— Grand Lake O’the Cherokees, Oklahoma — The warm sun kisses the skin and leaves behind a pink glow—cool water splashes on the just-warmed skin. The sun creates shimmering crystals on the blue canvas of the lake. Bass boats skim across the water, leaving a white wake behind. In coves, sailboats glide silently over the still waters.
Every spring, lake lovers eagerly await these summer sensations. Oklahoma gets hot in the summer. Fortunately, with over 200 lakes from which to choose, outdoor enthusiasts manage to make the most of the heat. Grand Lake O’the Cherokees is one of the larger lakes in the state.
Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, simply referred to as Grand Lake, lies in the state’s northeast corner. Before Oklahoma became a state, a member of the Cherokee tribe saw Grand River’s viability to provide flood control and hydroelectric power to the Cherokee Nation. He worked to gain support for the project for many years. Years later, the dream was realized, and the Pensacola Dam was finally completed in 1940. Grand Lake was created and has been enjoyed by many since that time.
Along the 1,300 miles of shoreline are several small towns that have a distinct lake vibes. One popular place is Monkey Island—not really an island, but a peninsula. An early visitor to this area of the lake commented that “over there will be Monkey Island, where the monkeys will be.” The Tulsa World heard it and reported it. Even without the monkeys—unless referring to those of us living here—the name remained.
Duck Creek is another popular area. It is home to the Cherokee and Arrowhead Yacht Clubs. The abundance of coves on this lake provides small areas for skiing or tubing, fishing, or just throwing out the anchor and soaking up sun.
Grand Lake is an easy 80-mile trip north from Tulsa on I44 or a 50-mile trip south from Joplin, Missouri, on I44. Grand Lake Regional Airport on Monkey Island or South Grand Lake Regional Airport in Ketchum offers private plane access. Here are some of the things to discover at the lake.
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1. On the Water
Being out on the water ranks at the top of the list for lake enthusiasts. Boaters can ease their private boats into the water at the many boat ramps around the lake. Numerous marinas also rent watercraft. H2O Sports Rental, Duck Creek Boat Club, and Sail Grand Waterfront offer jet skis, ski boats, pontoons, and yacht charters with all the appropriate accessories and water toys.
Many boaters find a cove and tie their boat up with other boats. Adults can relax while the kids wear themselves out playing in the protected area.
For the adventurous, try parasailing at Sail Grand Waterfront, located at the very end of Monkey Island.
For those desiring a quiet, more serene lake experience, the southwest to the northeast placement of the lake provides prevailing winds perfect for sailing.
2. Shangri-La Resort & Spa
Have a resort-centered vacation in mind? Shangri-La Resort and Spa will not disappoint. The 119-room resort sits at the tip of Monkey Island.
Golf enthusiasts perfect their game on the 27-hole championship golf course while sun-seekers lounge out by the “ultra-luxe” pool. Kids will be thrilled to have their own water park complete with slides and a large bucket of water that fills and then drenches the squealing kids below as they eagerly await the next drenching.
In the Spring of 2021, the resort will complete an 11,000 square foot activity center—The Anchor—with virtual reality golf and shooting simulators, escape rooms, and more.
Three restaurants offer various menus: Eddy’s Lakeside Bar, Doc’s Bar & Grill, and The Summit Restaurant (a member-only club, but open to guests of the resort.
Don’t forget to decompress at the spa. WEBSITE
3. Grand Lake – Har-Ber Village Museum
Enjoy a self-guided tour through this pioneer-era village located right on the lake 5-miles from downtown Grove. A pathway winds its way through small buildings and cabins housing over 100 exhibits. Antique farm equipment, coaches, carriages, and wagons remind us of an era past. A display of dolls— ranging from China head dolls, Madame Alexander, Cabbage Patch, and more enchant viewers.
There is an exhibit of depression glass, cut crystal glass, and many others that will delight the glass and pottery enthusiasts. Military presentations lead us through a history of uniforms and supplies from the Revolution to Desert Storm.
Activity stations allow children to experience historic schools, jails, and milking cows hands-on. The addition of a nature trail provides an opportunity to appreciate this beautiful lakeside setting. WEBSITE
4. GRDA Ecosystem & Education Center
Located at the Pensacola Dam in the lake’s southern area between Disney and Langley, the Center provides free tours of the historic dam built in the late 1930s. It is a multi-arch dam with 51 arches that rise 150 feet above the riverbed. It spans almost a mile.
One can get an insider view of the first hydroelectric facility in Oklahoma (listed on the National Register of Historic Places). The Center contains information about the history of the dam and lake. The Ecosystems and Education Center monitors the water quality of the lake and wildlife habitats. WEBSITE
5. Second Kick Cycle Works
Calling all motorcycle enthusiasts. One block off Main Street in Grove lies a gem of a museum. With some 80 motorcycles, one can admire almost 50 years of vintage and antique bikes. Ever see a 1940s Whizzer or 1960 Cushman 5 H.P. 2-speed transmission?
Walk down memory lane to see motorcycles made by Sears and Montgomery Wards. View the 1948 Velocette KSS 350cc that set the speed record at Bonneville, Utah in 1952.
Bob Tryon, at the museum, is a wealth of knowledge. He won’t brag about it, but he was the race manager for BSA/Triumph in the 1970s and has built bikes from the ground up.
Jim Serage, the owner, says, “Each bike here has a story.” And these two delightful gentlemen passionately share the stories. Afterward, walk through to the Checkered Past Deli for a quick bite to eat.
6. Monkey Island Trail Rides
Encounter nature while taking a guided trail ride through 100-acres of pastures and woods along the lake. You may decide to take advantage of the riding lessons offered.
After working up a thirst on the trail, stop by the winery, located at the front of the grounds. Meet winemaker and owner Val Saamer to taste wines fermented and bottled on the property. Saamer is well versed in the industry, having served as a chef, food and beverage director, and wine manager at the Wine Room at the 95th Restaurant in the John Hancock Building. He moved to Grand Lake and licensed the Winery at the Ranch. Taste their “Chard-N-Hay,” “Cabern-Neigh,” “Mo-Scat-Whoa,” or any of the other aptly labeled wines. As Val will tell you, “We make good everyday wine for every “Grand” day.” Cottages are also available for rent. WEBSITE
7. Lendonwood Gardens – Grand Lake
In early spring, this 8-acre botanical garden comes alive with color, beginning with the Azalea Garden. Pinks, lavenders, reds, and whites show off the delicate blossoms on these beautiful shrubs. Daylilies flaunt their cheerful colors later in spring in the Display Garden.
The Japanese Maples and various other trees cast their autumn hues in the fall. Stop by the beautifully crafted Japanese Pavilion overlooking the Koi pond. Kids will enjoy feeding the fish in the pool in front of the building.
The gardens are open all year round, and there is always something to appreciate. Discover the 80 types of false cypress trees or the 250 varieties of rhododendrons. A quiet, self-guided walk through the tranquil gardens at Lendonwood will bring peace to nature lovers. Paths lead through the eight botanical gardens next to trickling streams. Benches allow for time to relax and reflect. WEBSITE
8. Twin Bridges at Grand Lake
For a more tranquil spot on the lake, try the Twin Bridges area. Two bridges on Highway 60 cross over the Neosho River and the Spring River. These two rivers converge and flow into the northern part of Grand Lake. The resulting calm waters in this area provide a quieter part of the lake.
Kayaking and paddleboarding are popular in the rivers heading north. The scenery and wildlife observed present a pleasurable backdrop. Anglers seeking to catch the plentiful bass, catfish, or bluegill know this area to be rewarding. They may try their luck at snagging a spoonbill—a rare fish in the 35-pound to 75-pound category—giving rise to some bragging rights. The Grand Lake State Park located in this stretch of the lake offers camping and playgrounds complete with volleyball and horseshoes.
9. Little Blue Area State Park
Seek out this almost hidden gem at the south part of Grand Lake for a more remote area. Introduce your children to the wonders of nature by camping here. Primitive camping spots tucked among the giant trees allow families to experience quiet weekends out in the country.
On hot summer days, children will love splashing in the crystal-clear creek. The shallow stream allows parents to watch them as they place their own lounge chairs in the waters under large shade trees. Waters released from the Pensacola Dam nearby create this wonderful area for families. The park is located off State Hwy 28 near Disney.
Grand Lake offers memory-making activities for all. There are plenty of camping and RV sites, cabins, and hotels for any type of experience. The lake area has many festivals and events throughout the year. The Pelican Festival celebrates the return of the American White Pelicans on their annual migration. Located by Disney, Hogan’s Off-Road Park offers the perfect place for ATV and ORV to climb the rock structures. Hydro boat and performance boat races excite attendees each year. Locals and visitors attend the several Fourth of July fireworks displays around the lake and later in the year wrap up in coats and hats to watch the Christmas Boat Parade.
The area has many excellent restaurants located in the small communities around the lake in addition to those that are situated lakeside. As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operates the lake instead of the US Corp of Engineers, boats have access to various courtesy docks and businesses on the waterfront. Boaters enjoy easy docking for a quick bite or an afternoon respite at one of the many restaurants and bars before heading back out on the water.
Come and experience what Oklahomans know; one can have a “grand” time on Grand Lake.
*Opening photo ©L. VAN CLEAVE
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