A sandy trail leads me through the forest to a bog spanned by a suspension bridge that sways as I cross. On the other side, the path is barely wide enough for me to step aside and let a runner pass. She disappears into the woods, and the trees close around me. Although I can hear noise from the nearby highway, the East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society in Athens has offered far more of an untamed, backcountry experience than I expected. It’s my first stop on a tour of three short but highly rewarding hikes just outside the Texas Piney Woods.
Called the Post Oak Savannah, this region of woodlands and prairies stretches from far northeast Texas to south of San Antonio. Its grasslands are punctuated by scattered oaks, and peat bogs nestle amid its rolling hills. This transition zone between the eastern pine forests and the western prairies is where several ecoregions come together, says Purtis Creek State Park superintendent David Fischer.
“We have the scattered oaks, which you’ll find three hours west of here, too, but ours grow a lot taller,” he says. “We’re getting the same rainfall as areas farther east, like Tyler, we just don’t have the pine trees.” More than 200 species of birds pass through the area, and the state park is home to a pair of nesting bald eagles.
I’ve dedicated a weekend in April to exploring the ecoregion in a trio of parks located one to two hours southeast of Dallas. Each offers peaceful hikes that introduce the visitor to the beauty of this transitional landscape.
My adventure starts at the East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society just inside Loop 7 and off US 175 in the town named after the capital of Greece. The first thing I learn is that the property’s botanical gardens are a popular backdrop for prom pictures. The gardens are filled this Saturday afternoon with bejeweled young women and stiff-suited young men documenting the moment before their big dance. I can see why they’ve picked this spot: the gardens are chockablock with pergolas and gazebos that frame the perfect shot.
East Texas Arboretum and Botanical Society
1601 Patterson Road in Athens
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $5.00 for adults; free for kids under age 2
Purtis Creek State Park
Address: 14225 FM 316 North in Eustace
Hours: Open daily 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Admission: $5 daily for adults; free for children 12 and under
Davey Dogwood Park
900 N. Link St. in Palestine
Hours: Daily 8 a.m. to 8 p.m
I follow a wide pathway past the children’s garden and playhouse to the white clapboard Wofford House, an 1851 structure built by a farmer and merchant who lived in the area. The house is one of several historic structures, including the old one-room Henderson County jail, that have been moved to the property. Nearby is a formal garden blazing with color from dianthus and double red knock out roses. It’s exactly what I pictured when I imagined this place.
What I didn’t expect is the wildness of the arboretum on the other side of trickling Willow Branch creek. Two miles of hiking trails wind through a forest of winged elms, eastern red cedar, dogwoods, and hickory. I can name these trees because a series of more than 40 signs identify the different species. Blackjack oak, I discover, is the tree with fat leaves so shiny they sparkle in the sun. Sweetgum trees are recognizable by their starlike leaves as well as by their fruit, a spiky green ball that, when dried, turns reddish brown and looks like an illustration of the coronavirus.
After crossing the suspension bridge, I look up. High overhead, tree trunks creak as they sway in the breeze. Thick, ropy rattan vine hangs from tall branches. On the ground, wisps of spiderwebs catch the sunlight, and a lizard skitters across the path into a pile of dead leaves. When I finish the mile-long Dogwood Trail loop, I find the viewing platform built over a pitcher plant bog. I scan the swampy ground below and feel triumphant when I finally spot the carnivorous plant quietly waiting for its next meal.
My next stop is Purtis Creek State Park outside Eustace, a 20-minute drive northwest on US 175. The park is a small one constructed around a reservoir built specifically for fishing, but it also has about 6 miles of trails. I choose the blue loop of the Wolfpen Hike and Bike Trail, a 2-mile path through an upland oak forest with many of the same trees I saw in Athens.
I pick out an eastern red cedar here, a winged elm there. Overhead, blackjack oak leaves glitter in the late-afternoon sun. This trail is wider, the forest clearer, than the East Texas Arboretum—partly the result of a controlled burn two months earlier. In the open space among the trees, one plant is ubiquitous. I later learn that the single fat, multilobed leaf atop a foot-tall stalk is a mayapple. The state park is far from major roads, and I hear little but the sound of my own steps and the calls of cardinals and crows.
Back at the trailhead, I take the .8-mile Green Trail toward the lake. This area hasn’t been burned, and branches and vines creep right up to the edge of the path. The trail passes the campground, unseen behind the thick undergrowth, but I can hear muffled laughter and smell campfire smoke. All at once the green tunnel gives way to a view of open water. I follow the path along the shore, past cattails topped with red-winged blackbirds, and watch a man teaching his son how to cast his line in the shallows.
The sun is setting behind the trees, and the lake lies still beneath a violet sky. I head back to the car on the paved park road as the light fades. Ahead, four deer emerge from the tree line, then freeze as we make eye contact. A doe stomps and snorts an alarm, and they turn and caper away, white tails aloft until they disappear into the woods.
The next day, I drive to Davey Dogwood Park in Palestine, 40 miles southeast of Athens via State Highway 19 and right at the edge of the Piney Woods. The park’s flowering trees take center stage during Palestine’s annual Dogwood Trails celebration in the spring—and as soon as I turn off North Link Street, I see how the park was built for driving slowly and admiring the delicate white blooms. A one-lane road heads steeply uphill, flanked on both sides by dogwood trees no longer in flower. I follow the road until it descends to an open field at the park’s center, where I leave the car by the pavilion and restrooms.
Seeing no signs or maps, I ask a woman where to find the Fairy Garden Trails I’ve read about online and follow her directions over a footbridge. Just across the creek is a paved, accessible path lined by tall trees with “fairy gardens” at their roots. Creative citizens of Palestine have built tiny dwellings and fences, suitable for fairies, out of twigs, popsicle sticks, drink umbrellas, and aquarium decorations. The installations are spruced up each year before Dogwood Trails and gradually deteriorate afterward, but during my visit they’re still intact and quite charming. Two little girls dash from garden to garden, announcing the contents of each whimsical landscape to their mother.
At the end of the paved path, where the creek tumbles down a short waterfall, I veer up the hill to the park’s hiking trails. I follow the rugged path marked “Hike and Bike trailhead #3” as it threads between tall trees and fallen logs. Pine cones and sweetgum fruit litter the red dirt. The trail hugs the side of a hill, dipping in and out of steep ravines. This is a more athletic hike than my other two adventures, but a shorter one.
I return to the pavilion and follow the creek as it winds through the picnic area. Where the water is deeper—maybe 2 feet—I am delighted to spot fish the length of my palm. Electric-blue dragonflies tussle in the air and land on a cluster of elephant ear plants. A family of three passes on an overgrown, unmarked trail that disappears into the forest. I decide to accept the park’s lack of signage and maps as part of its rugged appeal. Outside of the peak tourist season, Davey Dogwood Park rewards the explorer with time to spare for wandering through a fairy’s garden or down an unmarked path.
I usually gravitate toward dramatic landscapes: the rocky, yucca-studded ridgelines of the Hill Country, the dense woods of deep East Texas. I like challenging hikes with big reveals such as a spring or the view from the top of a steep hill. The terrain in the Post Oak Savannah is more subtle but no less beautiful. These three hikes have proven that the rewards of nature—the chance to observe closely, to get out of my head, to be reminded of my own insignificance—await wherever there are trees and a trail.