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DEEP IN THE EASTERN PART of the Lone Star State, about 250 miles east of Austin, lies a vast, tangled quilt of pine and cypress forest, hardwood forest, meadow, bog, blackwater swamp, and arid sandhills appropriately called the Big Thicket. Once it covered more than three million acres; now only about 300,000 scattered acres remain, about one-third of which are protected as the Big Thicket National Preserve.
The Alabama-Coushatta Indians hunted the Big Thicket, but they generally remained at its fringes. Early Spanish pioneers also bypassed the region as it was too impenetrable, as did Anglo-Americans who arrived in the early 1800s. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that settlement of the Big Thicket began in earnest.
Today, there are no developed campgrounds in the national preserve; however, primitive camping is allowed in isolated portions of some of the preserve’s 15 units comprising 105,684 acres. Get the necessary backcountry permit free at the visitor center.
One of the best places to backpack in the preserve lies in the Turkey Creek Unit. A 15-mile, north-south trail that roughly parallels Turkey Creek provides opportunities for extended hiking. Start your trek after parking at the Information Station at the unit’s southern end. You’ll find secluded, primitive campsites all over the place, tucked into glade-like clearings on dry sandy knolls covered in longleaf pines and small hardwoods. This isn’t your stereotypical “unassailable” Big Thicket, but it’s a great place to spend the night.
The next day, follow Turkey Creek Trail north for about seven miles into Big Thicket’s innards. You’ll wind through a variety of plant communities—sandy pine uplands, mixed forests, and wet areas called “baygall swamps” that provide glimpses of the bio-diversity for which this area is known.
Follow the sign to the Pitcher Plant Trail, which leads off to the right. This quarter-mile nature trail passes through a pine forest to the edge of a wetland savannah, where a boardwalk allows you close-up views of several kinds of carnivorous plants. Four of the five kinds found in North America (including pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts) can be viewed in the Thicket. Continue past the end of the boardwalk that leads back to the Turkey Creek Trail.
The languid waterways and bayous, with no rapids or major obstacles, make the Big Thicket an ideal flatwater paddling destination. You’ll find some of the best backcountry canoeing and kayaking on the 54-mile section of the slow-moving Upper Neches River, which flows from below B.A. Steinhagen Dam to the U.S. 96 bridge. There are only two road crossings on this stretch, making the area relatively remote. Paddling journeys can range from three days to a week.
The Neches delivers an otherworldly journey through creepy green solitude shrouded by dark curtains of water tupelos and towering old magnolias. Camp on sugar-white sandbars when the water level is low or open palmetto and hardwood terraces when it’s high. Armed with a compass, GPS device, and map—not to mention extra drinking water—you’ll also want to sneak into one of the eerie cypress sloughs and tea-colored oxbow lakes that adjoin the river from time to time.
Those spooky, shadowy haunts were once hiding places for moonshiners, desperadoes, Union sympathizers, and Confederate deserters during the Civil War. Now, only ghosts, real or imagined, reside here. Except, of course, for the native wildlife that calls Big Thicket home.
One of the more lightly visited units of the National Park system, the Big Thicket National Preserve, by contrast, is teeming with critters. Strategically located at the biological crossroads of North America, the Big Thicket National Preserve is home to alligators, river otters, deer, raccoons, razorback hogs, armadillos, and some 200 species of birds, including bald eagles, eastern bluebirds, and roadrunners.
And if you love your herptiles, you’re in luck: The Thicket boasts one of the primo selections of reptiles and amphibians on the continent. While most of the snakes in the Big Thicket are harmless, several (including cottonmouth, copperhead, and coral) are venomous and require hikers to observe extra caution.
Veteran outdoors writer Larry Rice is a former contributing editor for Backpacker Magazine.
Know Before You Go
Where: Enter Beaumont, Tex., via Interstate 10 and then take U.S. Highway 69-287 north from Beaumont. Eight miles north of Kountze, Tex., take FM 420 east and follow the signs to the Preserve Visitor Center, which should be your first stop. Vehicle and canoe access to the preserve is provided at several locations, offering options for put-in and take-out points and various trailheads.
When: Although you can cnjoy the Big Thicket year-round, the most popular seasons are late fall through early spring (October-April) rather than during the hot summer season. Moderate temperatures in the mid-50s are normal for winter.
Local Wisdom: Ask about Village Creek, an excellent choice for an additional half-day, full-day, or overnight trip into the Big Thicket. The ivory-billed woodpecker, once considered extinct, was last seen in the Big Thicket in 1967 near the Neches River. Recent alleged sightings in Arkansas give a glimmer of hope for its return.
Contact: Big Thicket National Preserve, 409-951-6700 or nps.gov/bith. Ask for the free pamphlets: Canoe the Neches River (includes descriptions and map guides) and Canoe Trip Planner. For guided trips and tours, canoe and kayak rentals, and shuttles, call EASTEX Canoe Trails at 409-385-4700 or 800-814-7390; eastexcanoes.com.