Enchanted by the sweeping vistas in Reese Witherspoon’s movie, Wild? Waiting impatiently for Robert Redford’s adaptation of the travel classic, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, in which author Bill Bryson recounts his adventures with bears, blisters, and candy bars? If so, it may be that you’ve developed an itch for thru-hiking.
Did you know that you can scratch that long-distance trail itch right here in Texas?
That’s right—the state’s longest continuous footpath, the Lone Star Hiking Trail (LSHT), traverses a total of 128 miles (including loop trails), winding its way through Sam Houston National Forest just 50 miles outside of Houston, and covering three counties.
Thru-hiking refers to a self-supported, continuous hike, from one trailhead to the other end. Neither Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, or Bryson were experienced hikers, nor did they actually cover the complete distance of their respective trails.
Thru-hiking trails such as the PCT and AT are a huge, expensive, and time-consuming undertaking, so it makes sense to build skills and practice before attempting a thousand-mile journey. That’s where local resources come in handy. While the LSHT is handily accessed from most of the state, the true benefit lies in its most ardent fans, members of The Lone Star Hiking Trail Club (LSHTC).
The LSHTC was formed specifically to “educate the public about location, use and needs of the hiking trails of Texas, with emphasis on the Lone Star Hiking Trail.” The club celebrated its 20th anniversary on June 6, 2015—National Trails Day. Members volunteer their time to maintain and improve the trails, but where the club truly excels is in its invaluable guided hikes.
Every second and fourth Saturday of the month, LSHTC members get out on the trail, hiking different sections with any who care to come along. These guided outings are free, though membership in the club is inexpensive and provides funds for a variety of beneficial projects, such as installing route signs and creating campsites—projects enacted and completed by club volunteers.
For those new to being out on trails, the best way to acquire skills is through mentoring. Learning what kind of equipment—packs, shoes (remember the first scene of the movie?), camping gear, hiking poles—works best and just how to carry it can help avoid painful scenarios such as Strayed’s struggles with her 50-pound backpack, nicknamed “Monster.”
Cathy Murphy, one of the original LSHTC board members and a current volunteer, has been hiking the trail since 1992. “This year, there has been an increasing number of thru-hikers,” Murphy said. “I believe this is due to the opening of 12 new designated campsites along the LSHT that can be used by hikers during hunting season.” She also feels that close proximity to and easy access from Houston has helped build traffic on the trail.
Still, the LSHT is a relatively undiscovered hiking treasure, not frequently travelled. An avid trail runner, I have only found one person so far who has experience on the LSHT. Murphy recalled that, “On group hikes, it is always a treat to run into folks on the trail heading in the opposite directions. On our last hike in April in the Big Creek Scenic Area, we ran into a large group of birders who had come all the way from Washington State.”
What’s a group hike like? “We generally have from 15 to 20 participants, a mix of members, experienced and new hikers, and folks just checking us out,” explained Murphy. “Hikes are at moderate pace and lead by a knowledgeable, experienced club member. We hike all sections of the trail over the course of a year.” In 2014, the club guided 962 hikers over 7,602 miles (an average of 7.9 miles per event) and covered the entire LSHT some 10 times.
It can be easy for inexperienced hikers to run into trouble. Murphy said that the number one mistake made by new LSHT hikers is bringing insufficient water during hot months, April through September (she advises carrying at least two liters of water in a hydration pack). During warmer months, guided hikes are shorter, about 5 to 6 miles in length, while cooler weather excursions range from 6 to 8 miles. Though water is available along the trail, it’s important to know just where and when that potable water can be found.