Best East Texas State Parks

For the Happy Hikers: Martin Dies Jr. State Park

Don't mind the alligators—no, seriously.

By Nick Esquer April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Please note: Martin Dies Jr. State Park has reopened after recent flooding, but some low-lying areas are still swampy and impassable.

“Warning: Alligators Present. Keep Watch.”

The sign was the first thing I saw when I arrived at the green grounds of Martin Dies Jr. State Park, an oak- and pine-filled plot of land between Woodville and Jasper in the Big Thicket. I couldn’t help wondering: Is this how I’m going to meet my maker, in the jaws of an East Texas reptile? A chat with a park ranger reduced my anxiety and, I imagined, that of my hiking companion—my Nova Scotia retriever, Gatsby.

Situated on the east side of B.A. Steinhagen Lake and bifurcated by Highway 190, the 705-acre park, though small, offers ample adventure opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to six wooded trails for hikers and bikers, there’s four paddling routes for canoes and kayaks.

The park also offers four campsites, and in the one where I set up my tent, I found the atmosphere convivial: Kids whizzed past on bikes, and neighbors waved hello, asked to pet Gatsby, and offered suggestions on which trails to hike. One foggy morning, I even asked for and received some sugar for my coffee.

The atmosphere along the park’s trails is also friendly. Most of the trails loop around through forests and swampland, depositing you right back where you began. My favorites: the mile-long Forest Trail, which was shrouded with a thick wall of mist on my visit, calling to mind a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, and the two-mile Slough Trail, which weaves along the glistening lake and provides picnic opportunities aplenty.

To Gatsby’s, and my own, relief, we didn’t come across any alligators on our hikes. But we did encounter ample opportunities to simply sit and observe, something we realized we hadn’t done much of lately—being stuck on 290 doesn’t count.

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Image: Nick Esquer

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