SAND SPRINGS — Forests often seem dormant in the bleak winter months, but growth does take place; it’s just less visible.
That couldn’t be more true of the Keystone Ancient Forest, where Sand Springs Parks and Recreation Department employees have spent the winter clearing an additional hiking trail at the nearly 1,400-acre preserve, watching the creation of a million-dollar visitor center, hiring the preserve’s first full-time staff member and expanding public hiking hours — twice.
“The Keystone Ancient Forest is well on its way to evolving into a world-class hiking destination,” said Jeff Edwards, director of the Sand Springs Parks and Recreation Department.
The cross-timbers forest, managed by the city, is teeming with 500-year-old cedar trees and 300-year-old post oak trees, offers great views of Keystone Lake and boasts more than 12 miles of hiking trails, including one trail that is paved and accessible to people with disabilities.
The preserve — just a few minutes west of Sand Springs — features deer, mountain lions, bobcats, American eagles, migratory birds and more than 80 species of butterflies.
The Keystone Ancient Forest opened to the public in 2007, but a small volunteer base and only about 3 miles of developed trails meant the gates were closed all but one day each month, Edwards said.
But thanks to steadily increasing popularity, the preserve now has one full-time employee and a volunteer base of about 30 active trail guides, and it has greatly expanded its public hiking hours.
The newest trail — the 3.5-mile Falls Trail — opened last week, and city leaders will cut the ribbon on the new Irv and Sharna Frank Visitor Center on Friday.
The rock-and-glass structure looks perfectly at home in this Osage County forest that famed American author Washington Irving and about 100 Army scouts passed through in October 1832 as they sought to learn about the Plains Indians, but it offers modern creature comforts such as indoor restrooms and a souvenir area.
“The expanded hours have exceeded our expectations for visitation,” Edwards said. “We always knew the need was there, and now that staffing has been solidified, we’ve been able to meet that request of the visitors we serve.”
Edwards said the preserve’s record single-day attendance in the previous year was about 450.
“This year alone, with the increased awareness and exposure of the forest,” he said, “we have had back-to-back 1,500 counted visitor attendees.
“With the addition of Falls Trail this weekend, we welcomed 740 hikers on Saturday and 567 on an Easter holiday Sunday.”
The preserve doesn’t charge admission, but promotional items such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, decals and stickers, water bottles, backpacks and more are available for purchase.
And Edwards noted that all of the proceeds go “right back into making the nature preserve even better.”
Gallery: Keystone Ancient Forest winter hiking