Written by Diana Rowe. Photographs by Diana Rowe.
Beaumont, Texas, you ask? Why yes, and one of the many experiences that makes a visit to this East Texas town worthwhile IS paddling the Neches River, a popular river in the Big Thicket National Preserve. But it’s more than that…it’s the solitude, the exhilarating beauty of the river and the welcoming spirit of the residents. Say yes to Beaumont, Texas and Paddling the Neches River.
Beaumont is on the border of Louisiana, but most definitely all about Texas. Sharing the border with Louisiana gives this city a dash of the Cajun culture infused with its Lone Star State big attitude. Think Brisket and crawfish, Gulf waters with mysterious bayous, sweeping pine and cedar trees with lowland plains and fields. And gators too. And then there’s the Big Thicket National Preserve and one of its most popular waterways, the Neches River.
Pontoon boat skimming across the Neches River, courtesy of the Big Thicket Outfitters in Beaumont, Texas.
And this is where I stepped onto a boat for a Beaumont paddling adventure, courtesy of Big Thicket Outfitters and Beaumont CVB. The ecologically diverse Neches River is home to more than 200 tree species, 47 mammals, 300 birds, and many reptiles and amphibians.
But more than all that…as we motor-boated in mid-March in the river, slightly swollen due to spring rains, the silence and beauty of amazing Mother Nature was simply awe-inspiring.
Our river guide was Gerald Cerda from Big Thicket Outfitters, born and raised canoeing on the Neches River and among the thousands of acres of the Big Thicket, as well as canoeing all over the world. I couldn’t resist his infectious love of this area and passion for this area.
As we skimmed across the water, Cerda told stories of his childhood, camping, canoeing and exploring the river, and said, “Natural history surrounds the Big Thicket. Such as Stephen F. Austin considered to be the first to map the Fern Forest in the early 1800s. Lasting memories and one-of-a-kind experiences are here — just look around!”
Cerda’s passion for the river elevated several notches when he talked about his experience as a guide over the years to more than 1,000 RTC Kids, many of whom had never even camped.
And that’s exactly what I did on our leisurely boat ride — allow my peaceful surroundings of the ecologically diverse Neches River melt into me.
The Neches has been called “The Last Wild River” in east Texas, where the unique ecosystem and dense bottomland forests of hardwoods and pine trees surround you.
Big Thicket National Preserve manages 80 miles of the Neches River from Town Bluff, just below B.A. Steinhagen Lake, to Beaumont. Distances between boat ramps vary from 10 to 40 miles. The river flows through bottomland hardwood forests for much of this distance, while lakes and bayous become more common further south. These lakes and bayous step up the paddling adventure with interesting side trips, many explorable in less than a day.
For those traveling to Beaumont and unfamiliar with the Neches River, its bayous and lakes, a safer option is to contact Big Thicket Outfitters, who will provide a guide and even rent canoes or kayaks.
According to my guide, Gerald, “This is a family-friendly river adventure. We’ve had an 84-year-old grandmom paddling around the Madonna Tree in March, and a 3-year-old with a life jacket and noddles on each side experiencing the river with his strong swimming parents.”
Official Texas Paddling Trail: Cooks Lake to Scatterman Paddling Trail
Last year, the Neches River was officially approved by the State of Texas as a new paddling trail. The trailhead for his new 4.8-mile paddling route starts at the LNVA’s saltwater barrier boat ramp (where I boarded for my Neches River adventure) and extends up the Neches River. After a left fork to Pine Island Bayou, the trail enters Cook’s Lake before looping through the Big Thicket National Preserve to Scatterman Lake and back to the Neches River, now a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department official Paddling Trail. This looped style trail eliminates shuttling issues since there is only one access point.
“This looped trail takes paddlers through a moss-draped cypress-tupelo marsh in the biologically diverse Big Thicket National Preserve,” according to Shelly Plante, Nature Tourism Manager for Texas Parks & Wildlife Division. “While the trail itself is relatively short, it can easily become an all-day adventure through oxbow lakes and marshes.”
My Only Beaumont Experience Regret
Before you start patting me on the back, let me insert here that this is my one regret about Beaumont. I couldn’t get out there and experience the new paddling trail, due to a shoulder injury. Sure I was able to capture some amazing shots of the paddling adventurers, but after watching my boat mates, I wanted to get out there and enjoy the peaceful beauty up close and personal with the Neches River.
Maybe next time, right?
Neches River Rally
Beaumont Paddles Through 3rd Annual Neches River Rally on September 10, 2016.
Save the date! Locate your paddles, pack up your friends and families, and head to Big Thicket National Preserve! The Big Thicket Association’s Neches River Rally is back for its third year in Beaumont, Texas. Bring the family out September 10 for a day of exploration and adventure along the Cooks Lake to Scatterman Paddling Trail. Paddlers will feel like explorers as they experience the unique ecosystems along the river, including dense bottomland forests of hardwoods, cypress, tupelo and pine trees.