March - April 2009 Feature Park
Village Creek State Park
Otherworldly Village Creek State Park Welcomes Visitors
Blueberry bushes. Weird, fanged toothache trees. Southern magnolia and prickly pear cactus. Arctic reindeer moss. Myotis and Rafinesques big-eared bats. Part pine-hardwood forest. Part bottomland swamp. Part Southwestern desert. All describe Village Creek State Park, a 1,090-acre pocket of the Big Thicket just 10 miles north of Beaumont.
Unique to the Texas state park system, Village Creek State Park possesses a dazzling diversity of plant and animal species rarely found in the same place on the globe. More than 1,000 different flowering plants, more than 100 kinds of trees, more than 200 bird species and almost every mammal, reptile, bird, fish and amphibian common to the Eastern and Western United States calls this primordial slice of Texas home.
Village Creek, since it opened as a state park 15 years ago, is no stranger to bizarre weather -- from extreme floods to tornadoes and hurricanes. The most recent hurricanes - Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008 - caused extensive tree loss (60 percent of its forest canopy) and damage to several park facilities. But the park, which averages roughly 78,000 visitors annually, is back in business and seeing an influx of Winter Texans and others.
Whether by foot, canoe or mountain bike, visitors prowling the park's wooded trails or meandering waterways will experience much of the same wilderness setting that Davy Crockett and other frontiersmen found in their travels through early Texas.
Opened to the public in 1994, Village Creek State Park offers a primer on the ecological splendor found within the surrounding Big Thicket, a 96,000-acre national preserve of what once comprised more than 3 million acres of dense forests and bottomland dissected by rivers, creeks and vast tupelo-cypress swamps. Though the state park encompasses only a small chunk of the so-called "biological crossroads of North America" where all wild things flourish, its location on a major tributary of the Neches River and its proximity to an urban center (Beaumont) and Interstate 10 make it both recreationally attractive and readily accessible.
To journey a mile or two into the interior of Village Creek State Park's pine and deciduous forest is to lose oneself in a primeval world teeming with carnivorous plants, slithering reptiles, flitting birds and hundreds of species of flowering plants thriving in the pine-and-hardwood estuarine environment. Park Superintendent Jerry Rashall grew up in the Big Thicket and possesses a wealth of knowledge about the park's plants and critters, and is happy to share it with park visitors.
"People come here primarily to hike and mountain bike," Rashall says. "We have eight miles of hiking and biking trails, a shaded children's playground and fishing that's really picked up with the implementation of the free fishing in state parks program."
Much of the Big Thicket's allure lies in its constancy in a world where there's a fence for every open range. Village Creek, which feeds into the Neches River several miles below the state park, surges out of its sandy banks two to three times a year, flooding the surrounding woodlands. The mercurial creek has kept developers in this corner of southeast Texas at bay, and in part, has limited development within the state park itself to only 60 of the park's more than 1,000 acres.
Village Creek State Park, however, has brought just enough amenities to this untamed Texas rain forest to make visiting East Texas neophytes comfortable. Eight miles of marked trails, interpretive programs on such things as raptors and wildflowers, and ample camping facilities cater to the weekend camper hungry for a taste of the heart and soul of the Big Thicket.
The park's variety of habitat - from thin-soiled, sandy woodlands to fecund forests harboring baygalls (miniature swamps), sloughs and oxbow lakes with brown colored water - supports a mind-boggling array of plant and animal life. Here, in this unusual ecotone, where various biological provinces overlap, grows everything from xerophytic vegetation such as yucca and prickly pear cactus to water-loving orchids and palmetto. More than 200 species of birds have been documented in the park, as well as three of the venomous snakes founding the United States. Swamps, bogs and blackwater sloughs in this land that annually averages 60 inches of rain claim beaver, snapping turtles, bullfrogs and nine-banded armadillos as regular residents.
Though fishing for catfish, perch, bass and other species remains popular with visitors, Village Creek is first and foremost a canoeing park. Canoeists can bring their own canoe or rent from one of a handful of outfitters located in nearby towns who will provide shuttle services for float trips from two hours to two days. Village Creek seduces paddlers with a leisurely, serpentine float on tea-colored waters that riffle past bald cypress and chalky white beaches.
Pitch a tent at one of 16 walk-in tent campsites ($7 nightly) overlooking the creek and cooled by a double-canopied forest of loblolly pines, beech, ironwood, hickory, birch, oaks, possumhaw and sweetgum. Creekside Campground sites have a tent area, fire rings, lantern posts, picnic tables and benches. Water is centrally located, and restrooms with showers are nearby. Campers seeking greater creature comforts can pitch a tent or back in their campers and RVs into one of 25 multi-use campsites ($15 nightly) equipped with water and electrical hookups and a dump station is located nearby.
Up to 80 people can rent the Group Picnic Pavilion for $30 a day. An adjacent children's playscape gives the kiddies something to do while mom and pop fire up the pit or relax in the shade. Just down the park road, a walk-in group camping area perfect for church groups, scouts and the like, can be rented for $30 a night. There is no water or electricity, but the area does have picnic tables and fire rings. Campers and day users 13 years of age and older also pay a $2 park entry fee.
Texas Parks and Wildlife crews have converted a former East Texas hunting club wood-frame cabin into an eight-person cabin that rents for $80 overnight. With a kitchen, bathroom (no shower), two bedrooms and a large common area, the cabin offers climate-controlled comfort for those seeking a less rustic introduction to the Big Thicket. A barbecue pit and location on a wooded bluff overlooking a scenic bend in the creek make this an inviting retreat for frazzled urbanites seeking respite away from city distractions.
Village Creek State Park is located about 10 miles north of Beaumont off U.S. Highway 69/96. Take Mitchell Road exit and follow the park signs to FM 3513 to Alma Drive to Park Road 74. For more information visit the Village Creek State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle