Big Thicket National Preserve Overview
|Big Thicket National Preserve (courtesy, National Park Service)|
The "Big Thicket"now there's a resonant name, one that conjures images of Grimm Brothers' fairytales and Blair Witches. But in this 83,000-acre swath of East Texas's Piney Woods, truth may just be stranger than fiction: Dank, dark, and overgrown, the Big Thicket is a maze of swamps, rivers, and impenetrably dense forests, a place both weird and wonderful. There aren't many undiscovered gems left in the National Parks and Preserves system, but Big Thicket is one of them.
Big Thicket is a naturalist's dream, a remnant of primeval forest that's been called an "American Ark" for its biological diversity. The last Ice Age greatly influenced this region by "herding" species from four different biological systems into one relatively small area. Southeastern swamps, eastern forests, central plains, and southwest deserts all converge here, and odd juxtapositions are everywheremagnolias blooming next to cacti, hardwood forest abutting cypress slough. And as local legend puts it, "you'll find every critter in there from crickets to elephants"the latter may not be true, but there are armadillos, alligators, panthers and bobcats, snakes, and a formidable array of insects.
Once the inaccessible haunt of outlaws, well-marked footpaths, boardwalks, and myriad canoe trails now ply Big Thicket. Next time you're planning to walk through the looking glass in fall or winter (skip summer's prostrating heat and legions of bugs), keep Big Thicket in mindit offers a fascinating glimpse of how wild the West can still be.
Hike the Enchanted Forest
Big Thicket's woods are so dense that during the Civil War many residents of East Texas fled into the woods to avoid conscription. Now, the woods are smaller and a little easier to get into; one of the best hikes is the 15-mile-long Turkey Creek Trail, which runs from north to south along the length of the Turkey Creek Unit. It begins in mixed pine-hardwood forest broken occasionally by sandy knolls, moves through loblollies and short-leaf pines, rolls along into an oak, beech, and sweetgum floodplain forest, and closest to the creek passes through sloughs occupied by huge bald-cypress trees. Look for the characteristic "knees" of cypress trees poking out of the swamp; no one has been able to explain why the trees grow this way. Hikers should keep in mind that it is very easy to get lost in Big Thicket; care should be taken to stick to marked trails unless one is an expert with a compass and a map. But don't let that stop you from venturing into this curious collection of different forest types.
Paddle the Bayou
The best way to explore Big Thicket's mysteries may be from the water. There are two designated "Canoe Trails" in the preserve: the Cook's Lake Canoe Trail and the Franklin Lake Canoe Trail. Located in the Beaumont Unit of the Preserve, the Cook's Lake Trail is bounded on the south by Pine Island Bayou and on the east by the Neches River, where the majestic bald cypress holds court. The Cook's Lake Canoe Trail follows the bluffs of the Neches River through the Jack Gore Baygall Unit, which sits on the western edge of the Preserve. The granddaddy of all backcountry canoe floats in the Preserve (you won't find any whitewater here) is the 37-mile length of Village Creek, whose languorous waters trace nearly the entire length of Big Thicket. There are no developed water access points along the creeks in the Preserve, but paddlers can launch at most road crossings.
Get Close-Ups of Carnivorous Plants
Big Thicket National Preserve is home to 85 tree species, more than 60 shrubs, and nearly 1,000 other flowering plants, including 26 ferns and allies, 20 orchids, and 4 of North America's 5 types of insect-eating plants. Most unique of all, four of the five carnivorous plants indigenous to the U.S. reside in Big Thicket, including the pitcher plant, bladderwort, butterwort, and sundew. Aptly named, the Sundew Trail is where you can see two of these bizarre plants, the pitcher plant and the sundew. This trail follows the eastern edge of the Hickory Creek Savannah Unit in the middle of the preserve's network of 12 units. There are two loops: The outer loop is 1.6 miles and the inner loop is .8 miles. This is also a great trail to take in the wildflower bloom from late spring through summer. Another trail affording looks at these anomalous plants is the Pitcher Plant Trail, which can be accessed from a road in the Turkey Creek Unit.
Fish Big Thicket's Waters
Big Thicket offers prime bass fishing territory in addition to a chance to catch white perch and catfish. Visitors can boat fish on Village Creek, Pine Island Bayou, and the Neches River, which is home to the prehistoric paddlefish, a protected species in Big Thicket. Boat access to the Preserve is limited to these boat ramps: Dam B (Town Bluff Dam), highway 96 near Evadale, 69 bridge at Pine Island Bayou, and at the confluence of the Neches River and Pine Island Bayou. Shore fishing can be had at Franklin Lake, the pond at the highway beginning of the Woodland Trail, bridges along the southern edge of the Big Sandy Unit, and the bridge at the end of Teel House Road in the Lance Rosier Unit.
Big Thicket's diversity is not limited to its flora. There are not many places in the world where visitors can see a bald eagle and an alligator in the same day but Big Thicket is one of them. Those brave enough to venture out at night might catch a glimpse of a great horned owl swooping in on a flying squirrel or a mountain lion pouncing on a swamp rabbit. If snakes are your thing, you'll be happy to know that you can find milk snakes, copperheads, cottonmouth moccasins, and timber rattlesnakes all in one place. Nearly 186 kinds of birds live here or migrate through. Fifty reptile species include a small, rarely seen population of alligators. Amphibious frogs and toads abound.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication