story and photography by Don Mills[Texas Motorcycle Rides: The Texas Forest Trail was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the June 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
It’s spring along the Texas Forest Trail, a 1,000-mile ribbon of two-lane asphalt that winds through East Texas. Mystical dogwoods lace the dark stands of hardwood forest like filigree. Regiments of towering pine trees barricade the hills and garnish picturesque valleys sprinkled with lakes, gemlike and secluded.
From Pittsburg, Texas, in the northeast to Conroe, just north of Houston, the Trail wanders through historic towns like Nacogdoches (reputed to be the oldest town in Texas) and Jefferson (once a major seaport). State and national parks, such as Big Thicket, Davy Crockett and Mission-Tejas, bracket the Trail’s route. Native American reservations, such as Alabama-Coushatta, offer camping and fishing facilities. Campgrounds, fishing camps, B&Bs and inns from luxurious to rustic abound in the areas around Lake Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, Lake of the Pines and Caddo Lake (Texas’ only natural lake). Pine Creek Lodge, for example, located deep in the Piney Woods on FM 2782 between Lake Nacogdoches and historic downtown Nacogdoches, is primarily a B&B on steroids, offering outlying lodges and cottages trimmed with large decks and covered porches (great for bike parking), a swimming pool and hot tub as well as a “common-room” cottage for group gatherings. Finger-lickin’ dinners will be prepared with advance reservations.
The Trail is like an illustrated storybook forever being rewritten. Ever-changing panoramas appear just over the crest of a hill. Batteries of linked turns string out mile after mile, chameleonlike, through hallways of hardwoods and stalwart pines. Small cafés inhabited with folks who love to visit with strangers are tucked away on quiet streets of old towns that Wal-Mart forgot. These anachronisms serve up comfort food like hamburgers with fries, catfish and hushpuppies and chicken fried steaks with fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy with biscuits and freshly brewed ice-tea…places like The Shed Café or Edom Bakery & Grill, Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club in Jefferson, Big Pines Lodge near Uncertain and Faustos in San Augustine.
Friendly folks are a hallmark along the Trail. We paused at a Catholic Church in Jacksonville to see a reputedly magnificent crucifix. It was a Sunday morning and the parking lot teemed with parishioners. No sooner had we dismounted than the Rector of the Parish hurried out to meet us uttering things like, “My God, my prayers have been answered…BMW motorcycles!” The Rev Mark Kusmirek gave us a personal tour of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, including a photo-op of the Crucifix, then plied us with coffee and pastries in the Parish Hall. You can’t miss the church because it’s at the top end of FM 768, known by the locals as the Queen of Motorcycle Roads, a string of technical, directional reversals between Rusk and Jacksonville that display the effects of varying road surfaces (including mud and gravel in some turns), elevations with distracting views and trees up-close and personal.
The Trail is a perfect launching pad for exploring scenic and challenging roads, the historic sites in East Texas, and enjoying the “health food” along the way. Many riders depart Dallas before the rush hour to breakfast at Ruby’s in Greenville. From there, it’s a backroad warm-up to reach the northern portion of the Trail. FM 852, connecting Winnsboro with Gilmer, should be savored both directions before merging with the Trail into Pittsburg. The town breathes “money,” loaded as it is with beautifully restored homes and a renovated downtown area. The towering silos of Bo Pilgrim’s chicken business symbolize the major source of “the money.” He’s the guy who “just won’t sell fat, yellow chickens.” Slipping out of town on FM 557 avoids straight roads and ties back into the Trail along FM 729, one of the special roads in the area that ripple along the north side of Lake-of-the-Pines on the way to Jefferson.
Much of note has been written about Jefferson, but nothing captures the romance of this former bustling river port like being there, staying in one of its 50 or so B&Bs or in one of its haunted hotels. The Excelsior House, built in 1852, is the second-oldest continuously operating hotel in Texas and the rumor is rampant that Steven Speilberg and crew departed the premises prematurely one morning at 3 a.m., allegedly driven out by paranormal phenomena. More about the mysterious side of Jefferson is described during regularly guided evening Ghost Walks.
Dawdle over a long lunch at Auntie Skinner’s Riverboat Club on Austin Street. Its menu and live entertainment attract riders from all over the state and Louisiana. Finish lunch with a visit to The Bakery, just up the street, for its signature Sinful Brownies, apricot tarts and macaroons.
The Trail winds eastward from Jefferson toward Caddo Lake. A slight diversion east of SH 43 on FM 2198 leads past the entry to Caddo Lake State Park, then dead-ends in the village named Uncertain. Legend has it that the early hunters and fishermen who set up camps in the area were “uncertain” of arriving there on any given outing, allegedly due to local flooding, wild Indians and the random outlaw or two, thus the name. There are many cabins for rent in the area, B&Bs and the Uncertain Motel located on the bank of a portion of Caddo Lake that looks like it might at any moment cough up an 8-foot gator. The Big Pines Lodge, also located on a finger of the lake, provides a memorable dining experience, principally catfish, steaks and incredible jalapeno hush puppies. Crips Camp serves breakfast…one simply orders by saying, “Breakfast, please,” and a polite wait-person then brings you sausage, eggs, grits and toast.
We often depart southeastward from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and catch breakfast at the Cotton Gin in Crandall, or the Edom Bakery & Grill. Both are worthwhile destinations but this route enables us to ride FM 314 and 315 from Edom to Palestine, picking up the Trail along the way in Poynor. Sadly, Judy’s Kountry Kitchen in Poynor (home of the colossal fried pies) has closed. A tornado recently took out much of the town. As you ride through, say a little prayer. Maybe someone will rebuild.
Palestine, the second oldest city in Texas, is like a grand, old, Southern lady, boasting more than 1,300 historic homes and other buildings softened by magnolias and dogwoods. Wandering around the area searching for food, we were once “set upon” by two local ladies (mother and daughter) who wanted to just “touch” a real BMW motorcycle. Rose, the daughter, exclaimed as she made contact with “Sirius Black” my R1150RT, “Lord, this is it…Momma, I’ve just touched the Hummer of motorcycles!” The two of them subsequently directed us to Shep’s Barbecue not far away. It provided “Ma and Pa” home cookin’, but the parking lot, mostly inhabited by pickups, offered soft sand, especially under the trees.
Several excellent routes roll south out of Palestine and eventually hook up with the Trail. A minor diversion eastward on TX 21 leads to Weches, Texas, and Mission Tejas State Park. The gate ranger allowed us to ride through free on the narrow, winding, asphalt “stairway” up to the replica log mission, originally consecrated by the Spanish in 1690. The Spanish considered the local Nabadache Indians, called “Tejas,” one of the significant tribes along the El Camino Real De Los Tejas, which ran from what is Nachitoches, Louisiana, into the arid desert lands of Mexico.
Adjacent to Mission Tejas, the Davy Crockett National Forest–the largest in the state–harbors Ratcliff Lake Recreation Area. Festivals throughout the year and free “Summer Nights” entertainment are presented by the Piney Woods Fine Arts Association. Naturally there’s an Old Town in Crockett where ubiquitous Texas barbecue is served accompanied with live music amidst replica old buildings and museums. Farther south, approaching Conroe, many of “the brethren” strafe FMs 1791 and 149 southwest of Huntsville, before commuting over Lake Conroe on FM 1097 to eat dinner at Leroy’s in Willis.
Dense morning fog can play havoc with schedules in this area, sometimes hanging around until after 10 a.m. Skittish of confrontations with deer and other sizeable wildlife along the densely wooded Trail, I delay departures, ride slowly and otherwise take all precautions. Once upon a foggy morning northeast of Conroe, we had to circumnavigate a capsized pickup and horse trailer (empty) and a long line of waiting cars that materialized from the mists on TX 150. Around 10:30 a.m. the sun broke its fetters and smiled as we engaged the kinks of TX 224 along the west boundary of Lake Livingston. After admiring the livestock on the other side of the lake around Onalaska, we struck out for Lake Sam Rayburn, arriving in time for lunch at “Stumps,” home of the largest, real chicken fried steak I’ve found in Texas. My son, Scott, opted for what turned out to be a “find” in the form of a jumbo catfish sandwich dressed with unexpected ingredients. You can’t miss it if you take Park Road R255 eastward across the dam and turn north on FM 1007. Look for a parking lot filled with pickups mated to bass boats.
There you have a “taste” of what it’s like to ride the Texas Forest Trail, spanning four national and five state forests, crossing and shadowing more lakes and rivers than you’d care to count, passing through some of Texas’ oldest, historic and colorful towns, all of which sponsor festivals for every occasion throughout the year. Then there’s the multitude of Farm-to-Market roads that make up the Trail, or are tangential to it. They spiral, wave and interlace like the fronds of a gigantic wisteria vine. In fact, some of the routes I’ve discovered while riding with close friends are so attractive that I’ve been sworn to secrecy regarding their exact whereabouts. However, anyone who diligently rides the Trail will undoubtedly stumble onto most of them.