Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Big Thicket National Preserve: Woodlands Trail (Blog Hike #671)

Trail: Woodlands Trail
Hike Location: Big Thicket National Preserve
Geographic Location: west of Woodville, TX
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A lollipop loop along the west bank of Big Sandy Creek.
Preserve Information: https://www.nps.gov/bith/index.htm

Directions to the trailhead: From Woodville, take US 190 west 21 miles to Farm-to-Market Road 1276.  Turn left on FM 1276.  The small trailhead parking area is 3.4 miles ahead on the left.  The parking area is signed, but the sign may be hard to see from the road.

The hike: With nearby towns named Woodville, Wildwood, Village Mills, and Lumberton, it is easy to guess how Big Thicket National Preserve came to be.  In the early 1800’s, mature forest occupied 3.5 million acres of southeast Texas, and giant yellow pines measuring 5 to 6 feet in diameter grew here.  In the mid and late 1800’s, most of the big thicket succumbed to the ax as boom and bust towns sprung up and died out around lumber mills.  By 1900, the area’s timber production was in decline.  Nevertheless, timber remains a significant industry in the area today, and I passed many trucks hauling logs on my way to and from this trailhead.
            On January 10, 1901, oil was discovered under Spindletop Hill in nearby Beaumont.  The boom and bust cycle that played out for lumber in the previous century played out again for oil in the early 1900’s.  Through all of the industrial action, less than 5 percent of the mature forest survived.  In 1974, President Ford signed legislation that protected the remnant forest by creating Big Thicket National Preserve, the first national preserve in the United States.
            The preserve today features many creeks that make for excellent canoeing, and hunting and primitive camping are also available.  Big Thicket National Preserve is also perhaps the top hiking destination in east Texas.  On point, the preserve offers 40 miles of hiking trails ranging from a 0.3 mile nature trail to the 18 mile Turkey Creek Trail, which is excellent for backpacking.  Numerous good dayhikes are possible, but I only had time to do one of them: the lightly-used medium-length 5.1 mile Woodlands Trail described here.
Trailhead: Woodlands Trail
            The Woodlands Trail leaves the rear of the parking area at an information kiosk and a sign that simply says “trail.”  The initial segment of this trail passes through a pine planting that dates to 1963, and this area saw some of the most recent logging done on the present-day preserve land.  Almost immediately another trail sign directs you to angle right where a wild trail continues straight.
Approaching Collins Pond
            After passing under two power lines, you reach the bank of Collins Pond.  This small, shallow, man-made body of water was very quiet on my late morning visit in mid-December.  Just past Collins Pond, you reach post A.  Major intersections on the Woodlands Trail are marked by posts bearing the letters A through F, and this hike passes posts A-B-F-E-D-C-B, and A in that order to follow the outermost loop.  Perhaps surprisingly, the trail just makes a sharp left turn at post A, and no other trails intersect at this post.
            Next the wide dirt trail descends gradually to enter Big Sandy Creek’s floodplain.  Some wooden bridges carry you over tributaries of Big Sandy Creek, and I had no trouble with wet areas on this part of the hike.  The dense alluvial forest features lots of sweet gum, oak, tupelo, and hornbeam trees.  My approach scared many squirrels into the brush, and although I could hear numerous woodland birds the dense forest prevented me from seeing many.
Reaching Post B
            At 1.2 miles, you top a small rise and reach post B, which marks the intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  Because I was worried about wetness along the creek, I wanted to hike the creekside portion of the loop first.  To execute this plan, I turned right here and used the route going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Several posted intersections including this one have benches that make nice places to sit and rest in the quiet woods.
            The trail quickly drops back to floodplain level, where it will stay for just over the next mile.  Some nice views of Big Sandy Creek emerge on the right; the creek was deep and muddy on my visit.  I passed a National Park Service team that was studying the floodplain’s plants in this area.  Otherwise, I passed only one other pair of hikers on this lightly-used hiker-only trail.
Hiking along Big Sandy Creek
            The creekside trail passes posts F and E, both of which offer opportunities to turn left and short-cut the loop.  After passing post E, trail conditions deteriorate as encumbering grass and fallen trees increase.  The Woodlands Trail is unmarked except for some old, faint white paint blazes, but I had no trouble staying on the trail.  At 2.3 miles, the trail curves sharply left as the wire fence marking the preserve’s northern boundary comes into view on the right.
            2.5 miles into the hike, you cross the wettest section of trail before beginning a moderate climb out of the floodplain.  The climb is not steep by any standard, but this area has more relief than you might expect for southeast Texas.  Some wooden waterbars are doing a good job of preventing trail erosion.
Hiking along the ridge
            Upon reaching the northwest corner of the preserve, the trail curves left to begin heading southeast along the preserve’s west boundary.  This part of the loop features some minor ups and downs along the ridge.  Beech, southern magnolia, and loblolly pines dominate the ridgetop.  Continue straight past posts D and C before returning to post B to close the loop.  Continue straight again and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the trailhead to complete the hike.

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