North and west of the Big Thicket, the ecological complexity gives way to pine forest habitat. Inside this large belt of pine forest are four national forests that provide opportunities for hiking, camping, boating, and fishing. These areas are a nice getaway, especially in the nonsummer months when the weather is more agreeable. They are much less visited than national parks and forests elsewhere. You can easily get to them from either Beaumont or Houston. Hwy. 69 leads directly into Angelina National Forest, about 50 miles north of Kountze. And the Sam Houston National Forest is only 55 miles north of Houston (take I-45). The other two are Davy Crockett National Forest, north of Sam Houston National Forest, and the Sabine National Forest, east of Angelina National Forest, on the Louisiana border. Each of these forests is roughly 150,000 acres, and each offers more or less the same activities: hiking, camping, boating, and fishing with such facilities as boat ramps, camping grounds, and hiking trails. For canoeing, there are a few interesting places in these forests, but it's mostly large expanses of open water, which aren't as fun as what you'll find in the Big Thicket or Caddo Lake.
When the weather is agreeable, the forests are lovely places for hiking, especially in Sam Houston National Forest or Davy Crockett, which have the majority of trails. One hiking trail in Sam Houston is 126 miles long and crosses private property in three or four places; this is a real standout for Texas, which despite its image isn't such a wide-open state. Landowners here are firm believers in barbed-wire fences and the rights of private property, but this trail makes use of the goodwill of local landowners. Fishing draws many visitors, and a lot of places rent boats and equipment and can sell a temporary fishing license ($20) in the towns that lie in or next to these national forests. Your best bet for fishing is the Angelina or Sabine forests.
For general information about a specific national forest, visit www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/texas or call one of the following numbers. The Sam Houston National Forest ranger offices are in the town of New Waverly (tel. 936/344-6205); Davy Crockett National Forest ranger offices are in Crockett (tel. 936/655-2299); Angelina National Forest ranger offices are in Zavalla (tel. 936/897-1068); and the Sabine National Forest ranger offices are in Hemphill (tel. 409/787-3870).
Texas State Railroad -- After passing through the Angelina National Forest, Hwy. 69 continues through Lufkin before reaching the town of Rusk, a drive of about 60 miles. Here, you can ride an old steam locomotive train 25 miles through pine forest to the town of Palestine and back again. Many railroad enthusiasts consider this to be one of the best steam train rides in the country. Passengers travel in vintage railway cars, in either first class (which has air-conditioning in summer only) or regular. The train runs on a limited schedule (usually weekends) from March to May and August, and Thursday to Sunday from June to July. The round-trip journey through pine forest takes 4 hours and costs $37 for adults and $19 for children 3 to 11 years old for general seating, and $40 for adults and $21 for children for a seat on an air-conditioned car. These rates are for the diesel train. Rates for the steam train run $4 higher. For general information and reservations, check out the website www.texasstaterr.com or call tel. 903/683-2561 or 888/987-2461.