The southern span of the Post Oak Savannah in East Texas evolved out of ancient woodlands of oak and hickory that once stretched from Canada to Central America. These timbers bridge the state’s Blackland Prairie ecoregion and the Piney Woods, where long ago dark forest paths captured the hearts and minds of explorers. Portions of the Camino Real, a route that connected Mexico City to the Red River, ran through the territory before the birth of Texas. Today, the names of many towns refer to faraway destinations, such as Athens, Palestine, and Corsicana, and ranching and development have replaced much of the forest. Still, travelers today can find bucolic stands of old growth (with some fall foliage), alluring small towns, and a shot at catching a trophy fish.
Train of Thought
The Railroad Heritage Center—run by the nonprofit Texas State Railroad Society—houses a remarkable 17- by 37-foot model train display featuring scenes decorated with realistic details and whimsical additions like miniature dinosaurs. Originally built by the late Paul Domis of Dallas, this display alone makes the center worth a stop. Other exhibits illustrate the importance of railroads in Texas’ history and America’s westward expansion.
All Aboard in Palestine
The Redlands Hotel, built in 1914 to house train passengers before being transformed into office space for the International and Great Northern Railway, has charm to spare. Thanks to owner Jean Mollard and her partner Mike Searcy, the historic exterior and lobby have been restored to an approximation of their former glory, boasting smart industrial architecture with chic Victorian touches. Today, the spacious, modern rooms are popular among riders on the Texas State Railroad, which has its western terminus nearby. The hotel’s Red Fire Grille offers fine dining. If you have trains on the brain, check out the second-floor gallery devoted to Palestine’s railroad heritage
Fresh Bites in Old Town
The Pint and Barrel Drafthouse in Palestine’s Old Town is a family-friendly gastropub that offers a well-curated tap selection and toothsome bar food like smothered fries, pulled-pork sandwiches, and seasonal soups. Just across the way, Oxbow Bakery (open Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) draws travelers from across the country for its pies.
Don’t let the name fool you: Hamburger Bar is at its busiest in the morning hours, when old-timers head over for grits, bacon and eggs, and some of the best sausage gravy this side of the Neches River. A few blocks away, fans of collectible heirlooms and farmhouse décor can find everything from hand-hewn dining tables to taxidermy mounts and crockery. Ye Olde Auction House on Main Street, the Old Magnolia Mercantile, and the booths at Old Town Vintage & More in downtown Palestine are worth exploring.
A Whopper of a Story
When you’ve filled your trunk with newfound treasures, head 35 miles south to Athens, which claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. True or not, the Ole West Bean and Burger in downtown Athens is a local institution for good reason—service with a smile and a menu featuring comfort food and loaded burgers. There’s not only a salad bar but also an ice-cream bar for travelers with a sweet tooth. Boathouse Bar and Grill at Lake Athens Marina offers seafood in an al-fresco setting.
Getting Fishy with It
The $18 million Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center on Lake Athens has exhibits featuring assorted aquatic environments and an alligator enclosure. Other attractions include the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, which offers life sketches of the many anglers, writers, and business people who have made the Lone Star State a world-class destination for fishing. Athens is also where the Texas Parks and Wildlife ShareLunker program—dedicated to growing bigger largemouth bass in Texas—is headquartered. A gallery offers taxidermy models of some of the largest fish ever pulled from Texas lakes and rivers, with chances to see the “lunker bunker” where bass are bred, and a tram tour of the production ponds covering 37 acres. Afterward, try your luck at the center’s pond, where trout are stocked in cool weather. Rods, tackle, and bait are provided with the price of admission.
A Walk in the Woods
The peaceful, 104-acre East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society in northwest Athens offers a glimpse of the remnant native forests of the Post Oak Savannah. Follow the trails across a small suspension bridge, skirting a bog where you may spot wildlife like birds, snakes, and other reptiles. There’s also a cultivated area featuring butterfly and botanical gardens, and the restored white clapboard Wofford House built in 1852. Then check into the historic mansion inn on the hill at Tara Vineyard & Winery, just 5 miles northwest. The impressive Victorian-style home dates to the 1880s. The wraparound porch looks out on rolling hills roped by vines worthy of Tuscany. The Cellar Door at Tara Winery specializes in dishes featuring Texas beef and seafood, and offers chances to pair the vineyard’s vintages, from cool, sweet whites to the top-selling Carriage House red.
Park it Here
Just 20 minutes from Athens, with its shady campsites and 355-acre lake, Purtis Creek State Park has been popular with nature lovers since it opened in 1988. If you didn’t bring your own boat, take advantage of the new TPWD Paddle-EZ program and rent a stand-up paddleboard or kayak from the automated kiosk. The lake has stellar catch-and-release bass fishing and limited motorized traffic, so it’s a peaceful place to explore. Nearby woodlands were popular hunting grounds for members of the Wichita and Caddo tribes, and modern-day hikers and bikers will find about 6 miles of trail to explore. It’s the perfect place to park after a long weekend in the post oaks.
Palestine RV Park offers 27 RV sites, cabins, and tent and tepee camping. There are even equine stalls available to rent. A picnic area with a fire-pit provides a place to unwind. In addition to RV sites, Lake Athens Marina and RV Park offers access to the lake best known for its largemouth bass fishing. You can also experience the water with kayak and paddleboard rentals.