A trip from Houston through East Texas takes you on an adventure like no other, where the trees get taller and the leaves become more evergreen. Experience history and the natural world in a duet that sounds like the wind whistling through the pines and makes road trip memories that will last a lifetime.
This journey starts in the hubbub of Houston, but we won’t do museums or downtown shops on this trip. Instead, we’ll take it slow at the Houston Zoo, voted one of the best in the nation. Then take a rest from being on your feet, grab some picnic food and sprawl out by Buffalo Bayou, a waterway stretching through the heart of Houston and surrounded by a beautiful urban park. You can walk your dog, rent a bike, try your hand at paddleboarding or just sit and admire the skyline. By this time, you might be ready for a short trip out of the city to hit the wineries on the Texas Bluebonnet Wine Trail. The vineyards won’t disappoint.
From there, grab your trail mix and head up to Sam Houston National Forest for a retreat into peace and pine trees. As the city skyline disappears in your rearview mirror and the woods start to surround you like a blanket, feel yourself relax and soak in the scenery. This beautiful stretch of land hosts an abundance of wildlife and natural lakes for fishing or canoeing. For the hikers among you, the Lone Star hiking trail provides 129 miles of beautiful scenery to explore. Feel free to stay all night if you like. There are some great camping options available in the area.
Less than two hours of driving directly north, you’ll find yourself in Palestine, Texas, a small town famous for its wonderful old-timey train ride. Leave from the Texas State Railroad train depot for a four-hour round trip that will transport you to a simpler time. Before heading out of town, check out Bralys Ace Hardware. You might not need a new socket wrench, but the converted 1938 school building is worth a look around. The old lockers and bookshelves are still in operation—except now they hold merchandise.
Next, head east toward Nacogdoches, Texas’ quintessential Piney Woods town. If you’ve got the time, be sure to hit the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, which is on the way, and take in the history of the Hasinai natives from over a thousand years ago. Originally a ceremonial space for ritual purposes, the site is a great place to learn all about the area’s Native American culture.
Nacogdoches is commonly thought of as the oldest town in Texas, and when you’re there, you’ll feel the history in the charming downtown and historic landmarks. For our nature lovers, we recommend meandering through the SFA Gardens and admiring the gorgeous collection of native plants. Millard’s Crossing Historic Village is another great option for those who want to be immersed in the history of the area. Stroll through the town center filled with real 19th-century buildings for a unique opportunity to see a bygone era up close.
Just a 15-minute drive from Nacogdoches, you’ll find Angelina National Forest, a great place for quiet and secluded camping or just to see a few sights on some short, pleasant trails. Bouton Lake is one great scenic option for fishing or a simple lakeside lunch. There is an abundance of trails to choose from for hiking, but Sawmill Hiking Trail is a great option. It’s a short, moderate trail that goes right by the ruins of the Aldridge Sawmill, abandoned in 1923, which is now covered in greenery and striking amid the wilderness surrounding it.
If you’re up for one more nature park, this is a good one: Head south to Big Thicket National Preserve, a complex and beautiful combination of nine different ecosystems with a diverse medley of plant and animal species. Camping here is “primitive,” meaning you’re on your own. Get a permit and you’re good to set up almost anywhere. The Neches River area provides miles and miles of scenery to enjoy by kayak or canoe, and there are 40 miles of Big Thicket trails to choose from for any level of hiker.
The Neches River runs all the way down to your final stop: Beaumont (although we recommend you travel there by road). Here you can find Gator Country, a large alligator sanctuary. The kids will likely never forget the feeding show they put on here. For gators in their natural habitat, check out Cattail Marsh. There’s always a plethora of activities being put on at the marsh, including Saturday morning yoga for a good stretch to end a long journey.
This trip is best when you slow down and take your time, listening to the sounds of the native birds, discovering the wonders of the flora and fauna and finding the perfect rock to balance your lunch on. What an adventure! So hit the road and remember to drive friendly, the Texas way.