Turkey Creek Trail, Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
|The Big Thicket National Preserve is 97,000 acres north of Beaumont Texas. It is disjointed and mostly follows a handful of bayous, creeks and rivers over a 6,000 square mile area. The Turkey Creek Trail is the longest trail, stretching 17.5 miles (15 miles by my GPS).
The Maps: The maps are based on USGS 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 scale topographic maps. The trails were rendered based on a WAAS enable GPS track made in February 2009. The Turkey Creek trail is in red and the numerous loops are shown in various other colors. The location of the roads are based on aerial and satellite imagery.
Hiking Maps. These are downloadable maps (true 1:24,000 scale) that are ready to print on 11x17 paper. Turkey Creek Trail North. Turkey Creek Trail South. Color, weatherproof versions (11x17) of each map are also available for $5 each plus S&H by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The purchased maps also include the coordinates of the waypoints.
Background: The literature paints a fascinating picture of 4 merging ecological zones: bottom land hardwoods and cypress sloughs, palmetto hardwood flats, wetland pine savannah and slope forest (click here for more detail). Big Thicket boasts 85 tree species (dominated by the long leaf pine), 20 orchids, 4 carnivorous plants, 1,000 flowering plants and 26 ferns. The wildlife is diverse, too, with 185 birds (including the pileated woodpecker), all four poisonous snake varieties (including the coral snake, the most venomous snake in the US. Remember “red on yellow – kills a fellow”), alligators and bigfoot (sorry, LOL). Although the Big Thicket is administered by the National Park Service, it is categorized a national preserve because hunting is allowed. Check the hunting schedule when you plan your trip.
Though it may not seem like it when you are in the middle of the woods, the Big Thicket is in a developed area and, as with most of east Texas, has it's share of oil wells. Village Mills is a small hub of oil field activity and the destination (origin) for the several pipelines you will cross in the middle section of the hike. Of historical note, in 1895 the sawmill in Village Mills broke the world record by sawing over 250,000 feet (76 km) in eleven hours time (and you thought this was a sleepy burg).
This close proximity to the the trappings of our industrialized world brings us to the ongoing debate of the water quality in the Preserve and, for that matter, any of the hiking trails in East Texas. The Feds (forest service, NPS, etc) advise against drinking the water even if filtered. Many local hikers believe it is fine and they drink it all the time (after treating it). The chief concern are heavy metals and chemicals which are not eliminated by filters (some can reduce them, some have little effect). That a hiker notices no after effects is not surprising because if the toxicity was that high, all the fish would be belly-up and there would be no wildlife. On the other hand, no one dies from one cigarette. You can guess the rest and make your own decision. I expect we will cache water like we have on all our other hikes in southeast Texas.
If you are unfamiliar with this part of Texas, you will be pleasantly surprised with the mild weather that is typical of winter (IMO the best time to hike in southeast Texas). It should also be noted that the summer can be VERY hot and humid and quite uncomfortable if you aren't used to it. It is wet so there are abundant mosquitoes. Beware of flooding, especially if you get caught in one of their infamous torrential rains (or hurricanes).
The Hike: When you try to cubby hole trails as easy, moderate or difficult, this one will be the metric for easy. The park services has cut a perfectly even 6 foot wide swath through the dense thicket and where ever it crossed a slough or low lands they built a boardwalk. The path is on a fine gray compacted sand and covered with leaves and pine needles and though it is all part of the natural forest floor, it has a nature-trail-like feel. Combine that with the fact that the elevation changes are barely detectable and you have a trail where you can hit record speeds with a backpack.
We began from the north trail head on FM 1943 (BT-01). As with most of the trailheads in the Turkey Creek Trail, it is a small picnic area with a pit toilet and room for parking. The trail is well marked at the west corner of the picnic area. The trail begins as a flat 6 foot wide promenade and stays that way. You will notice several park benches as you start out and will encounter dozens more throughout the hike. At 0.4 miles (BT-02) there is a trail junction coming in from the west. It is groomed like the main trail and caused us to puzzle on it a while. We kept going straight and it turned out to be the correct trail.
The first junction of the Pitcher Plant Trail is at 2.8 miles (BT-03). Pitcher plants are one of the carnivorous plants found in the Big Thicket and you can see them when you get to the savannah between BT-03 and the Pitcher Plant Trailhead. In February they are dead and brown but you could still see them right next to the boardwalk. Continuing on the loop you will pass the trailhead parking lot with its pit toilet and ultimately reach the Turkey Creek Trail at BT-04 (mile 3.0 on the Turkey Creek Trail. It is 0.8 miles from BT-03 to BT-04 on the Pitcher Plant Trail.)
We saw lots of different trees. The deciduous beech and oak were obvious from their bark and there remaining leaves from the previous year. The three types of pine trees can all have 3 needle bundles so we used the decreasing needle length to identify long leaf pine, loblollies and short leaf pine. Cypress are evident by their occurrence in the sloughs and their bulbous lower trunks. Even in February we were treated with the greens of the magnolia, holly, bamboo and two bushes that looked like the photinia and boxwoods I have around my house.
After the Pitcher junction, the trail moves over towards the creek for a couple miles. We saw many places where we could imagine the elusive alligator basking in the 75 degree February sun, but no such luck. We did see a huge blue heron rise out of the bayou; magnificent! Before the trip someone was asking about kayaking in the Big Thicket. Turkey Creek has plenty of water, but there are too many downed trees blocking the entire stream to make a go of it. The fact that this was 6 months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the area probably didn't help the situation. (We ran into an canoe outfitter at the visitor center and they were open for business about 30 miles south on Village Mills Creek).
BT-05 (6.0 miles) is at the intersection of the Hester Bridge road. Turn west staying on the dirt road and cross Turkey Creek on the bridge. There is a small parking area on the west side of the bridge where the trail heads back into the woods (BT-06, 6.2 miles). No toilet or picnic tables.
Another three miles through the woods and you reach the west Gore Store Road picnic area (BT-07, 8.9 miles) where there is parking, a toilet and picnic tables. Turn east and follow the black top road to the east picnic area and trailhead (BT-08, 9.1 miles). This was our second time to come here. We cached 4 gallons of water down the trail which we now carried as we looked for a place to camp. The woods for the next mile or so had extremely dense underbrush. A veritable thicket, so to speak. No camping there!
The trails crosses 3 pipelines, at miles 11.1 (BT-09), 11.8 (BT-10) and 12.3 (BT-11). The trail actually follows the pipeline at BT-10 for a few hundred feet.
At BT-12 (mile 12.8), the Sandhill loop takes off to the southeast. The loop is 0.8 mile from BT-12 to BT-13 and takes you into a stand of 70 tall, long needle pines; classic East Texas piney woods. The forest is very open and if you are in the area looking for a campsite, you shouldn't have a problem here. The loop meets up again with the Turkey Creek Trail at BT-13 (mile 13.2). Cross Turkey Creek on a substantial metal bridge.
At about 13.8 miles, cross a scenic slough and at 14.0 miles (BT-14) cross Village Mills Creek. On the other side of the bridge are a network of trails that all lead to the south trailhead. The Turkey Creek Trail was the most scenic, taking you past the Cypress Slough Area. There is a high water cut-off, just in case.
The south trailhead is known as the Kirby Nature Trail and is off of FM 420. Besides the pit toilets and picnic benches, there is an Environmental Education Center. Just west on FM 420 is an overflow parking lot.
Though the park literature has the trail at 17.5 miles, by my reckoning it is only 15.0 miles. Since all my other mileages matched with the Park's, I feel confident that it is closer to 15 and possibly the 17.5 include the extra loop trails.
Info: Big Thicket web site. Visitor Center and Information (409) 951-6725. A free back country permit is needed. Camping is at-large.
Location: For the south trailhead, go north out of Beaumont on US Highway 69-287 about 27 miles to FM 420. The Big Thicket Headquarters and Visitor Center is on the northeast corner, Take FM 420 east for 2.6 miles to the trailhead and Environmental Education Center.
Weatherproof Topographic Maps at
OuachitaMaps.com - Hiking Trails of the Ouachitas and Ozarks