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Oklahoma Off Road Trails - Where In the World Is Poteau?

Posted in Features on June 1, 2001 Comment (0)
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Oklahoma's Kiamichi Mountains, tucked away in the southeastern part of the state near the Arkansas border, harbor a vast maze of four-wheel-drive trails. Four-wheelers in this part of the country who like the hard stuff need look no further than Poteau (pronounced Po-toe), Oklahoma, for some of the best extreme trails in the land. Long holiday weekends find hard-core 'wheelers from surrounding states gravitating to this area to test themselves and their machines. Less than two hours from Tulsa, we found ourselves en route to some great four-wheeling one weekend.

Saturday was typical for a summer morning in Oklahoma, warm and humid, with very little breeze and the promise of a hot afternoon. Those of us camping at Lake Wister State Park have learned to live with the weather over the years. But from the lake, Poteau is a short 9-mile journey.

Once we met up with Tim Sims, our local trail guru, he announced that we would be running trails on Cavanaugh Hill, the tallest hill in the world. (A hill does not officially become a mountain until 2,000 feet.) With a peak elevation of 1,995 feet, Cavanaugh is situated on the western edge of Poteau, overlooking the town and the entire Poteau River valley. Dense timber blankets the hill-sides, with occasional clearings that provide spectacular views. Unmaintained oil and gas routes systematically cut through the forest. Several extreme trails can be found here, including Rattlesnake Trail, Panel Wagon Trail, and the infamous Axle Breaker Trail, one of the most challenging and popular trails in the region, and our trail of choice for the day.

As our group of (mostly) Jeeps lumbered uphill on the paved road to the trailhead, we realized that we knew most of these guys very well; they were experienced 'wheelers with stout rigs, all with lockers in the front and the rear. Most rigs sported 35- or 36-inch-tall tires, and mostly Super Swampers. Yes, we were well equipped for what lay ahead. Axle Breaker Trail is an old seismograph trail. It was created by detonating a series of explosive charges so the echoes could be recorded for the purposes of oil and gas exploration. The remaining route weathered and eroded over the years, providing some fantastic four-wheeling. The first really tough climb on this trail (and the section that earned this trail its name) starts out not too steep, but passes through a section of large, loose boulders. Judicious use of throttle to maintain steady momentum is required here. Beyond the boulder section, the trail becomes a steep, rutted climb up a clay hillside with a lot of loose rock. Near the top of the trail, each vehicle encounters a rock ledge, the axle breaker. No axles were broken on this day, but several Jeeps got major air under the front tires as they bounced at the ledge with their throttles on the floor.

Soon, we reached the second tough section on Axle Breaker. This section also begins with a boulder section, then zigzags around a big rock, more boulders, then finishes with a steep climb uphill with more protruding ledges. What a trail. When it is wet, it is nearly impossible to get up Axle Breaker without a winch.

Sunday morning, Tim took us to nearby Poteau Mountain for more extreme trail rides. The first trail was Snowball, a fairly short but steep climb up a deeply rutted clay hillside. Engines screamed as tires searched in vain for traction. Only two vehicles successfully negotiated Snowball without winch assistance: a green Toyota Land Cruiser driven by Jerry Ricardi of Kansas City and Tulsa's Sam Patton in his TeraFlexed TJ shod with 36-inch Swampers.

Next on the agenda was a hill named Roller Cam, another short, steep, rugged climb. When asked how this hill got its name, Tim usually says, "It's a high rpm hill." And he is right. After Roller Cam, we descended the Waterfall trail, which is very steep with a lot of jagged outcroppings and loose rock thrown in for good measure. At the bottom, our trail leader instructed all of us to turn around because we had to climb back up the Waterfall Trail to get out. As much fun as it was going down, it was even more fun going up.

From the top of the Waterfall Trail we headed over to a short trail affectionately named 8 Seconds. This is one of those trails where you just hold on tight and find yourself at the bottom in a flash. Our descent down 8 Seconds led us out of the woods and back to paved roads - a great way to end the weekend.

If you are interested in extreme four-wheeling and you are not squeamish about steep hills and big rocks, then you owe it to yourself to check out the trails in Poteau. Just come prepared.

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