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by larry rice

Gone to Texas

Here’s the 411 on backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking in the Big Thicket National Preserve.

DEEP IN THE EASTERN PART of the Lone Star State, about 250 miles east of Austin, lies a vast, tangled quilt of pine and cypress forest, hardwood forest, meadow, bog, blackwa- ter swamp, and arid sandhills appropriately called the Big Thicket. Once it covered more than three million acres; now only about 300,000 scattered acres remain, about one-third of which are protected as the Big Thicket National Preserve. The Alabama-Coushatta Indians hunted the Big Thicket, but they gener- ally remained at its fringes. Early Spanish pioneers also bypassed the region as it was too impenetrable, as did Anglo-Americans who arrived in the early 1800s. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that

settlement of the Big Thicket began in earnest. Today, there are no devel-

oped campgrounds in the national preserve; however, primitive camping is allowed in isolated portions of some of the preserve’s 15 units com- prising 105,684 acres. Get the necessary backcountry permit free at the visitor center. One of the best places to backpack in the preserve lies in the Turkey Creek Unit. A 15-mile, north-south trail that roughly parallels Turkey Creek provides opportunities for extended hiking. Start your trek after parking at the Information Station at the unit’s southern end. You’ll find secluded, primitive campsites all over the place, tucked into glade-like clear- ings on dry sandy knolls covered in longleaf pines and small hard- woods. This isn’t your stereotypical “unassailable” Big Thicket, but it’s a great place to spend the night. The next day,

follow Turkey Creek Trail north for about seven miles into Big Thicket’s innards. You’ll wind through a variety of plant communities— sandy pine uplands, mixed forests, and


wet areas called “baygall swamps” that provide glimpses of the bio-diversity for which this area is known. Follow the sign to the

Pitcher Plant Trail, which leads off to the right. This quarter-mile nature trail passes through a pine forest to the edge of a wetland savannah, where a boardwalk allows you close-up views of several kinds of carnivorous plants. Four of the five kinds found in North America (including pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts) can be viewed in the Thicket. Continue past the end of the boardwalk that leads back to the Turkey Creek Trail.

The languid waterways and bayous, with no rapids

or major obstacles, make the Big Thicket an ideal flatwater paddling destina- tion. You’ll find some of the best backcountry canoeing and kayaking on the 54-mile section of the slow-moving Upper Neches River, which flows from below B.A. Steinhagen Dam to the U.S. 96 bridge. There are only two road crossings on this stretch, making the area relatively remote. Paddling journeys can range from three days to a week.

The Neches delivers

an otherworldly journey through creepy green solitude shrouded by dark curtains of water tupelos and towering old magnolias. Camp on sugar-white sand- bars when the water level is


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