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In the thick of it

Big Thicket preserve near Beaumont in southeast Texas offers outdoor enthusiasts great diversity.
By Elaine Warner

The Big Thicket area of southeastern Texas, produced by the push and shove of ancient seas and prehistoric glaciers, is an area where four ecological zones meet– Southwest deserts, Central plains, Eastern forests and Southeastern swamps. Big Thicket once covered an area of 3.5 million acres. Thanks to westward expansion, lumbering and oil exploration, today approximately 300,000 acres are left. One-third of that area comprises the Big Thicket National Preserve. These 100,000 acres provide critical protection for such biodiversity.

botanical

Above: The Beaumont Botanical Gardens is worth a visit to enjoy the camellias, bromeliads, roses and other plants. Don’t miss the 9/11 memorial. Beaumont CVB photo

Below: What tourist could pass up a photo of a 24-foot-tall fire hydrant? See one at the Fire Museum of Texas. Beaumont CVB photo

fire hydrant

A map of Big Thicket looks like a bony hand with fat finger pads extending north from Beaumont into seven counties. The area has been named a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve and, by the American Bird Conservancy, a Globally Important Bird Area. The exceptional variety of animal life has given the area the nickname “the American ark.”

By foot or by float

Although there are roads leading into some parts of Big Thicket, the best way to see it is by hiking the trails or boating on the waterways. A leisurely cruise up the Neches River with Cardinal Neches River Adventures provides an easy introduction. The 49-passenger pontoon boat leaves from Riverfront Park in downtown Beaumont each Saturday morning from spring through late fall.

Rain pelted the boat’s cover as it pulled away from the dock. Circles in the water appeared, spread, overlapped and disappeared only to be replaced by more circles. The cityscape was quickly left behind as we journeyed up the river and into Big Thicket.

As the rain stopped, mist arose from the warm water adding an eerie touch to the scene. A great egret delicately picked its way along the bank. Cypress trees, draped with Spanish moss, thrust their knobby knees up through the surface of the water. The quiet hum of the boat’s motors added a gentle background for the occasional bird sounds.

This trip whetted my interest for a more intimate look into Big Thicket’s waterways.

The next morning, David Martin of Piney Woods Outfitters gave me that opportunity as we shoved our canoe off the shore and onto Village Creek, a tributary of the Neches. Paddling past a flotilla of yellow water lilies, we headed downstream on a three-mile stretch of the Village Creek Corridor Unit of the Big Thicket. River flow here was one to one-and-a-half mph with no rapids–perfect for sightseeing.

Cypresses stood in the shallows, while along the banks, willows trailed their branches into the water. Higher up, we saw river birches, beeches, magnolias and pines.

The striking black and white of a pileated woodpecker flashed through the trees, while a persistent kingfisher surveyed the water before dive-bombing the surface. Turtles sunned themselves on fallen limbs and cicadas sang in the trees.

We’d brought a picnic lunch and pulled up on a sandbar to enjoy an al fresco meal. Back on the water, a raindrop splashed my head signaling a brief shower. Dry under an umbrella, I breathed in the fresh air. We pulled the canoe out of the water and got into our vehicle just in time–the skies opened. Dry and comfortably full, I rated the day an “A.”

Visitors who want to explore the land portions of Big Thicket have a choice of nine trails that range in length from half-mile to 18 miles. One of the trails, Big Sandy, is also open to cyclists and horseback riders.

One of the most popular trails, the Pitcher Plant Trail in the Turkey Creek Unit, is also one of the shortest. It loops through pine trees and a wetland savannah. Pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants can be seen in the first quarter-mile of the path, a portion that is fully accessible. Sundew Trail in the Hickory Creek Savannah Unit is noted for the variety and quantity of wildflowers from late spring through the summer.

Gators and gardens

While you’re in the vicinity, other attractions offer insight into the area’s wildlife and plants. Formal gardens and natural areas can be enjoyed at Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in nearby Orange. A state-of-the-art bird blind looks out over tall cypresses and dark water. During nesting season, the trees are trimmed with hundreds of egrets, their snowy white feathers standing out against the dark green foliage. Regular boat tours take visitors further into a swamp wilderness. Shangri La, named for the paradise in the book “Lost Horizon,” is a place of beauty and tranquility.

The Beaumont Botanical Gardens at 23.5 acres–much smaller than the 252-acre Shangri La gardens–is a good stop for a stroll. Plantings include camellias, bromeliads, roses and native plants. A special area is set aside as a memorial for Sept. 11, 2001.

Visit Gator Country Adventure Park to learn about these reptiles and get an up-close but safe view of them. Big Al, at 1,000 pounds and more than 13 feet long, is the definite potentate of the pond. I was happy to give him plenty of room but got friendly with little Chubs, a young alligator whose misshapen jaw made it impossible for him to get snappy with me.

Beaumont has its share of museums, too. A combination indoor-outdoor museum explores the area’s oil history at the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum. For a contemporary look at the industry, the Texas Energy Museum is a must. Architecture buffs will want to see the 1906 McFaddin-Ward House, a beautiful Beaux-Arts Colonial home with original furnishings and antiques. Beaumont has museums for every interest from art (Art Museum of Southeast Texas) and Olympic sport (Babe Didrikson Zaharias Museum) to invention (Edison Museum), and you can’t miss the 24-foot-tall spotted fire hydrant at the Fire Museum of Texas.

Places to eat and sleep

Beaumont has as many choices for eating as for sightseeing. Jason’s Deli offers fresh, healthy sandwiches and salads. Willy Ray’s is a favorite for barbecue, and the carrot soufflé is a signature dish. Jazz-themed Suga’s has fabulous fried green tomatoes topped with lump crabmeat and drizzled with shrimp cream sauce and Hollandaise.

Rao’s Bakery & Coffee Café serves great baked goods and sandwiches on homemade bread. It was hard to choose a favorite, but I like a breakfast with a bite so the kolache with locally made Zummo sausage, cheese and jalapeno not only floated my boat, it rocked it.

I enjoyed a comfortable stay with friendly people and great service at the MCM Eleganté hotel. Other lodging options here include AAA three Diamond Comfort Suites, Holiday Inn and Hilton Garden Inn.

From Big Thicket to a big breakfast, the Beaumont area offers a lot of bang for the buck.

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.

May/Jun 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact Big Thicket National Preserve at
(409) 951-6700, www.nps.gov/bith, or the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau at
(800) 392-4401. Visit online at www.beaumontcvb.com.

To visit Big Thicket National Preserve and Beaumont, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Texas through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com


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