Hiking in southeast Texas in June. Was I deranged or just really desperate to get out?
Maybe a little bit of both.
On top of that, I got a late start. Cocooned in maximum AC, I drove the hour and a half from Houston to Silsbee, ignorant of the temperatures outside and heat to come.
But I had set my mind to it; I wanted to explore the trails of the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary.
While the name evokes simulacrums of either Disney World or the Playboy Mansion, it is absolutely neither. It’s a small stretch of wilderness that protects important habitats within the grander Big Thicket area. At its center lies long leaf pine forest, a rich ecosystem that has mostly disappeared throughout the southern United States. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the property.
For hikers with severe arachnophobia, this may not be the ideal path.
Village Creek meanders along the border of the preserve for nearly eight miles. The 5,561 acres also harbor floodplain forest of water oaks, sweet gums, and cypress. Steep slopes rising from the river bed are covered in beech, magnolias, and loblolly pines.
I arrived just after 9 a.m., and the last pockets of cool morning air evaporated quickly as I readied my backpack. Three trails in the preserve offer a little bit more than six miles of walking.
I headed through open pine forest and took the first turn onto the Floodplain Trail, which plunged down a steep slope toward Village Creek. The temperatures became more bearable as a dense canopy shadowed fern-lined ponds, bamboo thickets and cypress swamps.
Mammoth trees reached out of view. Thick spider webs stretching across the narrow trail every 20 feet evidenced that no one had wandered here recently — and no one probably would. For hikers with severe arachnophobia, this may not be the ideal path. For individuals with mild cases, it’s a great place to challenge the fear.
I worked my way deeper into the forest. Tree frogs, birds, and crackling leaves drowned out any noise of civilization. Suddenly, a deer coughed and dashed off into the underbrush. I spotted a spring fawn, russet colored, with neat rows of white spots. It stared at me before following its mother.
I took a rehydration break before continuing on the Sandyland Loop, the longest trail at the preserve. It was no surprise I hadn’t seen anybody else out on the trail — nor did I expect to. A lazy breeze shifted the hot air, scented with pine and wildflowers. Even in the ongoing drought, a few flowers still bloomed. The sandy soils created arid habitats, and among the long leaf pines grew prickly pear and yucca.
With sparse shade from the scattered trees, the heat became intense past noon, baking the dirt trail. I veered left towards the central ponds, which were nearly dry, but still had a dense ring of leafy green cypress and hardwoods growing around them. I stoically trudged on, hoping that the trail completed a loop. Thankfully, it did.
Returning to a cooler section of the forest, I gave in to the climate and found a good place to sit and rest. Life continued around me, even at 104 degrees. Butterflies swung through the trees on frantic wings, while skinks shuffled through the leaf litter. Even a squirrel risked an excursion to some low branches. Looking up into a cloudless sky, I noticed several vultures floating effortlessly on rising thermals and realized, yes, it was time to drag myself back to the car.
Sandyland Sanctuary, just west of Silsbee, is an ideal place for hikers tired of stepping off the trail at Huntsville State Park to let mountain bikers pass — or anybody seeking some true peace and quiet. It’s also great for photography, with an abundance of wildflowers and other rare plants. Guided tours are offered by reservation when you contact the Nature Conservancy.