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Hit the Road

Nature and History in Nacogdoches

Ratcliff Lake trails, gardens at university and artifacts from Texas’ first town beckon visitors

The road narrows to two lanes, and tall pines on either side glow a golden green in the late afternoon sun. Nacogdoches merits a visit for its natural beauty alone—languid, tea-colored streams, soaring piney-wood forests, wildflower-carpeted meadows—not to mention the fact that East Texas is one of the few regions of the state that has been saved from the current drought.

Area parks make it easy to enjoy the inviting outdoors, and one of my favorites, Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area, features a 45-acre body of water with fishing piers, swimming beach and boat ramps. I indulge in one of my favorite activities: hiking the 1.5-mile Tall Pines and the Four C National Recreation Trail, which begins (or ends, depending on your perspective) here.

Even though the Four C trail totals 20 miles, shorter hikes and leisurely strolls are easy, thanks to multiple access points off county roads. The trail passes through the 3,000-acre Big Slough Wilderness Area, home to swaths of virgin forest and marshy areas dotted by beaver and alligator ponds, then crosses several creeks and sloughs, finally terminating with a panoramic overlook at Neches Bluff.

For those who want to experience the great outdoors with less effort, Stephen F. Austin State University’s Mast Arboretum is the ticket. Multiple paths wind through its 19 acres along Lanana Creek. Visitors will find a range of attractions, including a honeybee hive, fountains and hundreds of different plants. I like to lounge on one of the many benches to soak up the beauty and appreciate the sheer height of the trees. The nearby Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden harbors more than 7,000 azalea bushes, a veritable riot of color in early spring.

The 42 acres of the SFASU Pineywoods Native Plant Center can be explored by way of seven trails that range from one-tenth of a mile up to about a mile. (All of these trails comply with federal Americans with Disabilities Act access guidelines.) The native plants include a variety of trees: Look for oak, hickory, sugar maple, dogwood, redbud and sweetgum, as well as rare and endangered native plants such as Neches River rose mallow, Winkler’s white fire-wheel and trailing phlox. The center is a great spot for bird-watching or just wandering and daydreaming.

Besides its natural beauty, Nacogdoches holds another important claim to fame: history. At the visitors center on the main square, I picked up a brochure describing an historic downtown walking tour, which takes in a 1,000-year-old Caddo burial mound, a circa-1897 land office, Texas revolutionary bivouacs, and historic cemeteries and homes. Other historic stops include the Sterne-Hoya House Museum Library, which is an 1830-era frame residence still occupying its original site, and the Durst-Taylor Historic House and Gardens. The Durst-Taylor house is the second-oldest dwelling in town and home to a number of influential historic figures through the years.

Millard’s Crossing Historic Village contains a collection of historic structures moved here from various sites in Nacogdoches County, including a log cabin, parsonage, corn crib, country store and schoolhouse. Take a guided tour or just pick up a walking tour map and wander on your own. The town’s historic heart—and the centerpiece of the SFASU campus—is the Stone Fort Museum, a recreation of the home of Don Antonio Gil Y’Barbo.

In 1772, Spain abandoned its mission at Nacogdoches, forcing area inhabitants to move to San Antonio. Y’Barbo, a Spanish trader, led some of the more independent-minded settlers back here in 1779, building his home and making Nacogdoches Texas’ first official town (as opposed to a mission).