Oklahoma’s Tenkiller State Park is a phenomenal recreational area surrounded by stunning scenery and the unique history and culture of the Cherokee people. It provides access to Lake Tenkiller (also called Tenkiller Ferry Lake).
The lake was formed by the 1947-1952 construction of Tenkiller Dam ten miles north of Vian, Oklahoma. It covers 12,900 acres in the Cookson Hills, a region of rolling hills that is part of the Ozarks. The lake, dam and state park take their name from the Tenkiller family. A ferry site, farm and other property belonging to the noted Cherokee family were used in the building of the dam and reservoir.
The Cherokee people arrived to settle this region during the early 19th century. Some came on their own, recognizing that they would eventually be driven from their homes east of the Mississippi, but most were forced to what is now Oklahoma at bayonet point on the Trail of Tears.
The lands along the Olahoma – Arkansas border were claimed by the Osage and other Native American groups. They resisted the idea of the United States taking their lands for the Cherokee and other groups and fought the newcomers. The first Cherokee settlers had to fight for their lives. The U.S. Army responded by establishing Fort Smith and later Fort Gibson to protect and supply them.
The Cherokee established themselves in the new country in a remarkably short time. They built homes and cleared fields and by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 were beginning to recover their lost prosperity. Many, in fact, were living much better than their white neighbors in the states of Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
Heavy fighting took place in the Cherokee Nation during the Civil War and numerous raids and marches passed through the area of today’s Lake Tenkiller. Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, a noted Cherokee leader, often operated in the region and was the last Confederate general to lay down his arms.
The area was ravaged by outlaws in the years after the war. They came here seeking to escape justice in the belief that law enforcement had no authority in the Nations. U.S. District Judge Isaac C. Parker, the “Hanging Judge” of Fort Smith, taught them otherwise. His deputy marshals were a racially diverse group best remembered today for their portrayal in such films as True Grit and Hang ‘Em High. They assisted Cherokee mounted police in rounding up outlaws who terrorized the residents of the region.
The Tenkiller Ferry Lake area is now a popular center for outdoor recreation. Tenkiller State Park offers access to the beautiful reservoir from State Highway 82 on its southern shore and noted for its beautiful limestone bluffs. The lake’s crystal clear waters make it perfect for fishing, boating, swimming and scuba diving. Visitors can enjoy cabins, a marina, camping, picnic areas, nature trails, a park store, cafe and more.
The Tenkiller Scuba Park, which can be accessed at the state park’s Fisherman’s Point area for $5 per vehicle, is widely regarded as the best scuba site in Oklahoma. Divers can explore a submerged airplane, school bus, helicopter, two boats and more. The lake is surprisingly deep, ranging from just a few feet along the shore to more than 165 feet in places. Spear fishing is allowed with a state license and there is a dive shop on the lake.
Other historic sites and points of interest in the region include Sequoyah’s Cabin, Fort Gibson Historic Site, Honey Springs Battlefield, Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, the capital of the Cherokee Nation at Tahlequah and the annual Muskogee Azalea Festival in Muskogee.
Tenkiller State Park is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Fridays). The entrance is on Highway 100, 8 miles north of Gore, Oklahoma. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. The Fisherman’s Point area requires a $5 per vehicle fee.
For a peak beneath the surface of the lake, enjoy this video of the Tenkiller Scuba Park: