Something about the swampy, almost spooky vibe of Martin Dies Jr. State Park, in moss-draped East Texas, makes me want to tromp through the woods, looking for yetis. I didn’t find any—at least not the hairy kind that trundle through forests—on this, my third trip to the park. But I padded through the trees on springy soft pine needles, listened to owls hoot, and watched an armadillo scuttle through the underbrush.
The park hugs the edge of the 10,000-acre B. A. Steinhagen Lake, at the junction of the Angelina and Neches Rivers in the Piney Woods of East Texas. It’s a perfect place to go canoeing or kayaking, although I didn’t get to do that this time. A veil of fog sometimes swirls around the cypress trees that stand knee-deep in the lake, creating an ideal atmosphere for anybody who just wants to sit around and read murder mysteries—or, in my case, contemplate their recovery from upcoming orthopedic surgery. (I tore my ACL while skiing last month, and I am happy to report that camping is still fun on crutches.)
The first time I visited Martin Dies Jr. State Park, I was traveling solo, pulling a small trailer with a pop-up tent on top. The park was my third stop, after spending my first night at Lake Livingston State Park, not far away, where an elderly gentleman saw me trying to back my rig into a narrow camp slot. Thinking he was doing me a favor, he offered to hop in and park it for me. Embarrassed, I acquiesced. The next night, I met another solo female traveler at another park. She was driving a similar trailer. Instead of parking it for me, though, she gave me a few pointers. Then she left me alone to work it out.
I’m forever grateful to that woman. It took seventeen tries, but by the time I landed at Martin Dies Jr. the next night, I could successfully back a trailer into a campsite. Glowing with the victory, I built a campfire, toasted my newfound skill, and peered into Gum Slough, where a thick fog was settling over the tea-colored water.
That experience left a good impression. A year later, I returned with my husband in our brand-new all-wheel drive Ford Transit camper van, which we named Vincent VanGo. We pulled into a slot next to the designated swimming area, where we could watch the sunset over the lake. Again, the fog crept in. The cypress trees looked ghostly. We spent two days exploring hiking trails that led over swamps and sloughs. And at night we sat on picnic tables next to the lake as the sky turned fiery orange.
But this year, we hit the jackpot. I booked spot 315, which I’ve determined is the best of the park’s more than 200 campsites. Tucked into the corner of one of the paved loops in the Hen House Ridge Unit, it also overlooks Gum Slough. But it’s more private than the other sites I’ve booked, and we had no neighbors the night of our midweek visit in early April.
Something about disappearing into the folds of a thick forest makes me feel right at home. It’s like the trees are reaching out to pat my back, and I’m one with the birds, the plants, and the mud in the swamp. That’s why I always head to the Walnut Slough Day Use Area, on the north side of the park, first. There a boardwalk leads to a small island, which you can circumnavigate via a short trail. Alligators live in the area, so if you spot one, keep a respectful distance of at least thirty feet. You catch one of my favorite views from the midpoint of the observation bridge. I managed to hobble over the bridge and teeter partway down the 1.4-mile Wildlife Trail during my most recent visit. Listen for woodpeckers chiseling away on decaying trees, and watch for spiders, which weave webs that glisten with dew.
On the south side of the park, check out the 2.2-mile Slough Trail, with sixteen wooden bridges that carry hikers over wetlands and marshes. I prefer it to the Sandy Creek Trail, which leads to an adjoining park operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but follows a row of power lines.
Wherever you roam, don’t forget to look up. The swaying pines, fragrant magnolias, and clusters of Spanish moss will make you feel like you’ve wandered onto the set of Land of the Lost.
Lumber companies harvested much of the timber here after the Civil War, and those big trees you see are second-generation growth. The park, constructed in the 1960s, is named for Martin Dies Jr., an East Texas senator who grew up horseback riding through these thick groves. Long before Dies trotted through, the Caddos, who were known for their skilled pottery work and were forced out in the 1830s, called the area home.
The park rents canoes and kayaks, and one of the best ways to explore is by following one of four designated paddling trails that wind along the waterways. Guided kayak trips are also offered. Check the park’s events page and register in advance. If you take off from the launch point at Walnut Slough, near the observation bridge, you can make a 2.7-mile loop around the northern half of the park.
The 5.4-mile Sandy Creek Paddling Trail is the longest and most challenging of the paddling routes. It hugs the shoreline, then crosses a stretch of open water. The 2.8-mile Neches Paddling Trail meanders through some narrow cuts into the Neches River. Finally, the Cherokee Paddling Trail starts and finishes on the other side of the reservoir, at the Cherokee Day Use Area, where the fishing is usually good.
Time your visit to spring to catch the creamy white flowers of blooming dogwood trees. (Nearby Woodville is known as the Dogwood Capital of Texas and hosts the Tyler County Dogwood Festival each March.) And in late fall, the oaks, maples, and sweetgums show off coats of crimson and orange.
Stop by the boat ramp on the west side of the park, where Highway 190 crosses over the reservoir. It’s a scenic spot to take in the sunset. During two of my three visits to the park, a blanket of fog enrobed this place. The cypress trees, which grow hundreds of feet off the shore and stretch their branches skyward, looked like they were floating in clouds.
East Texas is perpetually underrated as a Texas tourism destination. As I basked in the quiet and solitude on the tranquil shores of the lake, though, I decided I felt just fine about that.