5 Things You Should Know About the Lone Star Hiking Trail

This originally appeared in The Trek.

When I moved to Houston 17 years ago I had to do some research to find a trail of any decent length.  There is the Ouachita Trail, which goes through Oklahoma and Arkansas, but it’s a day’s drive from home, so not super convenient for a one- or two-night trip. Eventually, I discovered the Lone Star Hiking Trail.  Although I have been chased away by mosquitoes, unnavigable ditches, and fire, it is “my” trail as long as I’m here in east Texas.

At 96 miles, the Lone Star is the longest continuous footpath in Texas (if you throw in the five loop trails it totals 128). Much of it is within the boundaries of the Sam Houston National Forest.  Its western terminus is near Richards, Texas, about 70-ish miles northwest of Houston and 40-ish miles east of College Station, home of Texas A&M. At the eastern terminus you’ll be near Cleveland, Texas.

Between the west and east endpoints, the trail heads north till about its halfway point, then heads south across very flat terrain that includes several road walks, one of which takes hikers alongside I-45. The trail is divided into 10 roughly equal sections.

1) It’s an ecological tapestry minded by humans.

On the LSHT you’ll find diverse ecosystems.  You may hike through a pine forest into a swampy area dotted with dwarf palmettoes.  As Karen Borski Somers says in the official guide, this is in large part because the Sam Houston National Forest is part of the Piney Woods ecological region. She writes, “the Piney Woods comprise a tapestry of interwoven ecological environments, each supporting different species.”

(By the way, that is the best guide to the Lone Star. The most recent edition came out just this year).

The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for land management in the forest.  Maintenance of the trail is provided by the volunteers of the Lone Star Hiking Club and the Houston Regional Group of the Sierra Club.

Palmettoes and hardwoods in Section 2
American Beautyberries are plentiful in Section 1.

2) It can be thru-hiked in a week – or less.

Vic Hay thru-hiked the Lone Star in October, hiking west to east with a friend.  She described her trip for me:

We started at Trailhead #1 and carried enough water for every 18-20 miles; at that interval, there’s potable water as indicated in the LSHT guide.  We did detour into Huntsville State Park for water and a shower; if not, we would have had to cache water in this area.  We each cached a gallon of water at the halfway point, Four Notch, and at the intersection of FS 202 and FS 207.

We camped and showered in Stubblefield Campground and Double Lake Recreation Center.  We camped in designated campsites because of hunting season.  We purposely avoided hunters’ camps because they were too close to the trailhead and roads; we saw a lot of trash and beer bottles as we passed by.  We heard lots of gunshots at night at some of the camps.  

How much we hiked each day depended on the weather.  During the three-day “warm front” we did about eight to 10 miles but when the cold front came, we did 15 to 16 miles a day.

The trails are easy and continuously well marked with silver blazes and well maintained, thanks to the volunteers. The hardest parts were the road walks – there are four of them!  The first one wasn’t bad and I kind of enjoyed it because, after miles on the trails, the road walk felt like a foot massage. But after the third one, we got hot spots and we decided to skip the fourth.

I printed out this guide.  I also downloaded Maprika, which I rarely referred to because the printed guide was sufficient. In my opinion, the guide is all you need to do the thru-hike.

The bridge at the east fork of the San Jacinto River is washed out as stated in the guide but there are ropes tied to the trees on both sides, so we decided to use that to cross instead of detouring.  We got soaked from the thunderstorm and the river!  Good thing our next camp was at Double Lake, where we were able to clean up and dry everything except our shoes.

Vic and her hiking buddy finished in eight days. I was supposed to go with them but it didn’t pan out, so I remain jealous as well as impressed.

Vic Hay on her recent thru-hike

I was similarly impressed by Jacob Evans, a 2018 Lone Star thru-hiker, a marathoner who finished the entire trail west to east in 58 hours, dodging angry dogs and a Bigfoot hunter in full camo.  The guy in camouflage may have been on to something…

3) It may be home to varmints and monsters.

I was on a group hike with LSHT Club members a couple of years ago.  When we stopped for a break we got to chatting.  I don’t recall the context, but one gentleman told me there are lots of “varmints” in the forest.  I was taken aback.  Having lived in New York, New Jersey, and Boston, I had only ever heard the word “varmint” used in a cartoon show. I asked him what a varmint was and he rattled off a list of animals including raccoons, feral hogs, squirrels, coyotes, and a couple of others that all seemed to me to have a place in the forest even if, like the feral hog, they aren’t native to east Texas.

But something was out there one night last year when I was camping solo in a primitive campground. In the middle of the night, I smelled something so foul it actually woke me up. I grabbed my mace and waited.  The smell abated and I heard nothing.

I fully expected to find a pile of scat outside my tent in the morning, but there was none.  Later, I asked in a Lone Star Facebook group if anyone had a guess as to what the source of the odor was, and I got a few unexpected answers.  Bigfoot was suggested, of course, but also a mythical creature I had never heard of called the Chupacabra.  And apparently, snakes sometimes give off a foul odor, and then there are skunks, and so on.  The mystery has yet to be solved, but I will be thinking of Chupacabra next time I’m out there all alone.

Approaching dusk in primitive campground #1, located in Section 9. Beware the smells of the night!

4) It gets smoky from time to time.

In the spring, prescribed burns are done throughout the Sam Houston National Forest.  Burns keep the forest healthy, but an experience last year gave me pause.

I was on my way to Section One for a hike and overnight stay.  As I came off the highway I saw an enormous cloud of smoke over the forest.  As I continued toward the trailhead I passed actively burning areas, in some places so hot I could feel the heat inside my car.

A huge cloud of smoke over the forest on a fateful day

I had been assured by the ranger’s office that the burning wouldn’t impact Section One, so I thought it would be safe.  But I had barely gotten 1/4 mile in when I saw billowing white smoke around a curve.  I stopped immediately and took a few minutes to decide what to do. While I didn’t see flames, the smoke didn’t stop. Finally, I had to accept that fire in the woods is not a good thing, so I left.

I found out on the evening news that a helicopter manned by fire personnel had crashed in the forest a few miles from me, causing one fatality. I got an accident report and synced up the timing of the incident to the timestamps on the photos I took there. It pretty much happened while I was there trying to figure out if the woods were safe. Weirdest trail day ever, and may the victim rest in peace.

5) It’s OK if you’re not into the backcountry.

If you’re not down with primitive backcountry camping, there are recreational centers where you can rent campsites with tent pads, picnic tables, a grill, and a real bathroom with sinks and flush toilets.  My husband and I recently rented just such a campsite at Double Lake Recreational Center, where there is an entrance to the Lone Star Trail.  Stubblefield Recreational Area on Lake Conroe is also popular.  I may just talk him into backcountry camping, but how soon I don’t yet know.

Hubby at the Double Lake campground. He may or may not be having fun.