National Public Lands Day first started in 1994 and is traditionally the single largest day for volunteer efforts, many of the events taking place on public lands like Big Thicket National Preserve. Over the past five years, Big Thicket has been quietly growing and diversifying its program schedule, including National Public Lands Day. We have also been busy preparing for the upcoming 50th anniversary.
By the end of September, we finally are at that magical time of the year in southeast Texas, when the temperature has turned from oven-hot down to something a little less uncomfortable. It may be just a few degrees cooler, but it’s enough to make us want to go outside to celebrate National Public Lands Day, which is September 23rd this year. That event is a great way for volunteers at Big Thicket to help staff get ready for fall recreation season.
National Public Lands Day at Big Thicket include multiple events, some ranger-led and some self-directed, all designed to help clean up and get ready for the beautiful fall weather. Trash clean-ups at launch areas on the various water ways are popular with visitors and give them a meaningful project to work on, with an almost immediate reward of a clean area. Big Thicket has also benefitted from volunteers who have helped start multiple native plant and pollinator gardens in different areas of the preserve. Last National Public Lands Day, volunteers alongside the preserve’s resource management crew worked on starting a new native plant and pollinator garden at the Field Research Station, a space that is used by conservation crews and researchers visiting Big Thicket. This year, volunteers will help re-vitalize the native plant garden in front of the visitor center. This project will not only benefit the surrounding ecosystem but will also serve as a beautiful feature of the preserve’s first 50th anniversary kickoff event, a solar eclipse party October 14th.
Big Thicket National Preserve covers 113,000 acres across seven counties between Woodville and Beaumont. The preserve is made up of 9 separate land units and 6 water corridors, which give locals and visitors lots of areas to visit, without having to pay for a visit. There are more than 40 miles of established hiking trails, many more miles of unmarked trails, and over 300 miles of waterways on Village Creek and the Neches River to paddle on and fish in.
The visitor center is a great place to start your visit and is located just 7 miles north of Kountze. It is open seven days a week, from 9 AM – 5 PM. There you can watch a short film about the history of the preserve and its people, learn about the unique biological diversity found within the preserve, and get the most up-to-date information from a park ranger or volunteer of conditions out on the trails with maps and brochures. Kids, and kids at heart, can take part in the Junior Ranger program and earn their very own ranger badge.
Ranger-led programming at Big Thicket centers around the experiences that make Big Thicket special. This includes walks during the summer designed to be short but informative, to off the beaten hikes during the winter, that give visitors chances to explore part of the Thicket that are not well-known. A year-round stapple of the program schedule include ranger-led paddle programs. Big Thicket provides the canoes, paddles and lifejackets so visitors just need to bring their sense of adventure and of course, water! By giving visitors the chance to learn more about the preserve from the perspective of the waterways and taking away the barriers of owning a canoe or kayak, rangers hope to inspire a more stewardship-focused perspective for those who visit.
For those visitors who are looking to really go off the beaten path, back-country camping is a popular option during the cooler months. The evenings are comfortably cool, the bugs have mostly disappeared, and a few of the trees, like the cypress, change colors with the season and are beautiful to view. Multi-day paddle trips give visitors the chance to sleep on a sandbar while listening to the sound of the creek or river. All backcountry camping trips require a free permit, which can be issued at the visitor center.
One of the more unique parts of being a preserve, is that hunting is allowed in certain units. Big Thicket staff issue over 750 permits each year, free of cost, which allows for hunters to enjoy their sport, without paying thousands of dollars to hunt on a private lease. Hunters who hunt at Big Thicket can legally harvest deer, hog, squirrel, rabbit, and waterfowl following calendar dates and regulations issued by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
In even more exciting news, our 50th birthday is starting soon! Beginning with our 49th anniversary this October, Big Thicket will start a year of celebrations, culminating the at Big Thicket’s 50th Anniversary as a National Park site in October of 2024. Many of the preserve’s annual events, like Junior Ranger Day, Planting Days and National Public Lands Day will continue, with the addition of new events throughout the year. Western National Parks Association has been a strong partner as staff gets ready for the celebrations, including assisting with the design of the logo and a new Junior Ranger Book that will be available in 2024. It’s not every day a park site turns 50 and Big Thicket is looking forward to the celebration.
By: Megan Urban
Chief of Interpretation and Education, Big Thicket National Preserve