Memorial Day weekend serves as the kick-off to the summer driving and outdoors season. Northeast Oklahoma has a ton of options for campers and outdoors enthusiasts, from small primitive campsites, to full service RV pads, all the way up to lodge and cabin accommodations which include all of the conveniences of home and then some. Whether you would prefer a secluded place to pitch a tent, the ability to relax in a Jacuzzi tub at the end of a long day outside, or simply wish to sleep in a yurt, here are five options close to Tulsa, Oklahoma, that will give you some choices if you are planning an outdoor vacation and need a place to camp.
All of the camping areas listed below are within 75-80 miles of Tulsa and will have contact information (either a link, phone number, or both). Always check with the respective campground, park, or outfitter to make reservations if possible, ask about availability of the type of spot you need, and to inquire about any conditions that may affect your stay (flooding or low water in lakes or rivers, for example). Also, expect to pay day use fees on some state and federal campgrounds.
1. Upper Illinois River near Tahlequah – This area of the Illinois River was the setting for the book “Where the Red Fern Grows”, and is my favorite spot for camping in this part of Oklahoma. Stop in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation capital, for supplies before heading to Highway 10 outside of town where camping options are almost limitless. Most of the river businesses offer tent camping; you can sleep in a fully furnished yurt at Elephant Rock Nature Park, park your RV at Eagle Bluff, or take part in a longer float trip that offers camping along the river at night. This section of the river is generally considered to be the best float stream in the state, offering a Class II stream which is usually very smooth flowing with a few light rapids. Wildlife abounds and fishing is excellent, with upwards of 70 species including largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish, and sunfish. The river ultimately flows into Tenkiller Lake (a lake clear enough for scuba diving), which also offers great camping at Tenkiller State Park. Be aware that much of the land along the river is private, so check with your outfitter if planning to camp along the river away from the established grounds.
2. Lower Illinois River near Gore – For many longtime visitors, Marval Resort is the centerpiece facility for camping on the Lower Illinois River. There are limited tent spots, but full service RV sites are plentiful, along with some great cabin, cabana, and lodge style options. They have a trout pound, pool, miniature golf, clubhouse, game room, basketball, and more. The scenery is still awesome, but the main difference is the fishing. The Illinois River in this area flows from the dam at Lake Tenkiller, and the water is cold enough to provide a year-round trout fishery (trout stamp required for fishing in this part of the river). Giant striped bass also are known to be caught (often on small rainbow trout), with several state record stripers caught in the Lower Illinois River. I caught my first trout ever in this part of the river, and though not native fish, the current state record rainbow trout came from this area and weighed in at over 10 pounds.
Contact the outfitters or resorts individually, or call the Tahlequah Area Tourism Council at 918-456-3742 for information on the Illinois River or Lake Tenkiller.
3. Greenleaf State Park – Lake Greenleaf is the main attraction here, with excellent fishing and clear water. Probably due to the lake’s small size at only 930 acres, this area is often overlooked by locals and visitors when searching for a camping area. The park offers tent, cabin, and RV sites. There is a marina with boat rental, satellite TV in cabins, laundry, pool, and much more. Be aware that although updated, the stone cabins and some other park facilities were a WPA project of the 1930’s, so if you want modern cabins or lodges these may not work for you. The area is very tranquil and I like this lake because the crowds are usually very small. There is a “cabin on the lake” at this park which is handicap accessible, and pets are welcome in cabins for a fee. This park is near Braggs, OK, and can be reached at 918-487-5196.
4. Hawthorn Bluff – For convenient tent camping close to Tulsa (less than 30 miles to the north), I usually choose this Corps of Engineers location on Oologah Lake. Located just across the highway from Oologah Dam, this area is fairly flat and provides a large amount of shoreline access to the lake. There is a swimming area nearby, along with a fishing dock for stress-free access to the water. The lake is around 30,000 acres, so all forms of boating and water sports are available. There is a boat ramp near the camp area, showers, dump station, a playground, and an amphitheater with gazebo. 30 amp electric hook-ups are available for many of the sites. This area observes “quiet time” from 10:00pm to 6:00am, so plan to be in your tent or RV by then. My family and I have caught many crappie, bass, and catfish right off the dock or along the bank of the cove, and the fishing below the dam can be excellent at times for sand bass, stripers, walleye, and catfish, among others. The small town of Oologah is only a few miles away, and can provide most basic supplies. Also, the Dog Iron Ranch, which is the birthplace of Will Rogers, is nearby and can be visited year-round. Call 918-443-2250 for information on Hawthorn Bluff.
5. Keystone State Park – Only 20 easy highway miles from Tulsa, this park on the banks of Lake Keystone offers a ton of options for campers. In the state park alone, there are over 80 tent sites, 72 RV sites with full hook-ups, and 22 cabins of various styles and sizes with satellite television, fireplace, and full kitchens and bathrooms (a few with Jacuzzi tubs). The park also has Pier 51 Marina, a floating restaurant, store, children’s fishing pond, playgrounds, boat ramps, and picnic facilities. Boat rentals are available, both for fishing and skiing; and for the off-road enthusiast, two bring-your-own ATV areas are located nearby below Keystone Lake dam. The park grounds can be crowded, especially during holidays, but this is a great option for campers looking for something very close to Tulsa. If you aren’t bringing an RV, I would opt for a cabin to provide a little more privacy from the crowds; and from personal experience, I can say that the cabins are very nice. Call 918-865-4991. Note: Due to road construction issues on the main highway, call ahead or see the website for information on the easiest alternate way into the park.
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A long-time resident of Oklahoma, the author has personally camped and/or fished at all of the areas mentioned, and enjoys the unique environment which each provides.