If you want a quiet getaway where the tall pines are plentiful, the wildflowers beautiful, and the folks down-home hospitable, then East Texas is the place. This scenic region is also rich in history: Prehistoric Caddo Indians made their home here, and Spain and France sent explorers to the area in the 1600’s. Though it was only last year that I made my first trip to East Texas, I feel at home hiding out in the Piney Woods. Maybe it’s because my maternal grandmother was born in Daingerfield and, my mother tells me, my great-grandmother ran a sawmill somewhere in these parts.
My boyfriend, James, and I headed north from Beaumont on U.S. 69, which doubles as the Big Thicket National Preserve Parkway as far as Lufkin. After a few miles, the oil refineries that line the highways of the Golden Triangle faded into the distance as the Gulf Coast prairie began to give way to the lush forests surrounding the Big Thicket National Preserve. Operated by the National Park Service, the preserve embraces 97,000 acres of woodlands, marshes, and swamps. Our first stop was the Big Thicket Visitor Center, on FM 420 (turn off of the parkway seven miles north of Kountze and follow the signs). When we asked about driving tours, the park service’s Robert Valen told us that the lack of signs and detailed maps has made it difficult to direct visitors to public-access areas. “Fortunately,” he said, “we’ve just gotten some money for that.” Valen recommended that we drive FM 1013 but advised, “The Big Thicket should be taken foot by foot. You can’t drive through and expect to see it.”
We took his suggestion and hiked on the nearby Kirby Trail, where I began to understand what Valen meant as I walked through the woods. Wild violets bloomed in the shadows of towering pines that mingled with an assortment of hardwoods and the tallest magnolias I’ve ever seen. A few steps more and we came upon one of many swamps we would encounter, the cypress trees looming eerily out of the water. Back in the car, we drove north on the parkway for 23 miles, then turned east on FM 1013, a two-lane road that was lined with purple, yellow, and white wildflowers on this early spring day. We caught Texas Highway 87 in Bleakwood, then went for a pleasure ride on FM 1414, a winding 16-mile loop with rolling hills and pastoral vistas. It leads to the Wild Azalea Canyon (6.7 miles from 87), a two-hundred-acre wilderness park at the end of an unpaved 1.8-mile road. We parked and walked down the trail into the canyon through a forest of longleaf pines, looking for wild azaleas, which bloom from mid- to late March. The only other visitors we saw were Fritz and Irma Kornegay, who had come from Liberty. As we