Also known as the Piney Woods region because of its towering trees, East Texas has a variety of natural attractions that draw visitors from across the country. Although East Texas' distinction is strictly cultural and environmental, and not geopolitical, it generally refers to the area located between the Louisiana border to the east and the Trinity River, or Interstate 45, to the west. The region encompasses 41 counties and includes the cities of Beaumont, Tyler, Longview, Lufkin, Marshall, Palestine, Henderson, Jacksonville, and Mount Pleasant. In addition to the area's natural beauty, East Texas is also home to the oldest town in Texas, Nacogdoches, the Texas State Railroad, and numerous historic sites as well as a number of attractions perfect for the whole family.
East Texas' "Big Thicket" was the first area in the United States to be dedicated as a National Preserve. Covering over 100,000 acres, the Big Thicket National Preserve is home to a diverse group of plants and animals and plays host to thousands of nature enthusiasts annually. Although portions of the Big Thicket National Preserve are spread across seven counties in East Texas, the visitor center is located approximately 30 miles north of Beaumont and eight miles north of Kountze, Texas, along U.S. Route 69 / Highway 287.
Visitors to Big Thicket National Preserve have the option of enjoying several outdoor recreational activities including camping, hiking, jogging, mountain biking, birding, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Visitors here always come away amazed at the massive cypress trees and the myriad of wildlife contained within the preserve.
While East Texas is best known for its trees, it is also renowned for its flowers, and among the most celebrated flowers in the region is the azalea. Each year there are several azalea trails and festivals staged throughout East Texas. Among the most popular are the Tyler Azalea Trail, the Jasper Azalea Festival, and the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden in Nacogdoches.
Held from mid-March through early April, the Tyler Azalea Trail consists of two separate routes, the Lindsey Trail and the Dobbs Trail, and the official ribbon cutting and opening ceremony for the three-week event takes place at a home in Tyler each year. Meanwhile, the Jasper Azalea Festival is an event hosted by the Jasper-Lake Sam Rayburn Area Chamber of Commerce in front of the Jasper County Courthouse in March. Featuring live entertainment, vendors selling handcrafted goods, and a classic car show, this day-long event centers around a celebration of springtime and fresh flowers.
Texas' largest azalea garden, though, is found on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Known as the Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden, this expansive nature preserve is home to over 7,000 azaleas plus 25 miles of azalea trails through residential and historic districts of the city.
Running between Palestine and Rusk, the Texas State Railroad uses steam engines to run the rails just as they have since 1896. However, instead of moving timber and other cargo, these days the Texas State Railroad takes passengers on a scenic trip through the Piney Woods of East Texas. Tours on the Texas State Railroad are particularly popular during spring when the flowers are in full bloom. In fact, the Texas State Railroad is an official (and important) part of the annual Dogwood Trails Celebration. The combination of nostalgia, natural scenery, and historic charm makes a trip on the Texas State Railroad the highlight of any East Texas vacation.
Nacogdoches, which was founded in 1779, lays claim to the title the oldest town in Texas. Originally a Spanish settlement, Nacogdoches is a surprisingly dynamic town both for its historical importance and the wide variety of attractions you'll find there.
The town is located close to the famous Caddo Indian Mounds, Lake Nacogdoches, Lake Sam Rayburn, and is home to Stephen F. Austin University, named in honor of the "Father of Texas." Other worthwhile, nearby attractions include the Ellen Trout Zoo in Lufkin, the Fortney Home shopping destination, and the Historic Town Center known as the Charles Bright Visitor Center.
Outdoor recreation is big in East Texas and no outdoor activity is bigger than bass fishing. The East Texas Region is home to no fewer than three of the top bass lakes in the nation and has countless smaller and lesser-known lakes scattered across its landscape:
- Sam Rayburn Reservoir: Located in Angelina County about 70 miles north of Beaumont, this 114,500-square-mile lake is known for its huge population of largemouth bass and popular fishing tournaments throughout the year.
- Lakes Fork Reservoir: Located in Wood, Rains, and Hopkins counties, this 43-square-mile lake is located five miles northwest of Quitman and is well-stocked with largemouth bass, white and black crappie, channel catfish, white bass, and sunfish.
- Toledo Bend Reservoir: This 289-square-mile reservoir is the largest manmade lake in the southern United States and is located on the border of Texas and Louisiana approximately 24 miles northeast of Jasper, Texas.
- Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center (TFFC): Combining visitation and outdoor education, this fish hatchery in Athens, Texas, provides entertaining visitor experiences for guests of all ages.
The East Texas town of Tyler claims the title of Rose Capital of the Nation. It is estimated one-half of the rose bushes found in the United States are packaged and shipped from this area. Tyler's amazing rose garden, which blooms from March until the first frost each year, boasts 40,000 rose bushes representing 500 varieties of roses. Tyler also hosts an annual Rose Festival each October and is home to the Rose Museum.
Located about 85 miles east of Houston, the city of Beaumont is the site of the first oil discovery in Texas and home to a number of other historic attractions and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors by hunting, fishing, camping, and interacting with live alligators.
Popular visitor attractions in Beaumont include the Beaumont Botanical Gardens, the McFaddin-Ward House, the Texas Energy Museum, the Fire Museum of Texas, and the Saint Anthony Cathedral. While you're there, be sure to explore the rich food culture of Beaumont, which puts together Louisiana seafood specialties like crawfish with Texas staples like brisket and country fried steak.
Held on the Thursday through Sunday before the first Monday of every month, the First Monday Trade Days is considered the largest free flea market in the United States. Located in Canton, which is approximately 60 miles southeast of Dallas on Interstate 20, this popular flea market attracts more than 100,000 shoppers over the four-day weekend and provides space for over 6,000 vendors in more than 700,000 square feet of covered shopping areas. Here, visitors can buy directly from various home decor and furnishing shops, jewelry makers, antique vendors, clothing stores, and more.
Located in the city of Carthage, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame celebrates the contributions of Texans to country music. Since its inception in 1998, this unique museum and performance space has become a popular destination for fans of the genre. Throughout the year, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the nearby Tex Ritter Museum host a variety of festivals and events including the Classic Country Music Festival and the John Ritter Tribute Showcase, which both take place in August each year.
The small town of Edom is located a short drive west of Tyler toward Ben Wheeler and Canton. It's home to a number of great art galleries, restaurants, and boutique shops where you can buy locally made crafts. Additionally, Edom hosts a variety of music and arts events including the annual Edom Arts Festival every October and you can also stop by the Two-Step Tuesday event every Tuesday night or the Thursday Night Music Circle every Thursday evening for some local entertainment throughout the year.
Located halfway between Tyler and Carthage, the city of Henderson is full of history, art, and outdoor adventures. The active Henderson Main Street Program features a variety of antique stores and historic markers in the Downtown Historic Square as well as a number of upscale shopping, dining, and arts destinations around the area. Throughout the year, you'll also find great events in Henderson including the Heritage Syrup Festival during the second Saturday in November, the Antique Tractor Show, an annual Fourth of July Parade, and the Downtown at Christmas Festival throughout the month of December.
Often called the "Tomato Capital of the World," the town of Jacksonville, Texas, is also home to a 300-acre nature reserve known as the Cherokee Trace Drive-Thru Safari where you can see all sorts of wildlife including zebras, the African longhorn cow, and blackbucks (Indian antelope). You can take a self-guided drive through the park and feed some of the animals while you're there. Afterward, make sure you stop by the "World's Largest Bowl of Salsa" if you're visiting during Tomato Fest, which takes place in June each year. Nearby, you can also find plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation at Lake Jacksonville, which covers 1,320 acres just three miles southwest of the city.
Located east of Tyler and southwest of Longview, the city of Kilgore originally started as an oil boomtown that consisted of just one downtown city block and the highest density of oil derricks in the United States. For a chance to learn more about the history of oil in the region, stop by the East Texas Oil Museum on the campus of Kilgore College, which depicts the people and towns of the oil boom. Also on the Kilgore College campus, the world-famous Kilgore Rangerettes dance and drill team performs throughout the year. Visit the Rangerette Showcase and Museum to see displays of props, costumes, and thousands of photographs and newspaper clippings from the team's illustrious history.
The city of Longview, located just 45 miles from the border of Louisiana in northeast Texas, is packed with entertainment for all ages. You can go golfing at the Challenge at Oak Forest, visit either the Gregg County Historical Museum or the Longview Museum of Fine Arts, drink wine at Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards, or enjoy some classical music at either the Longview Symphony, Opera East Texas, or the Longview Ballet Theatre. If you're visiting in June, be sure to check out the Great Texas Balloon Race, which earned Longview the title of the "Balloon Capital of Texas" and runs daily balloon flights over Longview, Kilgore, the East Texas Regional Airport, and the surrounding area throughout the event.
Located just southeast of the town of Athens in the unincorporated area known as New York, the New York Texas Zipline Adventure is a perfect way to explore the Piney Woods region of the state. Each tour of the tree canopies lasts between one and a half and two hours and takes guests along six to nine zipline tracks, including a 1,500-foot line with two cable sky bridges that lead up to a 40-foot zip tower.
Located just east of Longview and just west of the Louisiana border, the city of Marshall is also known as the Cultural Capital of East Texas thanks to its large support of the arts community and historical preservation of its many landmarks and buildings. Founded in 1841, Marshall is home to the Harrison County Courthouse, the Michelson Museum, the Visual Arts Center, and the Marshall Depot, which houses the Texas and Pacific Railway Museum, Amtrak Ticket Office, and the Texas and Pacific "Train of Fame" exhibit. Attractions in the town include horse-drawn buggy rides, touring busses, and more than 100 historical markers and medallions. During Christmastime, the city is also home to the largest light festival in the country, "Wonderland of Lights," which is the original and largest Christmas festival in Texas.
In addition to being Rose Capital of the United States, Tyler offers a wide variety of attractions for visitors young and old. It's home to the Tyler Museum of Art, the Caldwell Zoo, the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum, the CESSE Planetarium at Tyler Junior College, Lake Tyler, Lake Palestine, as well as the Discovery Science Place and the East Texas Symphony. In September, Tyler plays host to the East Texas State Fair, which has dozens of carnival-style rides, vendors, and attractions.
Although found across the state of Texas throughout the year, rodeos are especially popular in East Texas from February through May. From the PBR Global Cup in Arlington each February to the Santa Rosa Roundup in Vernon each May, you'll have no shortage of these exciting events to attend across the region. In March, Seguin hosts the Kiss n Kick Rodeo, Waco hosts the WPRA Elite Extravaganza, Caldwell hosts the Lone Star Little Britches Rodeo, and Nacogdoches hosts the Pro Rodeo and Steer Show. Later in April, you can stop by the Longview PRCA Rodeo, the Angelina County Benefit Rodeo in Lufkin, or the 1836 Chuckwagon Race in Palestine.
Full of rich history, the city of Palestine is a great destination for family fun in East Texas. Located about 35 miles south of Athens, Palestine is home to the Texas State Railroad, the Museum For East Texas Culture, and Dogwood Junction Family Fun Park, which has miniature golf, go-karts, and a variety of other family entertainment attractions. You can also explore the Curious Museum, a hands-on attraction based on San Francisco's famous Exploratorium, where the exhibits focus on forces and motion, magnetism, electricity, geometry, light, color, and life.
Located in Harrison County along the shores of Lake Caddo, the city of Uncertain is often referred to as the "Best Kept Secret in Texas" thanks to the variety of attractions you'll find in this remote town. Nearby, you can explore Caddo Lake State Park and Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge as well as the cities of Jefferson and Marshall, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Here, you can spend your time fishing on the lake, hunting from the duck blinds, or boating through the cypress trees. In this small wilderness-surrounded town, there are even rustic log cabins and several bed and breakfasts you can stay in.