Platt National Park
Environment and Ecology
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Chapter 1:

Platt National Park is situated in south-central Oklahoma at the juncture of the southern Osage Plains and the ancient, worn remnants of the Arbuckle Mountains. Lying as it does nearly midway between Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, in a portion of the United States which many persons stereotype as mile after mile of rather drab and unspectacular subprairie scenery, Platt National Park each year attracts more visitors than two-thirds of all other national parks. These visitors, many of whom return year after year, come to this smallest of all national parks (only 912 acres, about one and one-half square miles) for the same reasons that both man and beast have come for centuries. They come to enjoy the cool and tranquil beauty of the simple wooded valley and its many springs and streams. In the past the freshwater springs formed a dependable prairie oasis that supplied all comers, and the mineral-water springs very early gained for the site a reputation as one of America's leading health spas. In addition to those who visit the park primarily for rest and relaxation, recent years have seen an increase in the number of visitors who come to participate in a wide range of environmental and nature programs which are conducted by the naturalists of the park's Travertine Nature Center.

Figure 1. Platt National Park, the nation's smallest national park, is situated in south-central Oklahoma, about midway between Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas.

The area of the park effectively encompasses three miles of the beautifully wooded valleys of Rock and Travertine creeks, several hundred acres of upland prairie, and, most significantly, more than thirty springs issuing either fresh or mineral water. Perhaps the unique and most interesting aspect of the park, especially for persons interested in ecology or plant geography, is that within a small area are many observable and conveniently accessible phases of a major ecotone.1 It is an area where eastern broadleaf forest and western steppe-type grassland occur adjacent to each other in a region which has a climatic pattern not considered optimal for either. The variations in the vegetation types and their associated natural communities occur both horizontally and vertically on the landscape. Each of these natural zones contain a series of different micro-habitats and are the result of the complex interrelationships of soil and bedrock, living organisms, surface and ground water, and atmosphere.

1An ecotone is an area in transition between two or more natural communities. In Platt National Park it is represented by the meeting of forest and grassland communities.

Sulphur entrance to Platt National Park. Photo by Chester Weems.


Fresh Water Springs

The park's waters have always been one of the area's greatest attractions, and many years ago the local Indians named it Peaceful Valley of Rippling Waters. Much of the water in the park comes from Buffalo Springs and Antelope Springs in the eastern end of the park, which flow about five million gallons of water a day during normal years. They are most interesting because of their beauty and size, and for their role as the sole source of Travertine Creek. Buffalo Springs surfaces to form a rock-bound pool in a restful glade near the eastern end of the park. A few hundred feet northwest of Buffalo Springs is a ledge of conglomerate rock from which Antelope Springs issues in its natural setting to form one of the park's most pleasant retreats. Both springs are situated along the main foot trail that loops through the woodland of the eastern portion of the park.

Figure 2. Platt National Park. (click on image for a PDF version)

Mineral Springs

There are numerous cold-water mineral springs in the park which give rise to sulphur, bromide, and iron-bearing waters. Most of them are enclosed in pavilions or pools constructed of native stone and shaded by groves of large, old trees which present a pleasant and comfortable setting for the use and enjoyment of the springs. The central portion of the park near the main entrance contains the most significant sulphur springs at Hillside Spring, Pavilion Spring, and Black Sulphur Spring. In addition, Flower Park contains pools of sulphur water and mud which historically had some therapeutic qualities attributed to it. The major bromide springs are Medicine Spring and Bromide Spring, both of which are located in the same pavilion in the western portion of the park and, appropriately enough, rise from the base of Bromide Hill.

Antelope Springs. Photo by Chester Weems.

Unlike Hot Springs National Park, in Arkansas, which in the past maintained facilities for various mineral-water therapies, Platt National Park has no publicly owned bathhouse. The National Park Service makes available and maintains the various springs for all visitors but, though indicating their mineral composition, makes no claims about their medicinal or therapeutic values.

The Pavilion of Bromide and Medicine springs. Photo by Chester Weems.

Travertine and Rock Creeks

Travertine Creek is the focus of Platt National Park from its source at Buffalo and Antelope springs to its juncture with Rock Creek near the center of the park. Since its only source of water is the springs, periods of prolonged drought which dry the springs also result in an absence of stream flow. Such occurrences are infrequent and temporary, however, and most of the time the stream enhances the natural setting of the forest east of the Nature Center and provides many fine picnic sites and wading pools along the remainder of its course. A unique feature of this stream is its ability to form an unusual rock called travertine, from which the stream gets its name. The water of the stream is so highly charged with dissolved calcium carbonate that upon exposure to the atmosphere much of the mineral will precipitate to form a buff-colored deposit. Large accumulations form a porous travertine rock. Plant leaves and branches along the stream may be covered with a film of travertine dust that is precipitated from wind-blown spray.

One of the many popular wading pools along Travertine Creek.

Rock Creek is a large year-round stream which enters Platt from the city of Sulphur and flows westward through the remainder of the park. Because of its size and permanence, this stream provides the additional opportunity for fishing, for which no license is required within the park boundaries.

Bromide Hill

This nearly vertical wooded bluff rises 140 feet above its base at Bromide Spring and Rock Creek. Along its top is found one of the most obvious ecotones in the area, where a growth of dense oak, ash, and elm vanishes and short grass and prickly-pear cactus become predominant. One can see for several miles in all directions from the Bromide Overlook, a vantage point from which the various natural landscapes of the park can be seen from a different perspective, as well as the Arbuckle Mountains and the Washita River valley on the southwest. In years gone by this hill was called Robbers' Roost because early-day outlaws used it as a lookout point.

Two of the park's resident bison at the Bison Viewpoint. Photo by Chester Weems.

The Bison Range

A portion of the park's upland prairie has been reserved as a range for a small herd of American Bison, more commonly known as buffalo. Although the springs of the park were once a favorite watering hole of large herds of bison which roamed this area, increased settlement led to the elimination of the animal in the last half of the nineteenth century. The small herd present in the park today is descended from a group of six bison which were obtained from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in western Oklahoma and Yellowstone National Park in 1920. These prairie giants are most often and easily seen in the afternoon from the main Bison Viewpoint on Highway 177, just south of the park headquarters.

Travertine Nature Center

The Travertine Nature Center is built across Travertine Creek in the eastern end of the park and is the focal point for most of the park's educational and interpretive activities. When it was established in 1969, it was only the second center of its kind in the national-park system. Its purpose is to provide a center for conducting nature and environmental study programs for both casual park visitors and the school children, college students, and adults of the surrounding region. The naturalists who conduct the activities at the Nature Center hope to create or renew in the visitor an appreciation of the importance and beauty of even the simplest interrelationships in nature.

The Travertine Nature Center and Gateway to the Environmental Study Area. Photo by Chester Weems.

The Nature Center contains many exhibits of plants and animals in their natural settings. In addition there are a demonstration room, a library, workrooms, an information desk, a sales desk for books and cards, and an auditorium for the visitor's use. The auditorium is used for a full schedule of slide shows and motion pictures on a wide range of subjects dealing with conservation, the outdoors, and natural science. Many of the nature walks—guided and narrated by naturalists—also depart from the Nature Center. For maximum enjoyment and understanding, a tour of the park should begin with a visit to the Travertine Nature Center.

A self-guiding nature trail in the Environmental Study Area. Photo by Chester Weems.

Environmental Study Area

The park area along Travertine Creek east of the Travertine Nature Center has been reserved as an Environmental Study Area, and as such is the outdoor classroom for many of the Nature Center's interpretative activities. It is designed to present the park visitor with a segment of the landscape which has minimal human disruption. The only access to this area is by foot trail, and its real value is appreciated only by the person who takes the time to sit quietly along a portion of the stream or trail and let nature come to him. Naturalists from the Travertine Nature Center make scheduled guided walks through this area.

Figure 3. Arbuckle Recreation Area.

Perimeter Drive

For the visitor who has limited time or who first wishes to get an over-all look at the park before settling down to a detailed visit, the six-mile perimeter drive is a worthwhile experience. This leisurely automobile drive starts at the Travertine Nature Center and takes the visitor to many of the points of interest and beauty while generally following the park boundary. An excellent guide pamphlet is provided free of charge at the Nature Center.

Picnicking and Camping

The park contains many picnic areas, all of which are completely equipped and situated in very attractive and pleasant areas. There are also over two hundred well-equipped and modern campsites in Central, Cold Springs, and Rock Creek campgrounds.

Arbuckle Recreation Area

Although not an integral part of Platt National Park, the Arbuckle Recreation Area, eight miles southwest, is under the administrative control of Platt National Park and offers an extension of the park's recreational opportunities. The area includes a twenty-four-hundred-acre artificial lake of deep, clear water which is impounded between forested and rocky ridges of the Arbuckle Mountains. The lake was formed in 1962 by the construction of a large rock and earth dam near the confluence of Platt National Park's Rock Creek and the Buckhorn and Guy Sandy creeks. Fishing, swimming, water-skiing, and skin diving are permitted at the lake. The land around the lake's shoreline is also included in the recreation area and maintains facilities for picnicking, camping, and boating. Much of the area is also reserved as a public hunting and trapping area.


Early Occupancy

The first visitors to the area now included in Platt National Park were undoubtedly some of the southern Plains Indian tribes who lived and traveled in this region during prehistoric times. Those tribes included the Osages on the north and the Caddoes, Wichitas, Kiowas, and Comanches farther west near the Wichita Mountains. The earliest European influence and sovereignty in the region was alternately exercised by the Spaniards and the French until 1803, when the entire area was included in the Louisiana Purchase. The effects of those early contacts were negligible, however, and the United States government perpetuated the relative isolation of the area by generally excluding it from white settlement for several more decades.

Figure 4. The boundaries of Indian nations and the locations of prominent army posts during the early 1860's.

Probably the first white men to travel through the area of the park were United States cavalrymen from Fort Smith, Arkansas, who patroled the area north of the Texas border in 1819 to expel illegal white settlers. Fort Gibson and Fort Towson were established in eastern Oklahoma in 1824 and assumed sole responsibility for frontier police action until 1842, when Fort Washita was built several miles south of the park's present location. In 1852, Fort Arbuckle was established just west of the park near the present town of Davis. It and Fort Washita had the mission of protecting the peaceful Choctaws and Chickasaws from the more warlike bands roaming the area. Troops from these posts also did minor exploration and assisted parties of westward-bound emigrants. Both Fort Arbuckle and Fort Washita were abandoned in 1870, when Fort Sill was established near the Wichita Mountains of western Oklahoma.

The first permanent settlers in the park area were, strangely enough, neither local Indians nor white men but members of two woodland Indian tribes from the southeastern United States. In 1820 the United States government bowed to political and economic pressures in the Southeast and decided to remove all native Indian tribes from their lands east of the Mississippi River. Primarily affected by this decision were the Five Civilized Tribes, which were the most peaceful, prosperous, and advanced Indians in North America. Beginning in that year, representatives of the harassed Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles were constrained to sign a series of treaties with the United States which would remove them forever from their traditional homes in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. They were to surrender tribal lands east of the Mississippi River in return for perpetual, unmolested, and self-governed territory in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Reluctantly, the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees migrated west between 1835 and 1847 under harsh and often tragic conditions; among the most notable of these Indian experiences was the infamous "Trail of Tears," which took place in 1838. The Choctaws and Chickasaws then settled on their assigned lands between the Texas border and the South Canadian River, just north of the present park site.

Once established in this new land, the Indians quickly resumed the same high level of civilization they had been forced to abandon in the East. Farms and cattle ranches were the basis of the economy, and the Indian councils established a system of public education, courts, police, and other functions of government considered appropriate anywhere in the United States in that era. In addition to normal commerce and administrative functions of the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian lands around the park were increasingly frequented by cattle drives and emigrant trains until the closing of the frontier. The famous Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas passed between Fort Arbuckle and Fort Sill on the west, and the Texas or Shawnee Trail angled northwestward just fifty miles southeast of the park. Occasional longhorn and local cattle drives were made up the Washita River valley adjacent to the park's present location. A branch of the Marcy Trail used by some emigrants also passed through the area. In 1872 the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway was completed across the Indian Territory along the general trace of the Texas Trail, and the late 1880's saw the construction of the north-to-south Santa Fe Railway from Guthrie through Davis and on to Texas.

During this period, as for all time before, the abundant and reliable springs of the valley of Travertine and Rock creeks provided a welcome oasis for the great herds of bison, antelope, and cattle which frequented the vicinity. Buffalo and Antelope springs were favorite watering holes for bison and antelope, as well as Indian cattle and horses. The heavy use of the springs reduced them to large trodden areas of muddy bog. Buffalo Springs alone covered nearly one-half acre and was called "Buffalo Suck" because of the bison's way of drinking water from shallow puddles and rivulets.

Establishment of the Park

By 1880 white ranchers had begun to move into the area to establish cattle ranches on land leased from the Chickasaw Nation or acquired through marriage to Indian women. Eventually that influx caused the Indians to lose all practical control of their tribal lands, and white political and economic interests spurred increasing demands for establishment of formal United States control of the area. As the Indian Territory moved closer to statehood, the Chickasaws and Choctaws became increasingly fearful that their traditional spring and summer camping ground along Rock Creek would be taken into private ownership and lost to them forever. In fact, the town of Sulphur was already growing up around the mineral springs. To prevent the possibility of losing their lands altogether, the tribes ceded the area of the park to the United States government in 1902 so that the springs could be used "by all men for perpetuity." Sulphur was eventually relocated on higher ground away from the springs, and the Sulphur Springs Reservation, as it was then called, was redesignated Platt National Park in 1906 by a joint session of Congress. Platt National Park was named to commemorate Orville H. Platt, a United States senator from Connecticut who had been a long-term member of the Committee on Indian Affairs. In 1907 the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory in which the park was located were joined and admitted to the Union as the state of Oklahoma.

The park rapidly became a popular health spa, and by 1930 Sulphur, which had come to be called the "Summer Capital," had developed into a major resort city of more than four thousand permanent residents. The city and park became favorite vacation and convention spots for Oklahoma and much of the Middle West. A large hotel, several bathhouses, swimming pools, and other tourist facilities were built in Sulphur to serve visitors to the park. The mineral waters from the park's springs were in such demand that they were commercially bottled and distributed. The belief in the therapeutic value of the bromide water was so popular during one period before World War I that the park superintendent limited visitors to a single gallon of Bromide Spring's limited output.

In the early years of the park's existence there was very little development of the facilities one sees today. With the exception of the popular area around the mineral springs, much of the park remained unfenced and unkempt for many years because of meager funds made available by Congress. Not until the early 1920's was cattle grazing and limited farming on the park's upland formally and permanently forbidden and the areas restored to native vegetation. In 1933, however, a Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established in the park, and the greatest development in the park's history began. Indeed, the park one sees today is largely the product of the labor of those young men in the years between 1933 and the camp's deactivation in 1940. Most of the roads, foot trails, picnic areas, and rock work were completed during those years. Perhaps most significant were the landscaping efforts undertaken by the C.C.C. One such project was the beautification of the boggy areas around Antelope and Buffalo springs. The large muddy area was filled and graded to facilitate local drainage. Then Buffalo Springs was dug out and lined with native stone to produce the clear, bubbling pool so many visitors have come to enjoy. Another beautification and conservation project which is appreciated today more than ever before was the setting out of 800,000 plants of all types throughout the park, including nearly 60 tree species native to Oklahoma.

More recent improvements to the park have been the upgrading of physical facilities such as campgrounds and picnic areas. In 1969 the Travertine Nature Center was completed, and the eastern end of the park was cleared of a portion of the Perimeter Drive and some picnic areas to form the Environmental Study Area. Traces of those facilities can still be seen at several places, but they are gradually being reclaimed by natural vegetation. Coincident with the establishment of the Nature Center was the marking of several self-guiding nature trails.

Future plans call for minor expansion of the park's local boundaries and possible formal consolidation with the Arbuckle Recreation Area to form a single, integrated recreational and interpretive retreat for the growing population of the Southwest.


The occurrence of various contrasting landscapes in Platt National Park is one of the most significant aspects of the park. It is one thing to drive into a pleasant natural setting and enjoy a day of casual sight-seeing, swimming, or hiking; it is quite another to have an understanding of how and why those surroundings exist as they do. The goals of any visitor to this park or any other area of natural interest should therefore be twofold.

First, the visitor should develop an ability to observe what is around him. Too often when visiting the countryside, and especially the national parks and monuments, one expects and usually finds that the more spectacular and publicized sights will indeed demand the visitor's attention and confound him with beauty, size, or some other notable quality. Subtlety, patience, and quietude are therefore qualities not often exercised by most visitors. In Platt, however, breathtaking vistas and dramatic phenomena have in their stead quiet, pleasant vignettes of nature's ageless ways which can only be appreciated through the cultivation of these qualities of mind and methods of observation.

The second goal is that of understanding what one observes. The understanding and appreciation of why: Why are certain slopes grass-covered while others are cloaked with trees? Why does the cactus grow so abundantly atop certain hills? Why are bluffs formed along certain stream banks? These aspects of natural growth can only be understood through patient observation; but understanding, in turn, makes observation much more clear and enjoyable. Thus the two go hand in hand for the enlightened visitor.

Landscapes and Environments

The scenery which one looks upon in the countryside may have various terms applied to it, either in whole or in part. A term which will be used frequently in this booklet, and which is commonly used in geography and geology, is landscape. Used in an unspecialized sense, a landscape is simply the sum of all phenomena within a given area, say within the view of the observer. Thus when one speaks of the park's landscape, one is referring to the totality of his visual experience: to all plants, animals, landforms, water forms, human activities, and anything else that exists on that portion of the earth's surface.

Since landscape is such a general and sometimes unwieldy concept, it is often subdivided into units which identify specific environmental processes or agents for easier discussion. One of these units is the physical landscape, which includes climate, landforms, water bodies, underlying rock materials of the earth's crust, and the various soils formed upon the surface. The many forms of plant and animal life of an area make up the biological landscape. It includes all living things that inhabit the earth, from the smallest micro-organisms in the air, soil, and water to the largest plants and animals. A third aspect of the over-all landscape is sometimes called the cultural landscape, and includes those activities and effects which can be directly attributed to man's presence on the earth's surface. Within the cultural landscape of Platt National Park the many roads, trails, buildings, and mowed areas are obvious modifications of the physical and biological landscape's constituent parts. Another term which is sometimes used in place of landscape, but which retains the same general meaning and division, is environment. Regardless which term one uses, however, the subject is still the totality of interrelated phenomena which lend character to the face of Platt National Park, and indeed to the entire earth.


Platt National Park: Environment and Ecology
©1975, University of Oklahama Press
barker-jameson/chap1.htm — 09-Mar-2009

Copyright © 1975 University of Oklahoma Press, Publishing Division at the University. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the University of Oklahoma Press.