Chris recently came across an old issue of Texas Monthly magazine that featured an article on the “Top Ten Hikes in Texas.” Never ones to shy away from ranking our favorite restaurants in a given city, our “top five” albums we’d take with us to a deserted island, or anything else capable of being ranked and, of course, debated, we decided that one of our goals for 2009 would be to do each of these hikes and see what we thought. After reviewing the list, we decided the Kirby Trail in the Big Thicket National Preserve would be a good one to start with, due mainly to the fact that if we waited until it got any warmer, the mosquitoes would likely be so thick out there they may in fact carry us away. So, in late January 2009, we loaded up the mule (our Forester) and drove east.
We left Austin around 6:30 or so on a Saturday morning and headed toward Houston, passing straight through along I-10 to where the refineries start popping up all around, on into Beaumont, then turned north along 69 toward Kountze, Texas. Before this day I had never heard of Kountze, though I am told I have family from the Woodville area, another 30 or so miles to the north. We arrived in Kountze around 10:30 and, after stopping to fill up with gas, headed straight for the Big Thicket National Preserve.
We stopped first at the visitor’s center — a nice building full of information about the preserve, books and souvenirs, clean restrooms, and friendly staff. We talked with a ranger about the best places to camp, and he directed us to an area off the Sandhill Loop (part of the trail system in the preserve). There are no campsites in the preserve, so you just have to go in and register for a back country permit and then head out. While Chris read about the park, I enjoyed the calm and cool weather from the rocking chairs on the front porch.
A nice touch.
We then got back into the car and drove another half mile or so down the road to the Kirby Trail trailhead and prepared for the 2.5 mile hike. The hike is an easy loop that takes you through a dense forest of hardwoods and pines and a fascinating environment of Baldcypress swamps and baygalls. The trailhead is easy to spot…
Parts of the trail are like boardwalks over swampy ground.
This is a Southern Magnolia…I’ve never seen Magnolia trees grow so tall and straight up like these.
This is a Loblolly Pine, another of the common trees in the preserve.
Here are a couple of shots of the baygalls we walked past…
The little stumps poking out of the water are called knees, and are thought to help anchor the Cypress trees.
We also encountered trees growing in all kinds of shapes and sizes, such as a rhinoceros.
After we finished the loop, we decided to head back to Kountze for some lunch before heading out with all of our gear. We went to Caroline’s Quality Bar-b-q, and it was a delight. The little building is right on 69 and has exactly three tables inside.
Caroline took our order at the cash register and we could immediately feel that great East Texas hospitality. I ordered the three meat plate (brisket, pork ribs, and chicken) and Chris just got the brisket plate. We sat down at the only empty table and within a few minutes, a different woman brought out two plates and asked which was which…after setting down the brisket plate in front of Chris she looked at me with a bit of disdain and said, “You gonna eat all this?” I looked at my plate and noticed it was piled high with brisket and ribs (no chicken) and said, I’m gonna try! She came right back with another plate and said “and who had the chicken?” I raised my hand and she gave me another look…”you really gonna eat this?” It was a LOT of meat, plus beans and potato salad. I really wanted a good sampling of the barbecue, though, so I felt I HAD to order three meats (I had actually tried to get the sausage too, but they were all out). I knew I had my work cut out for me. The brisket was my favorite — they smoke their brisket for thirteen hours, and the flavor was deep. I could cut it with my plastic fork. They serve their barbecue with a thick, slightly sweet sauce that I enjoyed, though Chris prefers a vinegary sauce to dip the meat in, if any sauce at all. The ribs were incredibly tender — meat fell right off the bone. The chicken (I requested dark meat) was juicy and delicious. I also thought the sides were fantastic (made eating all of the meat all the more difficult). The beans had a nice sweetness to them, and the potato salad was light and fresh. Needless to say, though I tried my hardest, I could not finish. Caroline brought me a box for my leftovers (while there was no way I’d be able to take my leftovers on an overnight hike, I simply could not leave them on the table). Here are my leftovers (and really, I ate a LOT! the portions are really big!!).
After lunch we headed back out to the Kirby Trail, but this time loaded up our packs and instead of looping back around, took a left at a bridge and continued on toward the Sandhill Loop.
We took the Sandhill Loop and started wandering off the trail somewhere around the first or second “L” looking for a good spot to set up our tent.
Chris marked the campsite on his GPS device…
Happy with our choice, I set up our tent and we relaxed with some wine (yes, I backpacked with wine) and enjoyed the weather for a bit. Dinner came from a bag…a Mountain House vegetable lasagna. To be honest, we were quite pleased with dinner…it really was not bad at all, and nothing beats a hot dinner when it’s chilly outside. Once the sun went down completely it got even colder, so we decided to turn in early. Really early (I’m not even sure if it was 8pm yet). We stared at the stars from the tent for a bit, then eventually drifted off to sleep. By 2am, Chris was wide awake. I suppose we had basically gotten a full night of sleep. He woke me up and told me he was going to get out, make some coffee, and sit outside for a while. I was not ready to get up (it was still cold and dark) so I stayed in the tent.
I heard him rustling around a bit, then I noticed what seemed like a bright flickering light through the tent. That did not seem right to me, so I called out to Chris and asked if everything was okay. His response was simple: “No…I think you should probably get out here.” I jumped out of my sleeping bag, out of the tent, and into my boots and saw a fire! Apparently, we had a bit of a burner malfunction, and when he tried to ignite the burner flames shot out of the entire canister (even though it worked just fine for dinner). The burner fell over on its side as he jumped back to avoid burning his arm, and the fire spread to the leaves, pine needles, sticks, etc., all around…and quickly! We tried dousing it with what little water we had left but that did nothing. We threw a pot down on the burner but it did nothing to stop the flames. I was really surprised at how quickly the fire spread and for a few seconds seriously feared we had started a forest fire (though, to be honest, it was probably only a few feet)! Chris, thinking quickly, grabbed a big stick and cleared a perimeter around the fire so that it could not spread any further, and it finally began to burn out. We stood and watched as the flames from the canister got smaller and smaller and smaller. Once it was out, we looked at each other, then at our watches (it was 2:45 am). It was the middle of the night, but we were wide awake…out of water…so no coffee…we decided to hike back. Luckily it was not too difficult finding the trail again, and once on the trail it was an easy hike back. We were back at the car around 3:15 or so, and back home by 7:45 in the morning. This really was not how we had envisioned the camping trip to go, but it was still fun and we later got quite a few laughs out of the “incident.”
Now, back to the top ten list. The best thing about this hike and the preserve in general was the environment. The mix of trees and swamp was pretty cool — I’ve never seen anything like it. The hike itself was very easy, though, and there weren’t any grand vistas. My biggest complaint, however, was that it did not seem remote enough. Throughout the night we both woke up off and on due to the sounds of dogs barking, gun shots, and other unidentifiable noises. We also seemed to be right underneath a flight path. Civilization felt too close. The only wildlife we spotted were birds and squirrels. At night we only heard crickets and deer snorting. It is, however, a beautiful part of the state, a part I had never seen, and a reminder that the Texas landscape includes so many different environments. That in and of itself is pretty cool, and one of the reasons I love living here.