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From Beaumont (to get to Beaumont from Houston, take I-10 east toward New Orleans, and you'll arrive in Beaumont in 1 1/2 hr.), if you drive north on Tex. 69, you immediately enter the forestland known in Texas as the Piney Woods. This is a lovely part of the state that stretches all the way north to Arkansas. Tex. 69 runs through the heart of it and is one of the most enjoyable drives in the state, especially in the fall or the early spring, which are my favorite times for visiting East Texas. Several of the following attractions can be reached by this road. The first of these is the Big Thicket National Preserve. The information station for the preserve (tel. 409/246-2337; www.nps.gov/bith) is 30 miles from Beaumont, 8 miles past the town of Kountze. It will be on the right, just off the highway at the intersection of Hwy. 69 and Farm Road 420. The station is open daily from 9am to 5pm, except for Christmas and New Year's Day.

The Big Thicket is a lowland forest that occupies a land of swamps, bayous, and creeks. It's dotted with the occasional meadow, but for the most part grows so dense as to become impassable. In earlier times, it extended over 3 million acres and was an impenetrable and hostile place for early settlers. Stories abound of people getting lost in these woods and of outlaws using the place for their hide-outs. With lumbering, oil exploration, roads, and settlement, the Big Thicket has been reduced to a tenth of its original size. Of what's left, almost 100,000 acres have been preserved by acts of Congress. The preserved area is not one large expanse of land but 12 separate units, most of which follow the courses of rivers, creeks, and bayous.

The most remarkable thing about the Big Thicket is its diversity of life: The land is checkered with different ecological niches that bring together species coexisting nowhere else. It has been called the American Ark. Hickory trees and bluebirds from the Eastern forests dwell close by cactuses and roadrunners from the American Southwest and southern cypress trees and alligators from the Southern coastal marshes. The variety is astonishing. Of the five species of North American insect-eating plants, four live inside the Big Thicket.

For the visitor, the area offers opportunities for hiking, canoeing, and primitive camping. Some of the units are closed during hunting season (mid-Sept to mid-Jan) and some might be closed by flooding. You can get maps and detailed information about the hiking trails, free permits for primitive camping, and books about this fascinating area at the information station. The choice of trails here offers walks anywhere from a half-mile to 20 miles. Although leaving the designated hiking trails is permitted, you must be careful not to get lost; trailblazing in this dense brush can be slow going and painful. Canoeing in some ways has an advantage over hiking, though it limits your travel to those waterways with easy access for dropping off and picking up the canoes. At the station, you can get information about canoe outfitters who operate from the towns of Kountze and Silsbee, mostly just from late spring to early fall. For lodging and food, you'll have to rely on the establishments in one of the nearby towns; there are no such facilities in the preserve. If you're in Kountze during lunchtime on any weekday, the most interesting place to eat is at the county courthouse, where most of the locals like to show up.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.