The sun crested over the tops of the tall pines, taking the chill out of the winter air as my partner and I set out from our campsite at Double Lake Recreation Area in East Texas’ Sam Houston National Forest. Our goal was to explore an 8-mile segment of the Lone Star Hiking Trail.
The Lone Star Hiking Trail
The Sam Houston National Forest is about 50 miles north of Houston in Montgomery, Walker, and San Jacinto counties. The Ranger Station is at 94 FM 1375 in New Waverly. Call 888-361-6908; fs.usda.gov.
The needles of loblolly and shortleaf pine trees crunched softly beneath our feet, and we listened to woodpeckers tapping in the canopy above as we looped through the forest on a part of the trail known as the Magnolia section. Encountering some of the namesake magnolias, we stopped to marvel at the towering, untamed trees—so unlike their manicured city cousins that it took me a moment to recognize them.
The Lone Star Hiking Trail winds 96 miles through the Sam Houston National Forest (roughly between the communities of Richards and Cleveland), making it the longest hiking trail in Texas. If you add loop trails, which are great for day hikes, the trail includes about 128 miles of peaceful pine and hardwood forests, meandering creeks, and the occasional bayou. With helpful markers along the route, the trails provide a range of hiking options, from short family jaunts to overnight backpacking trips. Hikers are allowed to camp along the majority of the route (except during hunting season, when camping is restricted to hunter camps and 12 designated primitive hiker sites). There are also several developed campgrounds near the trail with bathroom facilities and activities such as fishing and canoeing.
The previous year, we had visited the Piney Woods to hike several of the loop trails on the western section of the Lone Star Hiking Trail. For this trip, we returned in the winter—when the humidity and mosquito counts were lower—to check out Double Lake Recreation Area, home to a 23-acre lake and an access point for the Magnolia and Big Creek sections of the trail.
“What is interesting about the trail is the varying terrain,” said Cathy Murphy, a board member for the Lone Star Trail Hiking Club. “There are tall pines, magnolias, and soft, leaf-littered trails. There are wonderful smells. You can see deer, hogs, and squirrels. You hear a lot of birds, like the pileated woodpecker. What you see, feel, and smell—you don’t have that in big cities like Houston.”
This patch of East Texas Piney Woods has a long history of habitation: As far back as 7,000 years ago, the Atapaka, coastal Karankawa, and Hasinai Caddo hunted and traded in the forest. After the Civil War, timber companies moved in, drawn by the vast forests of longleaf pine. During the Great Depression, struggling timber companies sold some of their forest land to the government, leading to the creation of the Sam Houston National Forest. Logging is still allowed in the forest, as are drilling, hunting, and fishing.
But the logging is not readily apparent along the hiking trails, where the forest stretches for miles in every direction. This is due to management decisions on the part of the U.S. Forest Service, which tries to balance resource development with public recreational access and environmental protection.
“One of the unique things about the Sam Houston is that it’s a primary management area for the red-cockad-ed woodpecker, which is endangered,” District Ranger Warren Oja said. “We have the third-largest population in the southeastern United States.”
We certainly encountered challenges we wouldn’t have faced on an urban trail. About 4 miles into our hike on the Magnolia section, we arrived at the East Fork of the San Jacinto River to find that the footbridge had been washed out. About 15 feet across the water, we could see the trail continuing through the pines.
Later, Oja told me that the bridge has been out since 2005, its repair waiting on funding and personnel, but plans are developing to replace the bridge. At that moment, though, we had to figure out what to do without a bridge. As I looked at the slow-moving brown water, I tried to envision what other hikers before us had done. Had they crossed the river here, found a better spot or turned back? Did they regret whatever decision they had made?
We dipped a stick in the water to determine that it was several feet deep. To cross, we would need to take off our shoes, roll up our pants, and wade through the frigid stream. We couldn’t see the river bottom through the murky water, which made me particularly nervous.
Reluctant to retrace our steps, we decided to try crossing. My partner went first and made it across. When he gave the all clear, I stepped in, carefully following his footsteps. For the next 60 seconds or so, I tread slowly through the cold winter water, resisting the urge to speed-walk to the other side. Instead I felt cautiously with my toes before transferring my weight and planting my foot in the muddy riverbed. Arriving safely on the other side, I felt a rush of elation at our success in overcoming the unforeseen obstacle.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of a woodpecker loudly tapping against the pines in search of its morning meal. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and grabbed my binoculars to see if I could spot the bird. Was it the red-cockaded woodpecker? I saw it high up in the pines, too far away to identity. It could just as easily have been a pileated, redheaded, downy, or red-bellied woodpecker.
While our second day of hiking was less adventurous than our first, it was no less rewarding. This time we hiked east from our campsite through the Big Creek Scenic Area, one of the most beloved sections of the trail. Here you can see every type of tree found along the Lone Star Hiking Trail, the birds are active, and—in the cooler months—the bugs are minimal. And, as the trail crisscrossed several gurgling streams, we were happy to discover that all the footbridges were in good shape.