After hundreds of nights spent sleeping outdoors, I found myself wide awake spooked by something. It was not a mysterious noise in the woods but the strangest light I had ever seen. An eerie orange glow crept slowly through hundreds of enormous pine tree trunks in front of our tent, vibrant beyond reason and somehow alive. At first, I was sure it was a forest fire, so I had awakened my hiking partner. A lack of smoke and the fact that the light was not spreading brought up new ideas….other hikers, reflections of distant cars, St. Elmo’s Fire? How foolish I felt when we finally realized that the remarkable sight was a brilliant full moon rising up through the bare winter woods!
I was camped in a remote area of the Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas with my friend, Debbie, and dog, Buddy, no more than an hour from where I was born and raised. The three of us were thru-hiking the Lone Star Hiking Trail (LSHT), my first long backpacking venture into my home woods.
The next morning, we entered the Magnolia Section of the LSHT at mile point 67.4 off of FM 945. True to its name, this chunk of the LSHT is thick with southern magnolias. Some are huge mature trees, while others are groups of babies resembling Appalachia’s rhododendrons. We soon passed LSHT Primitive Campsite #2 at mile 68.6, a backcountry site just off the LSHT on a side trail. Several tent pads and a fire ring sit in a large open area, making a convenient – though waterless – site for an overnight stay.
We paused to watch a pileated woodpecker make his rounds through the big pines above our heads. Not long after, I heard a barred owl call in the daylight. The Sam Houston National Forest is one of the last strongholds of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which requires large stands of mature pine trees for successful nesting.
A slight downhill led us into the San Jacinto bottom lands where we enjoyed a beautiful forest with many varieties of hardwoods mixed with pines and palmetto. When we came to the East Fork of the San Jacinto River near mile 71, we were shocked to find that its long wooden hiker bridge was washed up against the far bank by recent flooding. The river is not wide, but the banks are 10-feet high and the water is the color of chocolate milk.
We scouted and decided to cross at a narrow spot where we could scale the banks. Shoes and socks came off, electronics were packaged, and Buddy’s pack was strapped on mine. The water was cold, but it was very slow-moving and only thigh-deep. Navigating the mud to climb up the bank on the far side was the hardest part of the crossing. Even in February, enormous sluggish mosquitoes buzzed around us as we cleaned mud off feet and put shoes back on.
After the river, we climbed uphill for a half-mile past a tributary that ran with clear water, a more enticing spot to collect and treat drinking water. “Uphill” means something different here than in other places….these grades are gentle but definitely rolling. We reached the bottom of a draw and hiked into the most picturesque glade on the entire LSHT. Perfectly spaced magnolias hung over a crystal clear stream where a tiny waterfall made soft music. A bridge arched over the stream. As I climbed up out of the glade, I turned and mused that this beautiful spot was such a surprise to me. Even though I love my home woods, I guess I did not have great expectations for the LSHT before I hiked it.
At mile 73.7 we crossed over a dirt road and past LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #11. We ambled through a pleasant stretch through forest until we came out of the woods on the shore of spring-fed Double Lake at mile 75, which offers developed camping (for a fee), running water, seasonal concessions, and a popular mountain biking trail.
Turning back into the woods, we entered what I consider the highlight of the LSHT, the 1,420-acre Big Creek Scenic Area. The forest here is the most diverse along the entire trail, filled with nearly every species of tree that can be found in the bottomland and upland forests of East Texas. The LSHT followed the outflow of Double Lake, a major tributary of Big Creek that grows increasingly larger and more scenic as numerous small streams feed into it. The lush pine-hardwood forest filled with a variety of flora and fauna attracts bird watchers and day hikers, so we found that we were sharing the trail here more so than in other sections of the LSHT.
At mile 75.7, we passed by LSHT Primitive #1, with four tent pads just off the main trail. We passed a set of bridges just before mile 77 and an old logging railroad trestle at 78.6. Hiker bridges and boardwalks covered the worst muddy areas. Eventually, we reached the junction of Double Lake Branch with Big Creek’s other main tributary, Henry Lake Branch. A little waterfall graced the spot and beech trees leaned picturesquely over its banks.
At mile 79.9, a side trail heads off to the LSHT Big Creek Scenic Area Trailhead Parking Lot #12. Here the trail begins its southwestern arc. At mile 80.6, we crossed a hiker gate and crossed gravel road FS 221, leaving the scenic area. Immediately, the diverse ecosystem of the Big Creek area was replaced by a homogenous young pine plantation. Finally, we reached mile 82.3 and the end of the Big Creek Section at the LSHT Tarkington Trailhead Parking Lot #13 along FM 2666. It had been a beautiful 15 miles of LSHT, full of surprises and unexpected adventure.
For more details about hiking all, or part, of the Lone Star Hiking Trail in East Texas, check out my guidebook.
Side Trails in the Big Creek Section
Below is information on finding the trailhead parking areas and some of the side trails in the Big Creek section.
Alternate Big Creek Scenic Area Loop Trails:
Pine Loop, yellow-blazed, 0.14 miles
White Oak Loop, green-blazed, 0.45 miles
Big Creek Loop, orange-blazed, 0.63 miles
Magnolia Loop, blue-striped, 0.61 miles
The west end of the Magnolia Section at LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #10 (LSHT mile 67.4) is located 4.6 miles from Evergreen, TX, at the intersection of FM 945 with Butch Arther Road (also known as Jacobs Road).
To reach Double Lake Recreation Area, take Highway 150 from Evergreen, TX, 5.7 miles east to FM 2025 (or 25 miles east from New Waverly). Turn right (south) on to FM 2025 for 0.4 miles and turn left on to Double Lake park road. Ask camp hosts about parking a car within the recreation area; there is a $6 fee per day to park here.
To reach the Big Creek Scenic Area and LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #12 (near LSHT mile 79.9) from the town of Shepherd, TX, along US Highway 59, head west on Highway 150 for about 5 miles. FS 217 is a small paved road that will come in from the left. Turn left (southeast) on FS 217 and follow it for 1.8 miles. The gravel LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #12 will be visible on the right. A short side trail leads to the LSHT from the parking lot.
To reach the eastern end of Section 9 (at LSHT mile 82.3) at the LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #13 along FM 2666, from the town of Shepherd, TX, along US Highway 59 head west on Highway 150 for about 1.5 miles. FM 2666 will meet Highway 150 on the left. Turn left on to FM 2666 and follow it for 6.5 miles. LSHT Trailhead Parking Lot #13 is signed and visible on the right side of FM 2666. There is ample parking, a trash can and bulletin board, but no drinking water.
About Karen Somers
KAREN BORSKI SOMERS is a native of Spring, Texas. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in biomedical engineering. Since 1994, she has worked for NASA in Clear Lake, Texas, and Huntsville, Alabama, in the field of space life sciences research. Karen thru-hiked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail solo in 1998 and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail with her husband in 2004. Her trail name is “Nocona,” a Comanche Indian word for “the wanderer.” She has hiked and backpacked on trails in 36 states, logging over 9,000 trail miles, and has bicycled the 4,400-mile Transamerica route across ten US states from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Karen currently resides with her husband, two daughters, and their hiking sheltie in Huntsville, Alabama. They continue their quest to summit every US high point, plan expedition canoe trips and wander on and off trails.