Length: About 275 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Spring and fall.
Nearby attractions: Nacogdoches, one of the state’s oldest towns, with historic sites and museums. Sabine National Forest, offering wildlife and water sports.
Not to be missed: Dickens Festival (first weekend in December), re-created scenes from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Galveston.
Further information: East Texas Tourism Association, P.O. Box 1592, Longview, TX 75606; tel. 903-757-4444, www.easttexasguide.com.
Linger awhile in East Texas and you will discover why Stephen Austin, known as the Father of Texas, was so determined to settle the region. But fertile farmlands and forests are only a part of this drive, which also offers sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, saltwater marshes that teem with birds, an Indian reservation, and 19th-century towns.
A drive down Seawall Boulevard on a summer day quickly reveals the casual, carefree character of Galveston. Hundreds of pedestrians, skaters, and cyclists share the broad sidewalk atop the lengthy seawall that protects the city from stormy seas; anglers cast from rock jetties; and swimmers and sunbathers enjoy the beach. On the inland side of the street, the windows of inviting boutiques display their wares, and restaurants serve tempting fare.
Yet the resort also happens to be one of the state’s most historic places. Just before the turn of the century, Galveston was considered the second-richest city in America, but a disastrous hurricane changed all that in 1900, claiming thousands of lives and destroying most of the buildings. Luckily, some of them survived: the restored 1894 Grand Opera House and 1893 Bishop’s Palace both recall the city’s early days of glory.
2. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Free of charge, a ferry transports travelers on State Rte. 87 across Galveston Bay to Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. Thousands of birds pause to feed and rest along the Bolivar Peninsula during their migrations. From the tiny least sandpiper to pelicans, herons, and roseate spoonbills, they throng the salt marshes and mudflats and fill the air with their constant calls.
For equally rewarding bird-watching, turn north on Rte. 124, then west on Rte. 1985 to the access road for Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, where more than 30,000 acres of wetlands attract huge flocks of ducks and geese in winter. American alligators share these wetlands with the birds, and the reptiles can often be seen sunning themselves near the refuge’s unpaved roads. Be sure to give them plenty of room: they might seem sluggish and lazy as they float on the water as still as logs, but they can run with a surprising speed that they surpass when swimming.
3. Big Thicket National Preserve
Thanks to its richly varied plant life, Big Thicket has earned a special renown among botanists and other observers of nature. Nearly all of East Texas was once covered by this semitropical wilderness—a tangle of woodlands, swamps, bayous, and bogs that few dared to enter. Over time, however, Big Thicket was tamed as farmers and lumbermen moved in. Today only scattered fragments of the original wilds are protected in Big Thicket National Preserve, yet each separate unit is pleasantly evocative of the region’s original appearance.
Of particular note are the nearly 1,000 species of flowering plants in the preserve, including 20 kinds of wild orchids and four out of America’s five types of insect-eating plants. To learn about the best places for spotting the carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews, stop at the main visitor center, which sits just east of Rte. 69 on Rte. FM420.
4. Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation
A side trip to the west on Rte. 190 brings motorists to the home of the Alabama-Coushatta Indians, who have protected 4,600 acres of forest since the mid-1800s. Also preserved here are the tribes’ time- honored traditions: visitors can observe traditional dances and the making of authentic handicrafts. If you have time, be sure to take a tour of the area’s virgin woodlands.
5. Sam Rayburn Reservoir
After returning to Rte. 69, the drive winds through the rolling countryside to Rte. FM147 and the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. For about two miles the highway skims right across the man-made lake, which is hemmed in by Angelina National Forest, part of what local Texans call the Piney Woods. Several recreational areas dot the lake’s shores, and the forest’s designated pathway, the Sawmill Hiking Trail, parallels the Neches River as it passes the remains of an early mill and wends beneath towering longleaf pines, oaks, sweet gums, and beeches—a reminder of East Texas as it was before the advent of large-scale logging.
6. San Augustine
Rte. FM147 soon sweeps into San Augustine, a town that took root as a Spanish mission in 1716. More than a century later, Sam Houston, the man of boundless bravery who led Texas in its fight for independence from Mexico, could be seen striding down the streets here. For a sampling of residential life in that spirited, glamorous era, visitors can tour the Ezekiel Cullen Home, an 1839 mansion.
Heading north from Tenaha, Rte. 59 passes through Carthage, home of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and Tex Ritter Museum. The drive next crosses the Sabine River on the way to Marshall. This community’s legacy as one of the first cities in Texas lives on in buildings such as the 1896 Ginocchio Hotel, with Victorian architecture, and Maplecroft, a well-preserved Italianate home built in 1870. The town is also the home of Marshall Pottery and Museum, found 21⁄2 miles south on Rte. FM31. The star attraction in Marshall, though, is its Christmastime Wonderland of Lights: about 6 million bulbs adorn the city in one of the nation’s largest and brightest holiday displays.
8. Caddo Lake State Park
Festooned with wispy strands of Spanish moss, bald cypresses tower above the waters of Caddo Lake. Miles of “boat roads” lead down channels in this watery wilderness, where anglers in search of bass and catfish might hear the drumming of the pileated woodpecker or the curious “Who-cooks-for-you?” call of the barred owl. The lake itself, geologists say, was created as a result of an earthquake, which formed a natural dam on a bayou. The Caddo Indians, according to legend, were forewarned of the earthquake by the Great Spirit.
Few spots in Texas can match Jefferson’s nostalgic charm. Among its many restored structures is the Excelsior House Hotel, where the guests have included such notables as Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, John Jacob Astor, and Oscar Wilde. Another patron was railroad baron Jay Gould, whose private railcar rests just a few steps from the hotel. Local lore says that Gould prophesied the town’s doom when its citizens refused to let his railroad pass through. And Jefferson did in fact undergo a decline—but that very lack of progress places today’s visitors on the threshold of Texas as it looked more than 100 years ago.
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