Welcome to the Socially Distanced Forest of Your Nightmares

This is one spooky hike.

A dark, maze-like forest of non-native trees deliberately planted by the federal government sounds like something out of Stranger Things, but nestled amidst the rugged Wichita Mountains in southwest Oklahoma, one such place is all too perplexingly real. The Parallel Forest is like an eerie mirage on a quiet, winding stretch of Oklahoma State Route 115. This unmarked patch of woods, only distinguished by a tiny parking lot that frequently sits empty, stands in stark contrast to the surrounding desert-like terrain, with its soaring canopy of red cedar trees so dense and tall that they block out the sun. Welcome to the creepiest hike of your life.

Wander through creepy perfection

The Parallel Forest isn’t huge. At just 16 acres, the whole thing could easily be contained on one floor of the Mall of America, but it’s a matter of quality over quantity here—or rather, a matter of labyrinthine mystery and intrigue. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with creepy Stepford Wives-like perfection.

The forest is a sea of more than 20,000 red cedars that were purposely planted by the federal government as an experiment to try to counter the effects of the Dust Bowl. As dust came sweeping down the Plains in the ‘30s, essentially covering much of the state in dirt for a good decade, the US government apparently thought it would be a good idea to plant non-native cedars exactly six-feet apart in every direction over a swath of several acres, to act as a would-be wind block to break up the dusty maelstrom. The fact that there aren’t multiple Parallel Forests throughout the region suggests that the experiment may have been… not successful. Instead, the government succeeded with gifting southwestern Oklahoma a forest that’s as socially distanced as it is creepy and plagued by murky, haunted lore.

forest path
Oklahoma Tourism

Get lost in lore

For starters, the forest just looks foreboding as hell. From the small cement patch of a parking lot, it’s an imposing wall of cedars that looks more like a fortress than an inviting woodland trek. If Harry Potter took place in Oklahoma, this would be the Forbidden Forest. Penetrating its walls, the sunny skies are quickly replaced by a thick canopy, and the further you traipse, the more the road fades away. Since the trees are all perfectly planted six-feet apart in every direction, this isn’t really a forest with designated trails; rather, keep track of where you entered and try not to wander around in circles, which is all too easy to do, considering this is like the wooded equivalent of a mirror maze. That being said, the forest is only 16 acres, so you probably don’t need to worry about befalling a hopeless Blair Witch-style fate. Your best bet is to download the AllTrails app and use it to follow the 0.8-mile loop tail.

Still, something as unnatural and bewildering as this is bound to attract some ghoulish mythos. Since its dusty origins, there have been reports of unexplained sights—including orbs in photos, drum sounds, and headless ghosts—and witchcraft ceremonies, though whether or not the Blair Witch is involved is still to be determined. Oh, and there’s also an unexplained man-made rock formation in the middle of the woods that’s rumored to be an altar for satanic rituals, NBD. Whether any of these “hauntings” or rituals are legit remains to be seen, or perhaps they’re just subconscious mind-trickery brought on by the ominous setting. After all, any place that’s been abandoned by the government and shrouded in near-constant darkness is guaranteed to feel a tad unsettling regardless. And if you hear a twig snap in the distance, just tell yourself it’s an errant longhorn lost in the forest. Just like you.

lake in Medicine Park
YuniqueB/Shutterstock

Visit non-haunted stuff nearby

All that being said, there’s a lot to see and do in the area around the Parallel Forest that doesn’t involve satanic rituals. The forest is on the eastern edge of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a 60,000-acre park that’s far more straightforward to navigate. Here, you’ll find babbling brooks, lakes, grassy prairies, rocky canyons, and craggy mountains, along with numerous designated trails. One of the most scenic is the Bison Trail, a six-mile loop that moseys by a surprisingly deep canyon (at least by Oklahoma standards; maybe don’t take an Arizonan here), across a river, through forests, and grassland, with the likely chance to spot wild bison, longhorn, and other critters, like tarantulas, prairie dogs, and roadrunners.

To the east of the Parallel Forest lies the bucolic, preserved-in-time town of ofMedicine Park, a happy little slice of Americana lined with cobblestone streets, wooden bridges, swimming holes, ice cream shops, and twee cottages that look like hobbit hollows. Charming restaurants abound, including Riverside Cafe, Santa’s Snack Shop, Small Mountain Street Tacos, and The Old Plantation, the latter of which scratches the Southern comfort itch with fried green tomatoes, chicken-fried steak, fried catfish sandwiches, and cobbler.

For more quintessentially Oklahoman cuisine, queue up at Meers Store and Restaurant, a ramshackle burger institution that’s been around since 1901, when the tiny town of Meers was a bustling gold mine mecca. Nowadays, this enduringly popular shanty of a restaurant commands inevitably long lines for tried-and-true platter-sized cheeseburgers, thick wedge fries, and ice cream sundaes so large they’re basically served in baseball helmets.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on Instagram.