I like to surprise folks not lucky enough to live in Texas by taking them deep down into the Piney Woods. To see the looks of astonished wonder as they discover the raw beauty unfolding across four national forests in the southeast corner of the state is so satisfying. Of course, the trip is most stunning in autumn.
Buried within the forests are unexpected lessons in history and nature. A route festooned with little jewels winds about 80 miles through the woods from Huntsville to Lake Livingston and on to the incomparable Big Thicket National Preserve. Just as non-Texans uncovering these souvenirs of nature, you may learn a thing or two, too.
This town, established as an Indian trading post about the time Texas won independence in 1836, is the place to go to become better acquainted with a primary figure of the day. You can’t miss “A Tribute to Courage,” the mammoth image of Sam Houston rising nearly 70 feet into the sky near the Interstate 45 exit. On the north side of the downtown square, there’s a fascinating trio of murals depicting Houston’s life. Starting at 1836 Sam Houston Avenue, on 15 acres that belonged to Houston, you’ll find a museum-memorial complex named in his honor, complete with two of his homes, his law office and personal items belonging to Santa Anna when Houston’s army captured the Mexican leader at San Jacinto. On Ninth Street and Avenue I, Oakwood Cemetery holds Houston’s final resting site, along with those of other Texas heroes, Civil War soldiers and pioneers. Note that Houston’s tomb inscription bears the tribute from Andrew Jackson: “The world will take care of Houston’s fame.”
Huntsville Chamber of Commerce, (936) 295-8113 or 1-800-289-0389
Follow U.S. Highway 190 east from Huntsville as it wraps around the north end of big but exquisite Lake Livingston. It’s 44 miles to Livingston, a town with many historic homes, which is also the headquarters of Sam Houston Electric Co-op. Another eight miles south and west via U.S. Highway 59, FM 1988 and FM 3126, you’ll find Lake Livingston State Park, a pretty, 645-acre refuge covered in loblolly pine and water oak. You can sign up for a horseback ride at the local stables or check out the ranger-led nature hikes, which often include spotting critters such as deer, raccoons, armadillos, swamp rabbits and squirrels. Rangers also give fishing classes on specified Saturdays, but bring your poles anytime to try for catfish, bass, crappie and perch.
Lake Livingston State Park, (936) 365-2201
Big Thicket National Preserve
One of my favorite spots in this natural treasure trove is Collins Pond in the Big Sandy area, found a little over three miles south of U.S. Highway 190, off FM 1276. Walk the woodlands Trail, a 5.5-mile loop that wanders through this primeval forest’s rare collection of plant life. You’ll see fan palms typically found on subtropical coasts, as well as delicate ferns sprouting from dense beds of deep green, downy moss clinging to old plantation pines. Extravagantly frilled lichen and giant wild mushrooms cling to tree trunks, and some 20 varieties of orchids bloom at certain times of year. Or choose one of the many other wonderful trails in the preserve’s 97,000 acres that scientists have called our country’s biological crossroads. Bring plenty of bug repellent and drinking water.
June Naylor is the author of Texas: Off the Beaten Path (Globe Pequot Press).