For our 10th Texas river tracing, we chose the relatively short San Jacinto, which played significant roles in the early colonization of the state, the war for independence and the development of the Houston Ship Channel in the 20th century. My childhood associations with the San Jac were split between a fondness for its sandy banks at Camp Strake, our Boy Scout redoubt, dotted with shortleaf and loblolly pines, sweet gum, yaupon, bay, magnolia and dogwood, and the horror of the lower river’s pollution, flooding and general industrialization.
The West Fork of the San Jacinto (above), a little over 90 miles long, rises among pastures and hardwoods near Loma, 30 miles west of Huntsville. In a bad sign for the river’s ultimate health, the stream’s first appearance is clogged with manmade debris.
Luckily, it snakes through the Sam Houston National Forest, immaculately tended by the U.S. government, with nature preserves and recreation-friendly Lake Conroe. The upper parts of the lake are gorgeous and include homes for the red-cockaded woodpecker and the pileated woodpecker (which we spotted).
Below the national forest is a small state forest and the relatively sensitive development of The Woodlands. We stopped at this little spot southeast of Conroe.
The Jesse Jones Nature Center and Museum along Spring Creek, a major San Jac tributary — and there are many — is minutely interpreted and so calming, with its cypress stands, oaks, hawthorns, sandy beaches and picnic areas, it just makes you resent the ugly developments along nearby FM 1960 even more.
But soon, the West Fork is ravaged by short-sighted subdivisions, strip malls, disturbed land and vain attempts to stop the dangerous dissolution of its banks as it nears Lake Houston, the city’s major water reservoir and a recreation-heavy locale most Austinites see from the air when landing at Bush Intercontinental.
The East Fork, only 60 miles long, trickles through the Sam Houston National Forest, but to the east of Huntsville. Without a major lake, this stretch feels more backwoods as one winds down old logging trails. It empties into Lake Houston at a large recreational park in a heavily populated suburb.
The navigable San Jac proper, just below the dam at Lake Houston, spills almost immediately into the Galveston Bay system and the vast complex of wharves, refineries, warehouses and factories that fuel the Houston economy. We skipped around to the San Jacinto Battleground and Monument, hoping to make the tower before the 6 p.m. closing, but, predictably for a state attraction, the tower elevators actually close at 5:30 p.m. (Find that anywhere on its site.)
So we headed north and east to the Anahuac National Wildlife Preserve, which sits at the head of East Bay and is home to dozens of migrating and resident birds, alligators and lovingly preserved marshes, prairie and bayside. A cleansing way to end a day on a much-maligned river system.
UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.