Easy Park Hikes – Big Thicket National Preserve

Trails at Big Thicket also offer some fine opportunities for birders and other outdoor photographers. Photo by StingrayPhil via flickr and Creative Commons.

The Big Thicket National Preserve in southeast Texas has been called the "Biological Crossroads of North America," and some easy hikes in the park offer plenty of interesting sights. Just watch your step—it's a place where carnivorous plants catch their own lunch.

Truth to be told, those "meat eating plants" aren't any threat to people, but watch your step anyway, and stay on the trail where boardwalks or designated routes are provided—some of those fascinating plants are small and easily squashed by human feet. The park is home to four insect-eating plants: pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts.

There's plenty of other natural variety as well. A convergence of ecosystems occurred here during the last Ice Age, which brought together, in one geographical location, the eastern hardwood forests, the Gulf coastal plains, and the midwest prairies. The American Bird Conservancy has recognized the Preserve as a Globally Important Bird Area, and it's also an International Biosphere Reserve. This isn't a park with grand, sweeping vistas, but rather one that requires visitors to look for beauty on a more personal scale.

Big Thicket National Preserve can be a bit challenging for first-time visitors simply due to the geography. The park wasn't established until 1974, and by then the once vast near-wilderness dubbed the Big Thicket had been fragmented by development. For political, economic and practical reasons, the park isn't a single parcel; its 105,684 acres are divided among nine land units and six water corridors spread over seven counties in southeast Texas.

Some of these units are connected, others are stand-alone tracts, so a map and good directions are a must unless you're familiar with the area. A good place to start your visit is at the park's visitor center; you'll find directions at this link, and you can download a map from the park website. The visitor center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily; it's closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.

A stop at the visitor center in the park's Turkey Creek Unit also puts you in the right spot for a pair of easy park hikes.

The Kirby Nature Trail System is located in the southern end of the Turkey Creek Unit near the visitor center, and consists of several loops that wind through a subtle mixture of ecosystems and environments. The inner loop is 1.7 miles, the outer loop is 2.4 miles, and an additional 0.3 mile loop goes through a great example of a cypress slough. A trail guide is available at the trailhead.

The Pitcher Plant Trail, on the northeast side of the Turkey Creek unit, offers a one-mile hike through a mixed pine forest to the edge of a wetland savannah. A boardwalk provides excellent views of two of the park's four varieties of carnivorous plants: pitcher plants and sundews. Past the savannah, the trail goes loops through a mixed hardwood-pine forest and connects to the Turkey Creek Trail.

Another chance to view more of those interesting plants is found on the Sundew Trail, located in the park's Hickory Creek Savannah Unit. The outer loop covers 1.6 miles, the inner loop 0.8 miles, and both loops of this trail are both fully accessible. This is a popular route for spring and summer wildflowers and for bird watching. Pitcher plants and sundews are both found along this trail, although the sundew are very small, and much easier to spot in the spring when they're in bloom.

The Beaver Slide Trail, in the southeast corner Big Sandy Creek Unit, is one of the best places in the park to see cypress trees. It makes a 1.5-mile loop around several ponds formed by old beaver dams.

If you're interested in some longer walks, you'll find information about additional trails in the park at this link.

Even thought the park offers several easy hikes, unless you've got some outdoor skills, this is a good place to stay on the trail. The combination of generally flat terrain, frequently thick vegetation and often cloudy skies make it easy to get disoriented if you venture off on your own.

That said, there's no reason to avoid the area during from late fall to early spring, when the weather makes hiking in southeast Texas a lot more pleasant. This is not a prime location for hiking during the hot summer months, when the combination of heat, humidity and insects can make most outdoor activities pretty unappealing.

Prime time for hiking in this often overlooked park will be arriving in the next few weeks, and with the exception of brief winter cold snaps, will last until early spring. You'll find information to help plan a visit on the park website, and many of the key destinations in the park are close enough to Houston to allow an easy day trip from that city.