cooks lake to scatterman lake paddling trail texas big thicket

You need to visit these places in East Texas

When people hear ‘Texas,’ they think of the Wild West, the Cowboys, cattle, dust, and oil. But nestled on the eastern side of the state, bordering Louisana, is a near-polar opposite world – though there is plenty of oil and likely lots of Cowboys fans. East Texas has forests, rivers, colorful swamps, beautiful birds, and even gators.

Talk about some of the best vacation destinations in Texas! While the places to see in East Texas are too numerous to do in a day, they provide for one helluva road trip. The focal point is Big Thicket National Preserve and the stunning beauty it offers to so many guests.

As with any Texas road trip, you have to start somewhere, and for this one, the bustling city of Houston is your home base. Filled with wonderful people and delicious Texas BBQ (seriously, I want to go back for it), it’s a great place to spend a day/night before embarking on your trip.

While in Houston, we enjoyed walking around Buffalo Bayou Park, which has a gorgeous view of the Houston skyline at sunset.

The Ultimate Guide to Places to See in East Texas

houston texas buffalo bayou park texas road trip

What to know about a Texas road trip

  • Driving days aren’t too bad. Maybe two hours max per day. However, Houston traffic is known for being congested. Plan extra time coming back into the city. However, it’s a pretty mild Texas road trip overall.
  • Once you leave major metro areas, however, food can get scarce. So make sure to bring snacks from a grocery store and plan your meals.
  • East Texas’s climate is far different than the rest of the state. Expect humid conditions and possibly rain.
  • Pinkerton’s BBQ is the real deal. But be warned; you’ll likely spend $30 without trying.
  • Some of the places to see in East Texas take cash only. Come ready.
  • If you’re coming from the west coast, New England, or the Eastern Seaboard, gas prices will be shockingly low.
  • Big Thicket National Preserve is amazing, providing some great photo opportunities and adventuring. Definitely one of the best places to see in East Texas.
houston texas vacation destinations in Texas

My favorite places to see in East Texas

Huntsville State Park

Seventy minutes north of Houston lies Huntsville State Park. Ripe with hiking, boating, fishing, camping, and mountain biking opportunities, this is a gold mine for outdoor enthusiasts and one of the best places to see in East Texas.

I enjoyed spending time on the piers, watching an alligator swim below and cranes fly just feet above the water. We also explored the Prairie Branch Loop Trail to the Headwater Boardwalks. As it’s a loop, my brother and I started on the trail that parallels the lake and returned on the “normal” path.

In all, it’s about 2.3 miles round trip and suitable for the entire family.

View the State Park hiking map here.

huntsville state park texas vacation destinations in Texas

Lone Star Hiking Trail

Spanning 129 miles across Texas is the Lone Star Hiking Trail, offering outdoors lovers a place to hike, backpack, or thru-trek nearly year-round. Unfortunately, we only did a small section of it, just north of Conroe and south of Huntsville State Park. This area was gorgeous, with thousands and thousands of trees erupting from the soil to the sky.

I wish I could point you to the ‘best’ place, but that’s what makes this fun. Find a section that looks good and tackle it! Regardless of the views, you’ll be better off adding this to your Texas road trip.

For those curious about thru-hiking, here’s a good guide.

places to see in east texas
lone star hiking trail vacation destinations in Texas

Exploring the Incredible Big Thicket National Preserve

Kirby Nature Trail

Minutes from the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center, the Kirby Nature Trail is the most popular trail in the park. The trail is a figure eight, allowing you to do two small loops or one big loop before returning home. Make sure to add this to your vacation destinations in Texas for this year!

I took the left loop to see the slough, though it was dry during my November visit. If you do the left side and go clockwise, you’ll also reach a bridge with a creek below it. While you can keep hiking further in for more solitude, we stopped here and headed back.

kirby nature trail Big Thicket National Preserve
places to see in east texas Big Thicket National Preserve vacation destinations in Texas

Cooks Lake to Scatterman Paddling Trail

This was the highlight of the Texas road trip and one of the places to see in East Texas and Big Thicket National Preserve. This paddling trail is among the top-ranked in the United States, and for a good reason. We spent over three hours in the water and saw one other kayak and two boats. I call that a perfect day in nature. Our loop brought us next to hundred-year-old Cyprus’ stunning fall colors and magical, dreamy reflections. And best of all, it’s not hard. The water is calm and easy to navigate in the river and swamp. If you want to get your family into nature, this is the place to do it.

Our route: We went clockwise from our launch point at the Confluence Boat Ramp. I recommend working with Gerald at Big Thicket Outfitters. He will give you all the details you need for a perfect outing. In all, it was $100 for two kayaks. More than reasonable, in my view.

cooks lake to scatterman lake paddling trail texas big thicket texas road trip
texas paddling trail what to do in east texas Big Thicket National Preserve

After kayaking for hours in Big Thicket National Preserve, we were starving and headed to Beaumont and grabbed some food at JWilson’s. (The habanero jelly pork belly put me on cloud nine).

Village Creek Paddling Trail

This is another classic Big Thicket paddling trail and an East Texas gem, but we didn’t get a chance to do it. The route is 21 miles, but it’s a chose-your-own-adventure style, and you can go however far you want to. You can rent from the Village Creek State Park staff if you do this one.

Related: Finding Gators in Texas

Gator Swamp Tour

When you’re near gators, you might as well make sure you see some! To make this happen, we headed east to Orange, TX, for our gator swamp tour with Swamp and River Tours. It’s about 25 minutes of easy highway driving from Beaumont.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but by the end of the tour, I was enamored with the alligators and thankful we could swing the trip. I’d never seen a huge gator before, but the last one we saw was more massive than I could imagine.

Seeing it so close was striking. Again, for the two of us, it was $100, including tip.

gator tour east texas gems Big Thicket National Preserve texas road trip
what to see in east texas  Big Thicket National Preserve

What to do in East Texas – 4-Day Texas Road Trip Itinerary

Day 1: Land in Houston. Grab BBQ for lunch. Check into the hotel. Visit Buffalo Bayou Park for sunset. Then, head to dinner at Southern Yankee Beer, Co.

Day 2: Let”s start our Texas road trip. Grabbed breakfast to go from Snooze. Drove 70 minutes north to Huntsville State Park, where we hiked and photographed. Headed south 15 minutes to the Lone Star Hiking Trailhead #6. Drove 100 mins to the Big Thicket National Preserve and our lodging, Cabins in the Thicket. (You can find other nearby hotels here.)

Day 3: After waking up before sunrise, we drove an hour to our paddling trip near Vidor, TX. Enjoyed lunch at JWilson’s in Beaumont. Checked out the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center and hiked the Kirby Nature Trail. Grabbed dinner at Mama Jack’s. (Seafood buffet… I hope you like fried foods!)

Day 4: Final day of our Texas road trip. Headed to Village Creek State Park for a quick walk. Drove 50 minutes to the Swamp and River Tours, which lasted 90+ minutes. Then we returned to Houston for our flight out.

Wrapping up my Texas road trip guide

While I love my mountains and alpine lakes, I’ve been looking for new destinations and unique experiences, and exploring these East Texas gems sure fits the bill. These places to see in East Texas will give you tons of photographs, memories, and hopefully a couple of gators too!

Now that you know what to do in East Texas, it’s time to book your adventure! I know you’ll have a great time finding solitude and connection with nature while on your Texas road trip.

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

Subscribe to my blog!

New to hiking? My guide will get you up to speed!

Follow my adventures on TikTokFacebook, and Instagram.

Are you an outdoors brand or tourism board and would like to work together? Please take a look at my photography portfolio here.