Places We Protect

J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve


Birds-eye view of the J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve in the Ozark forest.
J.T. Nickel Preserve Overlooking the lush forest of the Ozarks in eastern Oklahoma. © Ryan West Photography

This preserve is the largest protected conservation area in the Ozarks — a region that stretches into northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

The Bathtub Rocks area at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve is permanently closed.



The J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve is the largest privately protected conservation area in the Ozarks thanks to a land gift from the John Nickel family in 2000. This 17,000 acre landscape rests in eastern Oklahoma's rolling Cookson Hills and overlooks the Illinois River where spring-fed creeks meander amid a rugged topography of steep slopes and narrow valleys harboring a mosaic of oak-hickory forest, lofty pine woodland, and a diverse mix of savanna, shrubland and prairie.

Elk, a native grazer and keystone species for the region had been absent in this area for more than 150 years. In 2005, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) reintroduced an elk herd to preserve that has grown and flourished in establishing a healthy population in the region.

Additionally, TNC performs controlled burns to restore the open woodlands ecosystem which has produced an astounding increase in wildlife and plant diversity. Because of these conservation efforts the preserve provides an ideal habitat for a suite of uncommon and migratory birds. Remember your binoculars when visiting! 


Limited Access

Hiking trails only. Hunting, fishing, camping, dogs & off-roading are not permitted.


Open during daylight hours, seven days a week. Hiking trails are for foot traffic only.


Hiking trails, Birdwatching, Elk, Black bear


17,000 acres

Explore our work in Oklahoma

Photos from the J.T. Nickel Preserve

Discover the unique wildlife and diversity of the Ozarks.

Hikers on the trail.
Two deer standing in tall grass.
Male elk standing in the tall grasses of the preserve.
Eastern blue bird in mid-flight
Monarch butterly on liatris.
A group of hikers on the trail.
Family with children at the Pine Ridge trailhead.
Close up of a painted bunting.
A burn boss lights a controlled burn on the preserve.
Male, female and two juvenilie elk.


  • Please Do:

    • Take a hike and stay on the trail. Leave plants, insects or other species, soil, rocks, artifacts or scientific research markers right where you found them. Download a trail guide.
    • Enjoy viewing the birds and other wildlife. Remember, elk and black bears are dangerous with an incredible amount of power and very sharp claws. When not on a designated trail, stay in your car to ensure your safety as well as theirs.
    • Let us know (+1 918-207-0671) if you’re bringing a large group — 10 or more people.
    • Report to us (+1 918-207-0671) any problems you observe like campsites, plant removal, hunting, off-road vehicles or wildlife harm.

    Please Don't: 

    • Bring your dog. The preserve is home to ground-nesting birds and other wildlife that are extremely sensitive to disturbance.
    • Ride your bicycle or motorized vehicle off the county road.
    • Hunt, camp or make campfires.
    • Leave trash. Take out what you brought in and please consider taking an extra piece of litter with you.
  • There are three self-guided nature trails at the preserve: 

    • Savanna Trail: Begins at the headquarters building, 1.5 miles in length, good for seeing wildlife, butterflies, and wildflowers.
    • Pine Ridge Trail: Begins at the headquarters building, 1.5 miles in length, good for seeing wildlife, butterflies, prescribed fire effects, effects that topography has on plant communities, and wildflowers.
    • Wetland Trail: Begins on the county road that bisects the preserve, .5 miles in length, good for seeing amphibians, butterflies, native warm season grass species, wildflowers and the occasional elk. Short hike with minimal topography change.

    Download a trail guide.

  • Sprawling forests and a diverse array of plant and animal species are just some of the numerous natural attractions at the J.T. Nickel Preserve. All those trees mean breathtaking fall foliage. While you’re drooling over the oranges, reds and yellows remember to look for birds. The preserve is a prime destination for bird enthusiasts both in the winter and the spring seasons.

    A herd of free-ranging elk also calls the preserve home. The herd is typically fairly elusive, though they may be visible at any given moment. Elk are often more active in autumn months which is their mating season. Elk aren’t the only large wildlife that live on the preserve. There are black bears. Like elk, these bears are mostly elusive but can be attracted to areas with human activity for the easy access to food. Don’t give them a reason to come looking for you.

  • Take a virtual tour and experience breathtaking 360° panoramas of Oklahoma’s native and diverse landscapes. Great for classrooms and living rooms alike to learn about the unique J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve in eastern Oklahoma and all its plants, animals, and special ecology through this engaging multi-media.

    Take a Tour

  • The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations address the use of wheelchairs and Other Power Driven Mobility Devices (OPDMDs) by persons with mobility disabilities. These rules apply to public accommodations which include TNC properties that are open to the public. The regulations provide that with regard to public accommodations persons with mobility disabilities are entitled to:

      Use wheelchairs and manually powered mobility aids (canes, walkers, etc) in areas that are open to pedestrian use.  A wheelchair includes a manually operated device or power-driven device designed primarily for use by an individual with a mobility disability for the main purpose of indoor or both indoor or outdoor locomotion. 

      Use OPDMDs if the landowner can make “reasonable modifications to its practices to accommodate them.” An assessment has been done for the J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve in accordance with the ADA regulations.

Water flowing over rock formation on the preserve.
Bathtub Rocks Bathtub Rocks at J.T. Nickel Preserve. © TNC

Bathtub Rocks Now Permanently Closed

The Bathtub Rocks area at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature & Wildlife Preserve in Tahlequah is now permanently closed to the public. Law enforcement is on-site at Bathtub Rocks to inform visitors of the site closure and will issue citations to violators.   

“As a friendly neighbor and active member of the Tahlequah community, The Nature Conservancy has allowed public access to Bathtub Rocks since we acquired the land in 2000,” says Michael Fuhr, State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma. 

“Due to increased misuse of this area including illegal drug activity, vandalism, trespassing on neighboring properties and littering, we can no longer allow the public to access Bathtub Rocks. These illegal activities have created an unsafe environment for visitors and are interfering with our ability to fulfill our objective to conserve and protect the sensitive wildlife and habitat in the Ozarks.”

Read more about this closure.

Find More Places We Protect

The Nature Conservancy owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

See the Complete Map

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Show your Okie pride by sporting a speciality bison or monarch license plate on your car or make a donation to continue conservation efforts across the Ozarks.