Story by Catherine Parker
A Texan can sneeze and miss winter some years. And most are thankful for just enough cold to kill the pesky insects. Though spring comes on fast and with a flourish of color, especially in the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Drivable from the mega metroplexes of Austin, Houston and DFW, East Texas offers a woodland to explore. Find rugged hiking on the longest hiking trail in Texas. Or rent a canoe and go birdwatching for bald eagles. And don’t forget to pack the marshmallows, since camping is the best way to end the day.
The East Texas Piney Woods is western edge of a four state area that covers more than 54,000 square miles of diverse forest. With an abundance of rainfall, find longleaf, shortleaf and loblolly pines along with blue jack and post oaks. And the understory gets a pop of color with yaupon holly, flowering dogwood and sweetbay magnolia.
Where to Get a Forest Fix
This area, easily accessible from Interstate 45, boasts two parks to explore. Each with its own distinctions.
As a national forest, Sam Houston National Forest is managed more than developed. So visitors will find limited services except in the recreation areas.
Huntsville State Park offers a developed area with services for day-use and overnight visitors. So find concessions, rental boats, interpretive programs and maintained trails in its park.
Sam Houston National Forest
Located 50 miles north of Houston, this area is one of four national forests in Texas. Established in October 1936, it protects 254 square miles, that’s 136,000 acres, in-between Huntsville, Conroe, Cleveland and Richards.
A dense forest with conifers and deciduous trees, this area can be enjoyed year-round. Though Texans know that the late spring and summer will be hot and humid, even under the shade of the tree canopy.
Spring brings the flowering trees and wildflowers. And the trees celebrate the first cold front in fall by changing colors.
Hiking in the Sam Houston National Forest
The outdoorsy can rattle off long distance trail acronyms like the alphabet. Though mention the Lone Star Hiking Trail (LSHT), and most give you a blank stare.
The Lone Star Trail is a long distance trail meandering through the Sam Houston National Forest. And it’s the longest hiking trail in Texas.The 128-mile marked trail is divided into three separate sections, includes several loops and part of it maintains National Recreational Trail status.
The 40-mile Lake Conroe section starts east of Richards along State Highway 149 to the Stubblefield Recreation Area. Find trailheads 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 along with off-highway parking.
The 60-mile Central section of the LSHT starts at the Stubblefield Recreation Area and passes just north of Huntsville State Park. And continues to LSHT Trailhead 9 off FM 945, south of Evergreen.
The 27-mile Winter Bayou/Tarkington Creek section boasts the National Recreation Trail status. And pick it up at the LSHT Trailhead 9 and it continues until Trailhead 15 off FM 1725, northwest of Cleveland.
The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club reached out to the United States Forest Service (USFS) in 1966 for approval to construct the trail. And in 1968, construction began with help from the Boy Scouts of America. The trail was completed in 1972 and the USFS maintains and manages the trail to this day.
Where to Stay along the Lone Star Hiking Trail
Find the camping at several campgrounds along the Lone Star Hiking Trail.
Stubblefield Recreation Area was built during the Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937. As a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Plan, young men developed parks across the U.S.
This area offers developed campsites, restrooms with showers along with access to the LSHT.
Double Lake Recreation Area was originally built by the CCC in 1937 as well. This group of young men extensively developed the parks in Texas during the 1930s, including state and national park sites.
This area includes developed campsites, restrooms with showers along with access to the LSHT. Also find a lodge along with 21 miles of mountain biking trails that circle Double Lake.
Primitive camping is allowed in the Sam Houston National Forest as long as campsites are 200 feet from the trail and water sources. Though camping is limited to the developed recreation areas during deer season when hunting is permitted in the forest.
What to do in the Sam Houston National Forest
Both Lake Livingston and Lake Conroe are used for fishing and boating. And find a boat ramp at Cagle Recreation Area.
For birders, Sam Houston National Forest offers glimpses of the protected Bald Eagles during the wintertime. Or see an endangered red cockaded woodpecker working on a nest in a pine tree.
Camping in the Sam Houston National Forest
Enjoy developed campsites across the Sam Houston National Forest.
Cagle Recreation Area offers a developed campground though not accessible from the Lone Star Hiking Trail. Double Lake Recreation Area and Stubblefield Recreation Area offer a developed campground as well. Each requires a nightly fee.
Huntsville State Park
With 2,000 acres of woodland to discover on 27 miles of hiking trails, Huntsville State Park offers an escape in East Texas. Along with hiking, visitors can rent a canoe, kayak or paddle boat and float on Lake Raven.
Keep an eye to the sky for a bald eagle, a pileated woodpecker or any of more than 250 birds seen in the park. Scan the underbrush along the water’s edge and spot a beaver, an otter or even an American alligator—all residents of the park.
The CCC in Huntsville State Park
Another project of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the 200-man Company 1823 consisted of African American WWI veterans, began work in 1937. They constructed an earthen dam along with the CCC Lodge. The CCC also constructed culverts for drainage and the stone curbing that makes CCC parks distinctive.
During a flood in 1940, the dam failed and so it had to be replaced. This, along with WWII, prevented Huntsville State Park from opening until 1956.
Hiking in Huntsville State Park
The trails in Huntsville State Park are wide and well maintained. And most trails can be explored on bike as well. Find challenging trails, like the 8.5-mile round trip Triple C Trail or the Loblolly Trail, easy enough for a toddler at .2 miles.
And the Lone Star Hiking Trail is accessible by trail from Huntsville State Park. Making the park a camping spot for through hikers doing a multi-day long distance hike.
Camping in Huntsville State Park
Find screened shelters along with 160 campsites to stay in the park. The CCC built a Lodge along the lake’s edge along with the boat house.
Located at 565 Park Road 40W, west of Interstate 45 and south of Huntsville. Adult admission (13+) is $7 with kids 12 and under entering for free. Camping is extra.
RV Camping and Cabins near the Sam Houston National Forest
For those who love real beds, gas grills and air conditioning, consider reserving a camping cabin at Thousand Trails Lake Conroe RV and Camping Resort. Roast a hotdog, toast a s’more then take a hot shower in your private cabin.
The resort also offers a spot for every type of RV out there. And find lots of activities for the kids.
Located at 11720 Thousand Trails Road in Willis.
Tips for Hiking the Lone Star Trail.
While the LSHT trail is marked extensively on trees along the route, directional signs are few and far between. And hiking by GPS or compass is necessary.
The trail can be narrow in parts with tall underbrush. Dogs are allowed on leash. Not ideal for those new to hiking or young children. Though teens and adults enjoy the challenge. And remember to look for ticks after hiking.
Water and restrooms aren’t available on the trail. The best way to find the numbered trailheads is through the maps feature of smart phones. And remember to drop a pin where you parked so you know where you’ve hiked.