A closed boardwalk in an East Texas national forest.

Planning a wilderness escape to the Piney Woods? Consider double-checking the availability of your preferred camping areas and hiking trails—particularly in East Texas’ national forests, which are closing some campsites and trails to ease the financial strain.

“We are dialing it back,” says Ernie Murray, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman in Lufkin. “All federal agencies’ budgets are shrinking, and we have to decide where is most important place to put our money.”

In deep East Texas, the Forest Service oversees nearly 700,000 acres spread across the Angelina, Davy Crockett, Sabine, and Sam Houston national forests. Combined, the forests operate 15 camping and recreation areas.

All the camping loops at Caney Creek in the Angelina National Forest were closed in March. Some of the loops will be opened as the season goes on, Murray says. The camping area at Ratcliff Lake in the Crockett Forest is open, but some hiking trails, particularly those with bridges and boardwalks, are closed because they can’t be maintained.

Additionally, two trails in the Sam Houston National Forest have been closed since 2017 after Hurricane Harvey damaged the trail’s bridges.

Forest Service officials in East Texas are bracing for the real pinch when schools let out for the summer, and families plan camping vacations. Campgrounds regularly fill up, especially on the weekends, but the closed loops mean fewer campsites.

Murray advises campers to visit the U.S. Forest Service website to check the status of camping areas. You can also call the offices, but staff are working limited hours.  Some campsites can be reserved online, while others are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We’re mainly a working forest,” Murray says. “We don’t have money to maintain” all the recreation areas, and fewer open camping loops translate to fewer security patrols, fewer restrooms to maintain, and less trash to pick up.

In response to its dwindling budget, the Forest Service has turned oversight for some camping areas over to local and regional agencies such as the Sabine River Authority. Additionally, nearby towns like Lufkin and Nacogdoches offer hotels and restaurants for those who can’t secure campsites.

If you don’t mind roughing it, the Forest Service also allows primitive camping outside of its developed campsites—which it calls “dispersed camping.” “During hunting season, we request folks camp in recreation areas or hunter camps,” Murray says. “But otherwise, people are welcome to camp anywhere out in forest.”

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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