Black Mesa and Kenton, located in the far northwestern Oklahoma Panhandle and the surrounding area can be heaven to a photographer. Every once in awhile in social media groups dedicated to photography, I read requests for information about the area. Even though the Okie-Tex Star Party is held there every year, because of the dark skies, this area of Oklahoma is almost devoid of any photographic attention. My purpose behind this article is to provide a one stop shop about the area. The focus is more centered on things like lodging, fuel than it is specific photography locations.
I grew up in the small town of Boise City, located in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Boise City is the county seat of Cimarron County. As a kid growing up, I got to spend a lot of time out in the Kenton area. To say that this area holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. Ever since I started with photography, I have made the Kenton area kind of like my own little personal playground.
Even though I should have been aware of this tidbit, it did not strike me until I got into photography that the Kenton area is a night photographer’s dream come true. There is almost zero light pollution and when the day turns to night and there is no moon, it is like one is in a whole different world. The night sky lights up with its brilliance.
SO WHERE IS KENTON?
Kenton is located in the far northwestern portion of Oklahoma. It is so far west that it is in the mountain time zone. As you can see from the map, it is only a couple miles east of the New Mexico state line. It is about a 30-minute drive from Boise City. At the last Census, the population was listed at 17. From time to time, I hear the number 100 as an estimate of the number of people in the area. That might be generous, or it could be in relation to the total area the person is considering. There are no two ways about it though, it is desolate and provides a photographer, or even just a tourist some issues they have to deal with.
MOUNTAIN TIME ZONE, WHAT?
That is correct, Kenton rests in the mountain time zone and that can mess with a person’s head. The residents go off mountain time, yet Boise City, the center of the Cimarron County universe is in the central time zone. Growing up, this meant nothing to me, but since I started making regular trips out there with my camera, it messed with me.
I always found it difficult to find accurate sunset information because of the time zone. This, in turn, would make planning sunset shots or portrait sessions into a mild nightmare, even with the tools that I use. To get around this issue, I just look up those times using Clayton, New Mexico as my location. If you zoom out on the map, you will see that Kenton is almost due north of Clayton, but since they are in the same time zone, the times for Clayton works for Kenton and the surrounding area.
Confused yet? Well if you are, I have more confusion to throw in with…………………..
CELL SERVICE INFORMATION
This used to be a big issue as the Black Mesa area tends to be somewhat behind in technological advances. Just a few years ago, the local telecommunications system, PTCI undertook a serious effort to upgrade their system in the area. Since they are AT&T based, those with that service should be fine. My IPad has service through PTCI and it has service all over the area. My phone though is Verizon and I lose service in about 99.9% of the area. There is one little spot that it does get service for about 30 seconds. Enough to annoy me with a hundred notifications and that is it.
I HAVE HEARD ABOUT OKLAHOMA ROADS
And guess what, they can be pretty bad out in the Panhandle! Honestly, the roads out in the Black Mesa area are pretty solid. The paved roads are fairly smooth, but narrow. Since this is mesa country, they do have some elevation changes and curves, which adds a little danger to the traveling. As long as one keeps a sane speed, which I do not see why they would not since there is so much to see, everything will be fine. Large wildlife and livestock are the main concern and at night, it pays to be prudent and take it easy.
The main road to Kenton from Boise City is State Highway 325. It turns into New Mexico highway 456 at the state line. Highway 406 is known as the “Seneca Road” and that comes out several miles east of Clayton, New Mexico. 456 can be a doozy though as it turns into a dirt road several miles into New Mexico and has a tendency to wash out with heavy rains and can be impassable at times. There are also several other paved roads in the area. One goes into the Lake Etling area and this can be taken around the lake area and then through some beautiful country and meets back up with 325 several miles east of Kenton. There is a paved road that goes to Black Mesa itself. This road can also be taken to the three state marker, but it turns into dirt before the marker.
If you mess around with GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth, you will see a vast network of roads in the area. Most of them are dirt, but most of them are really solid dirt roads. Several of these roads will take someone to places like the three state marker where Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma meet. You can also head up into Colorado on these roads. Another nice drive is through northern Cimarron County. If you use the map, go to the area where Highway 325 turns to the west from the north. There is a road marked N0110. This will lead into Colorado, but it can also lead to US 287. The drive is totally worth it. This drive though is entirely dirt, so be mindful of the recent weather.
GAS, FOOD, AND LODGING
One of the things that a person needs to plan on is where they are going to stay, gas consumption and food supplies. Clayton and Boise City are the only two places where a person can get gas or fuel. Depending on the length of time a person is going to stay out in the Kenton area can determine when they should fill up. I live just about a hundred miles from the area and I will leave town on a full tank. When I get to the area, most of the time I am only going to be out there for a few hours, but I usually scout locations in the daylight. I do not worry about filling up before leaving Boise City to head out there. I would not suggest leaving Boise City on less than half a tank, and to be safe, three-quarters of a tank. Boise City has two convenience stores that sell fuel. Clayton has several also.
Again, Boise City and Clayton is it when it comes to food. Along with the convenience stores, there are two restaurants, a Subway (inside Love’s), a Pizza Hut and a Dairy Queen in Boise City. There is also a small grocery store. Clayton is slightly larger than Boise City, so it has about the same options. Clayton is also home to the world-famous Eklund. Boise City has two motels, while Google lists seven hotels and motels for Clayton. Although I am partial to Boise City, the drive to Kenton from Clayton is more scenic.
Unlike the food and fuel options, the Black Mesa area boasts several options for lodging. The first being the campgrounds at Lake Etling. There are two campgrounds that offer primitive spots for tents, along with some spaces for travel trailers/motorhomes and hookups. The larger of the two also offers up a playground and a fully functional restroom/shower facility. This particular campground offers up plenty of shade during the day and it is pretty common to see deer around.
If camping is not your thing, then you can check out several of the bed and breakfasts that are in the area.
The owners of these establishments are long-time residents of the area that can really give a person a history lesson about the area.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO?
Honestly, that is up to the person wanting to go. Since it is Oklahoma, and mesa country, and just down the road from the Rockies, the weather can be quite crazy at times. Winter can be a bad choice, plus if you are looking for the Milky Way, skip winter. Spring is okay. The days can be cool to warm, but nights can be chilly. In the summer, the heat is a big concern. Fall is a lot like spring, with the added benefit of fall colors with the trees.
One of the things that I do like to stress about going to Kenton is thunderstorm safety. The paved road network is limited, and it is very directional. Kenton was somewhat of an “off limits” area for me when it came to weather photography. That changed once I got my IPad and can keep my eye on the radar. The storms that pop up in spring and summer can be very powerful.
There is an abundance of wildlife in the area. Anything from hordes of mosquitoes to black bear and everything in between. Although black bear sightings are rare, there is probably a couple running around. Mountain lion sightings are more common, and even then rare, but they are out there. Although I have never seen an elk, I have been serenaded by the song of their people at night on occasion. The chances of seeing deer are pretty high. Further down, rattlesnakes are the common creepy crawly thing and with a number of rocks and high grass, you will want to keep an eye for them.
Along with wildlife, the main way of life for people out there is ranching, therefore you will see cattle. There is some fencing, but a lot of cattle are free range and can be seen on the roads. Take your time and slow down, especially after dark.
I think I have covered all the background information that should be considered by a photographer before heading out to Black Mesa and Kenton. Although I am not taking into consideration the lodging aspect of going to Black Mesa and Kenton, I do have a small checklist of items that should be in every vehicle. That checklist includes:
- Water for one day for each person
- Food and snacks. I usually eat in Boise City but will have several Clif Bars because, at some point, I will get hungry while I am out there shooting
- Warm clothes. Even during my summer trips out there, I will toss in a fleece jacket or hoodie for the evening.
- Bug spray
- First aid kit. You can check out this line of kits from Adventure Medical. I have one of the .3 kits for my camera bag and I will be getting a larger one for my vehicle
- Cell phone charger (goes without saying)
- Halo Bolt 57220. This nifty device is a battery jumper and charger. It comes with cables to jump start your car and a couple of USB outlets to let you charge electronics
- Lastly, let someone you know that you will be in the area and when you should be back to civilization. The Cimarron County Sheriff is the primary law enforcement agency covering Kenton and Black Mesa
- Flashlight and headlamp. I favor smaller, cheap LED tac lights as they are easily replaced if they break. A decent headlamp lets me have both hands free to setup and take down my camera
NOW, SOME PHOTOGRAPHY SPECIFIC INFORMATION
Hopefully, I have not bored you to tears at this point, but many times I will see discussions that talk about the photography without any mention of some of the other things we should think of before heading out. Even though it might be in the back of our heads, when I give people information about Kenton and Black Mesa, I focus on the background stuff mostly because I would not want to see someone have a surprise meet them once they got out there. So on to some specific information about photography the places and people of Kenton and Black Mesa.
MOST OF THE LAND IS PRIVATE
Yes, if the land does not belong to the state, which most of the Lake Etling and Black Mesa itself falls under, the land belongs to private owners, even if the land is not fenced. This does not mean that your photography has to suffer, though. Pulling off the side of the road in a lot of areas is all that is needed to take advantage of a photographic opportunity. Since it is mesa country, you will find yourself surrounded by landscape most everywhere you go. Most of the land owners I know are more than accommodating if you ask first if you find an area to shoot. And if you make contact with certain ones, you might get to enjoy a private tour of some of the gems that are held within the walls. But do not let the fact about land ownership prevent you from going.
BRING ON THE NIGHT
If you are into night/astrophotography, then Kenton and Black Mesa is a place you must go. Click for a light pollution map. Type “Kenton, OK” into the search bar, and then zoom the map out. What you will see will tell you what you need to know. I really cannot put it into words as one must experience it. Where I live, about 100 miles to the east of Kenton, is pretty dark. Most nights, I can see most of the Milky Way ring in my night skies once I get out of town. The Kenton area though is a whole other level. It is not only clear, but it pops. The only issue I have had is dealing with airplanes in the sky.
There are numerous opportunities in the area to photograph landscapes.
I also drag along my 70-200 glass when I go out there. Even though it might be a little short for wildlife shots, sometimes it will do just find. I mess around with shooting landscapes at longer focal lengths to I can keep the landscape looking like it does, not compressed. Of course, if you are going to be on foot and want to stay mindful of the weight in your camera bag, or do not want to spend the money on a 70-200, then a 70-300 will do just fine during the day.
A quality tripod is a must. I have two Vanguard tripods, an Alta Pro and a VEO model. Both have served me well.
Lastly, a good map. Even though I am a GPS guy, I am a firm believer in paper maps. You can get free topographical maps from the USGS, or purchase a topographical atlas of Oklahoma from Amazon. Make sure you check the map coverage before you purchase. Since Black Mesa and Kenton are near two other states, you will want to make sure the maps cover the entire area.
Taking a trip to Kenton and the Black Mesa region is a soul cleansing experience. The tranquility and solitude of the area are second to none. It is truly a trip back in time. It should be on anyone’s list of “must go to” places.