In northwest Oklahoma City, just south of the Kilpatrick Turnpike and west of Mercy Hospital, lies 140 acres devoted to woodlands and wildlife. Staff at Martin Park Nature Center, a long-standing fixture on Memorial Road, are celebrating the park’s 47th anniversary in Oklahoma City this month.
The park boasts four hiking trails, a watchtower, a bird observation wall, a picnic area, a playground and an interactive learning center, where children and adults can learn about Oklahoma’s biodiversity. Armadillos, birds, beavers, coyotes, deer, foxes, opossum, owls, rabbits, racoons, skunks, squirrels, turtles and more live on the grounds.
William Hagenbuck, head naturalist at Martin Park Nature Center, said the most popular trail is the “Courage Trail,” the collaborative outcome of the park’s partnership with local nonprofit Wilderness Matters and the Integris Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital in 2015.
“It’s a half-mile loop that allows visitors to experience the pond, the forest and the open meadows in the park,” Hagenbuck said. “You can see a variety of different habitat in different areas and different habitat. It’s a good hike for families with their kids or for senior citizens who want to be out and enjoy nature but can’t travel too far.”
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The wheelchair-accessible Courage Trail usually takes visitors about 30 minutes, the naturalist said, but a total hike of all the park’s trails can take up to four hours.
“The park allows people, whether local or national, to come through and experience nature and wildlife in an urban setting,” Hagenbuck said. “It’s amazing for mental health to just get to be outdoors right here in Oklahoma City.”
Martin Nature Park visits sheltered during peak of COVID pandemic
Open since May 10, 1975, Martin Park Nature Center is named after Dr. Joseph Thomas Martin, who was widely credited with leading Oklahoma City through the 1918 influenza epidemic. Upon retirement, Martin served on the city’s park board for two decades.
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When the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation in March 2020, most parks shut down briefly during the spring. Martin Park did, too, before reopening during the summer with updated coronavirus guidelines and restrictions.
Despite the shutdown, year-end reports showed visitation nearly tripled at Martin Park in 2020, with about 209,000 visitors compared to 2019’s 88,000.
“We were seeing days where we had 2,000 visitors a day,” Hagenbuck said. “It just became a safe space for people who wanted to come out, enjoy the outside and take a breath during an unknown, really stressful time. I think for everybody it played a really vital role.”
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While the surge in visitors was welcome, park staff remember feeling stressed having to navigate the higher number of guests at the same time the pandemic was hitting its peak.
“I was very fortunate to have a really good team during that time, because it was definitely a bit of a strain,” Hagenbuck said. “We did have a bit of it in terms of a lot of the public coming to the park with park usage, things we do and do not allow in the park, and just public interaction.”
Because of the pandemic, the park temporarily changed what it offered at the visitors center, eschewing its classes inside the building for expanded outdoors activities with child-friendly antlers, animal pelts and other exhibits from tour guides.
COVID-19 restrictions were lifted mid-2021, but visitation numbers for the year held steady, with a headcount of 183,000 by year’s end.
Park activities resumed as COVID cases declined
With summer 2022 approaching, Martin Park has returned to many of its pre-pandemic activities, including “Ask a Naturalist” weekend classes, interactive fossil displays, night hikes, archery practice and other events throughout the year.
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Martin Park Nature Center is open from 5 am to 9 pm during the spring and summer, and from 5 am to 6 pm during fall and winter months. Admission is free, but large groups are advised to call ahead before visiting.
Hagenbuck, who has worked at Martin Park for eight years, first met his wife at the park in 2014, before marrying her four years later. To him, daily work is more than just a job.
“I find it very fortunate to come out here and be a part of nature,” Hagenbuck said. “When I was with state parks before this, you would see the same visitors maybe once or a a year. But here, you get to meet visitors and see the kids grow up and come back, asking questions and building that passion while they grow up with the park.”