will have so much more meaning after learning the detailed events of the day and the symbolism of the exhibits in the museum. This is a very memorable tour, plan on spending two hours minimum at the site. www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org

One thing we love to do is take tours of new areas!  We try to do them at the very beginning of a visit as tours often give us new destinations to add to our agenda, as well as a new view on the history and flavor of the area.

OKC - Bricktown Water Taxi
(photo courtesy of Bricktown Water Taxi)

Bricktown Water Taxi is an extra unique tour.  On this water taxi tour of the downtown OKC district, you can either take the 40-minute round-trip, narrated tour, or you can use your all-day ticket to get off and on the taxi, shopping, dining, and exploring the area, and catching the next water taxi as it goes by. www.bricktownwatertaxi.com

If you are interested in exploring Oklahoma City’s cowboy history and culture, you will find many destinations to seek out.

Topping your list should be the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Founded in 1955, the museum is the premier destination for those who enjoy, or want to better understand, the American West.  Depending on your interest level, the museum can be visited in a minimum of two hours, or can be an all day destination.  The complex features gorgeous galleries, a reproduction Old West Main Street set, firearm exhibits, a sit-down restaurant, and beautiful gardens with oversized statues.  Little buckaroos even have their very own Children’s Cowboy Corral, which is an entire building with activities just for kids. A sure hit, we’ve already been there twice, and plan to return.  www.nationalcowboymuseum.org

If you enjoyed the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, you will probably also enjoy OKC’s working stockyards which features a strong rodeo scene (www.onsy.com/about-us), and the American Banjo Museum (www.americanbanjomuseum.com).

The dozens of large bronze statues that make up the Centennial Land Run Monument are very much worth a small detour to see. The best way to visit the Land Run Monument is by getting off the Bricktown Water Taxi, but for RVers on their way through, park your big rig in the Bass Pro Shops parking lot on the south end. The monument is a short walk to the canal area, and do not forget the camera.

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Downtown Oklahoma City boasts the Myriad Botanical Gardens and The Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory, which are a super stop for people of any age. This serene destination covers an entire city block and  offers gorgeous settings both inside and outside. The indoor conservatory is open year round and features 13,000 square feet of plants. Admission ticket is required.  The conservatory climate goes from tropical rainforest at one end, to tropical dry flora at the other, which is very much like a desert. The 35-foot indoor waterfall drowns out any outside city noise.

The indoor, handicap accessible conservatory skywalk is a fun experience for all ages, while the free outdoor botanical gardens are a relaxing walk around waterfalls and a pond, and there is also a fun playground for little ones.  This spot is perfect for wrapping up a tour of the nearby OKC Memorial. www.oklahomacitybotanicalgardens.com

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Believe it or not, in OKC you will find one of the nation’s best zoos. At the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the animal enclosures are well maintained and spacious. The animals have room to roam, and the pens are grassy instead of over-paced and mud-packed. We loved our visit because the animals were active, the grounds clean, and the exhibits were varied. Our favorite was the Oklahoma area where we learned about the local wildlife, including learning that there are alligators in Oklahoma. If you collect pressed pennies, be sure to take lots of quarters and new pennies to the zoo since there are at least four machines, offering four designs each. www.okczoo.com

Museum goers will want to check out Science Museum Oklahoma. We spent an entire day there, and loved all the hands-on activities.  This massive science discovery center boasts participatory areas, a planetarium, dome IMAX theater, and live science experiment shows. Parking is free, and this stop is located right next door to the zoo. However, each place is an all-day destination of its own. RVs are welcome and there is overflow parking across the street at the racetrack. www.sciencemuseumok.org

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The Oklahoma History Center is an 18-acre campus with a 21,000-square-foot gorgeous exhibit hall located right across from the capitol building. Chronicling Oklahoma’s history, this Smithsonian-affiliated museum is a great place to learn about the state and the history of the southwest. This location is a Time Traveler member museum. www.okhistory.org/historycenter

The Fourth Infantry Museum is a fun and free (supported by donations) stop that is conveniently located in the “adventure district” of OKC which is located very near the zoo, science museum, and the also free Oklahoma Railway Museum.

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The museum houses one of the nations largest collections of military firearms, and also boasts an extensive Bill Mauldin WWII cartoon exhibit.   With 27,000 square feet of of self-guided indoor exhibits and a 15-acre Thunderbird Park, visitors will enjoy displays of more than 60 different types of military equipment. The Fourth Infantry Museum is a great stop whether you have an hour, or all afternoon. Pro Tip: If you have little ones, pop into the WWII concentration camp room to check it out, before taking them in, to make sure your youngsters can handle the images. www.45thdivisionmuseum.com

If you are into sports, then OKC is a fabulous destination city for you. The community is home to the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, the Oklahoma City Barons hockey team, and the OKC RedHawks minor league baseball team, which was bought by the Dodgers and now renamed The Oklahoma City Dodgers. OKC is home to numerous college teams as well.  The Thunder, Barons, and Dodgers stadiums are all conveniently located downtown.

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Need a wild and crazy reprieve from all that learning? Check out the Frontier City Amusement Park and it’s adjacent Whitewater Bay Water Park.  The frontier-themed amusement park was a huge hit with everyone in our family. Fromm the thrilling backward roller coaster to the Dodge ‘Ems Bumper Cars, we all enjoyed our day at Frontier City, and closed down the park.

Pro Tip:  Take the Ol’ 89er Express train ride through the park first thing.  It will give you a feel for the layout of the park, and a sneak peek at the rides so you know which ones you want to be sure to make it to. Pro Tip 2: If arriving at opening, head on back to the back of the park. Most people ride the rides as they get to them, so you will be beating the crowds at the entrance.
www.frontiercity.com

The Whitewater Bay Water Park is located behind Frontier City. You can purchase tickets for each park singly, or you can buy a dual pass that lets you go between the two parks. The water park contains multiple slide rides, raft rides, and pool activities. It’s a must-do activity if you are visiting OKC in the heat of summer! www.whitewaterbay.com

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All that good ole’ Oklahoma City exploring is bound to make an traveler hungry. Try out some of the community’s best chow at:

  • The Cattlemen’s Restaurant — Located in OKC’s Stockyard City, the Cattlemen’s Restaurant has been around for more than 100 years. Over that century, Cattlemen’s cooks have perfected the aging and broiling of your never-frozen, hand-cut, midwest-raised, prime or choice beef steak.  They are also well known for their hearty breakfasts. www.cattlemensrestaurant.com
  • Cheever’s Cafe — If you are looking for more of a contemporary food experience, try some fine, but reasonably priced dining at Cheever’s Cafe.  Located in the historic district in an art deco building having a rich history, this eatery serves up a varied lunch and dinner menu that is sure to intrigue the modern foodie. www.cheeverscafe.com
  • Ray’s Smokehouse BBW — For a little more laid-back atmosphere, try Ray’s Smokehouse BBQ.  Known for their fall-off-the-bone ribs, and just as tender brisket, Ray’s is a great choice if you like smokey BBQ. Kids menu available. www.raysbbqok.com

After all that adventuring and dining, you’ll need a relaxing spot to park your rig and lay your head while enjoying the rest of your visit to Oklahoma City:

  • Mustang Run RV Park — Mustang Run is a new, upscale RV park just minutes from both downtown and Bricktown OKC.  Though this recently opened park lacks the shade of mature trees, its generous paved sites, large lounge, tornado shelters, pool, playground, dog runs, and free Wi-Fi make it a great destination park. Site limit of six, and extra people incur a fee of $3 per night with children 12 and under being free. www.mustangrunrvpark.com
  • Twin Fountains RV Resort — Conveniently located near the adventure district, this resort boasts mature trees, paved sites, a small playground, mini golf, and on-site pizzeria, pool with small splash pad, morning site garbage pickup, and storm shelter. No towed vehicle, no problem. Twin Fountains has a complimentary shuttle service in a stretch limo that covers a 3- to 4-mile radius of the campground, including many museums and the zoo.  Their site rate covers up to five people per site, with a $3 charge per child after your first five family members. www.twinfountainsrvpark.com
  • If you want to tour OKC, but need to do your RV accommodations on the cheap, you might check out the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Norman, Okla. Offering back-in, full hook up sites (some on gravel, some on the concrete parking area), the fairgrounds do not boast any amenities, but is an inexpensive choice if you are busy in the area. At $20 per night or $120 per week with no extra person fees, it was a good choice for the 11 of us during our three weeks of crazy busy sightseeing and tornado shelter installation volunteering. We were seldom at the RV anyway. www.clevelandcountyfair.org/173/RV-Park

We were so surprised at how much there was to see and do in Oklahoma City, Okla. Even though we have visited the area for six weeks total over a two-year period, we still have a list of places that we want to visit. It’s a great destination stop, or even a layover on your way south in the fall, or north in the spring.

About Dana Ticknor

Dana Ticknor and her husband, along with their tribe of 8 gypsy kids (they also have 4 more grown and flown) have been calling the road home for seven years. Traveling with a highly modified toy hauler, their passions are discovering local history and culture, as well as volunteering with disaster relief efforts across the country. You can follow their journey at OurTravelingTribe.com, where they write about fulltime RVing and the family friendly destinations they discover during their travels.

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