Oklahoma's temperate climate makes outdoor recreation activities, including camping, possible for most of the year. Fishing and boating are especially popular within the state's numerous reservoirs, which have a combined shoreline length exceeding that of the combined Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Oklahoma's diversity of camping facilities ranges from full hookup recreational vehicle sites to primitive campgrounds located in the backcountry. Developed camping is provided by state and federal agencies as well as private enterprises and other organizations.
After 1900 various entities began to create camping facilities. Municipalities established campgrounds during the 1920s and 1930s for the convenience of cross-country automobile travelers. Established in fields near cities and towns, these camping areas became economically important to local businesses through merchandise sales to campers. Over the years the residents of some towns made modest campground improvements by adding restrooms, potable water, and other facilities. Recognizing the need for public camping areas in the early 1930s, the Oklahoma State Legislature appropriated ninety thousand dollars for the purchase of land for park development. Among the first park properties were Beavers Bend, Boiling Springs, Roman Nose, Quartz Mountain, Lake Murray, and Robber's Cave. With the assistance of Depression-era work programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organized park system began to form within the state by the mid-1930s. By 1936 a state park agency was given authority to manage these parks and to continue the process of acquiring land.
Equipment used for camping in Oklahoma has evolved along with the campgrounds. Tents that could be attached to cars have been replaced by lightweight backpacking tents or self-standing wall or cottage tents suitable for family camping. In place of home-built trailers and makeshift recreational vehicles, which developed during the 1920s and 1930s, are modern "fifth wheel" travel trailers and motor homes equipped with refrigerators, air conditioning, and satellite television systems.
Although camping facilities continue to serve travelers, many state campgrounds have evolved into recreational destinations. These attract both Oklahomans and out-of-state visitors with water-based recreation such as fishing and boating as well as golfing, hiking trails, and educational programs. In 2018 the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department managed forty-five properties, including parks, lodges, and golf courses. These facilities range in size from Crowder Lake State Park with ten park acres and eight campsites to Lake Texoma State Recreation Area with 1,882 park acres and 667 campsites. A few Oklahoma state parks also feature trails for equestrian camping.
Federal agencies also manage camping areas. Within southeastern Oklahoma's Ouachita National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) operates the 26,445-acre Winding Stair National Recreation Area, featuring 150 campsites near the Talimena Scenic Drive. In comparison to state and private facilities, USFS campsites are relatively unimproved and offer only basic amenities such as a tent pad, fire ring, toilets, and water. Also administered by the USFS, Upper Kiamichi River Area and Black Fork Mountain Wilderness Area provide primitive camping.
South of Oklahoma City, the National Park Service offers camping at Chickasaw National Recreation Area, known until 1976 as Platt National Park. Originally set aside by Congress to protect mineralized springs, Platt held the distinction for many years of being the nation's smallest national park. In 1976 Platt was redesignated a national recreation area and enlarged to include two lakes. Among the most heavily used sites for its size in the national park system, Chickasaw offers camping along with water-based activities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains camping opportunities at two locations: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, located near Lawton, and Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, near Enid. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offers developed camping at several reservoirs, including Eufaula, Fort Gibson, and Kaw lakes. A few other public agencies manage developed camping facilities. For example, Oklahoma State University operates a campground at Lake Carl Blackwell in north-central Oklahoma.
Most private campgrounds in the state cater to recreational vehicle users and provide hookups that may include telephone and cable television services. Several private campgrounds are located in northeastern Oklahoma along the Illinois Scenic River to accommodate river floaters. Because it has pristine waters and is accessible to the Tulsa metropolitan area, the Illinois River is among the most popular recreational rivers in the nation.
An average 16 percent of the state's population participates in tent camping at least once each year, making the popularity of camping in Oklahoma only slightly lower than the U.S. average of 19 percent.
Palmer H. Boeger, Oklahoma Oasis: From Platt National Park to Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Muskogee, Okla.: Western Heritage Books, 1987).
Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, Oklahoma Camping and Lake Guide (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation, 1999).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Thomas A. Wikle, “Camping,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CA036.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.