Trail Mix: 10 Top Hikes
By Melissa Gaskill
Take a hike. Rather than a brush-off, to me this sounds like an invitation to have a great time. Hiking offers one of the most accessible and versatile ways to enjoy the outdoors. Naturally, Texas boasts an amazing array of hikes for every taste and ability—from strolls of less than a mile to treks longer than 100 miles, through thick woods or open country, on high mountain slopes or smooth, flat shores. Here’s a selection of 10 of my favorites.
1. Hill Country State Natural Area
Just outside of Bandera, the 5,369-acre Hill Country State Natural Area (photo on opening spread) offers classic hikes on 40 miles of multi-use trails. My favorite combines Routes 1 and 6 to loop out to the Wilderness Camp Area and back, going 5.8 miles through open stretches where tall grass undulates in the breeze, into shady groves of oak and juniper covered in berries, over rocky hills and down canyons, and even across a wide swath of ankle-scratching but wickedly beautiful sotol. A must is the detour on Route 5B, up a steep, rocky staircase to 1,760-foot-high Twin Peaks for a stunning, panoramic view of the almost unblemished countryside. There is no drinking water or supplies in the park, so bring everything you think you’ll need. Not that you’ll need much, with scenery like this.
Hill Country State Natural Area, 830/796-4413; www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
2. Sam Houston National Forest
East Texas’ Lone Star Hiking Trail runs for 128 miles through the Sam Houston National Forest, but that’s too much hiking for me. I can handle, though, the challenging 27-mile section between Evergreen and Cleveland, which is a designated National Recreation Trail. Tree tags 25 to 50 yards apart mark the narrow path, but I suggest picking up a map from the Sam Houston National Forest district ranger’s office in New Waverly. Pines and magnolias shade the trail, which also blazes through thick brush and swampy areas, and crosses several creeks and the East Fork of the San Jacinto River (twice). You might also see white-tailed deer, turkey, quail, and rabbits. Foxes and bobcats live here, too, though you’re unlikely to see them. Old stumps covered in shades of green moss, strange fungi growing on fallen logs, and a variety of mushrooms lend an otherworldly, untamed feel to the landscape.
USDA Forest Service, Sam Houston Natl. Forest, 936/344-6205; www.fs.fed.us.
3. Lake Georgetown Good Water Trail
A rugged, 23.8-mile trail circumnavigating scenic Lake Georgetown traverses dense juniper stands, hardwood bottomlands, limestone cliffs, and wide-open prairie grasslands. You’ll even ford a few streams. My favorite spot on this hike, Knight Spring, creates a small stream above a lush, serpentine waterfall. Nearby is an old corral left by early settlers, and elsewhere on the trail are remnants of stone walls and fences. Armadillos rustle in the grass, and hikers may startle an occasional deer in the brush. During deer season (check with the office for dates), stay on the trail and wear bright clothing; the trail crosses Hunt Hollow Wildlife Management Area, which allows hunting. Multiple trailheads and several campgrounds make it easy to choose your distance; if your party has two cars, you can even leave one at your destination before driving to the starting point—then you won’t have to backtrack.
Georgetown Lake Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 512/930-5253; www.swf-wc.usace.army.mil/georgetown.
4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park
In far West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park takes in 86,415 acres of desert, canyons, and windswept mountains, which are the remnants of an ancient marine reef. For a truly spectacular experience, hike to the 8,749-foot summit of Guadalupe Peak—the highest point in the state. The 3,000-foot climb and eight-and-a-half-mile round trip make for a strenuous hike, but the breathtaking views make it worth every huff and puff. Sign the guest book at the peak, and expect the wind to muss your hairdo if the hike didn’t already wreak havoc with it. Another 76 miles of trails beckon, but come prepared, as part of the charm of this desert outpost is the absence of commerce.
Guadalupe Mountains Natl. Park, 915/828-3251; www.nps.gov/gumo.
5. Big Thicket National Preserve
Big Thicket National Preserve, approximately 100,000 acres managed by the National Park Service, was created to protect the diversity of a once-vast ecosystem of meadows, swamps, and forests of pine, cypress, and hardwoods. The thicket boasts a rare combination of 85 tree species, 26 types of ferns, 20 orchid species, four kinds of carnivorous plants, some 186 species of birds, and 50 reptile species. Fortunately, eight hiking trails of varying lengths make it possible to experience this wilderness firsthand. I like the 5.4-mile Woodlands Trail, which meanders across the Big Sandy Creek flood plain. The trail passes through dense stands of hardwoods like sweetgum, water and basket oaks, magnolia, beech, and bamboo; it’s just you and Mother Nature. A section parallels the creek, where otters are said to live—an enticement to return.
Big Thicket Natl. Preserve, 409/951-6725; www.nps.gov/bith.
From the May 2007 issue.