Sam Houston National Forest – Four Notch Loop Trail

Growing up in rural Utah, I was fortunate to be surrounded by millions of acres of public land. I thought of these spaces as my own. We spent summer vacations camping along streams and lakes where we would fish. Springtime was filled with opportunities to go deep into the deserts of southern Utah to explore the sandstone cliffs and remote places. Octobers were a time for hunting in the national forests.  I woke to the view of the mountains and was surrounded by these purple peaks daily. I was part of the land that surrounded me.

In my adult life, during moving adventures across the United States, I have learned I am unique in my deep connection to our public lands.

The reality is only 25% of Americans use our public lands. That leaves 75% of Americans that neither know nor have experienced these remarkable places. Why is that of concern? A crucial concept in conservation highlights the importance of all people spending time in wild spaces:

To know them is to love it. To love them is to protect them.

We tend to think of public lands as the over-posted social media national parks. It is true that the National Park Service manages over 85 million acres of National Park Sites, including our national parks. And I love them dearly. But, did you know, there are over 248 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land, 193 million acres of land managed by the US Forest Service, and 199 million acres of State and Government public lands? Chances are you live within driving distance of public lands.

Spend time in them, get to know them and the creatures that call them home, and then advocate for their protection.

In my opinion, Sam Houston National Forest is one of the most under rated, undervalued, underutilized public land systems in the United States. It is located only 50 miles north of one of the largest cities, Houston with over 2 million people. Sam Houston National Forest is over 163,000 acres, and it always surprises me I can go for a hike on any given day and have the entire trail to myself. This is particularly true during weekdays.

It is difficult to be outdoors during the summer months in Houston, unless it is very early in the morning. Summer temperatures get hot and humid. But late fall through spring (November through April), Sam Houston National Forest is a veritable sanctuary so close to the big city. During these months when there are periods of drier weather, stream crossings are easy.

As a multiple use forest, this place is available for all kinds of recreational activities, including motor cross, horseback riding, fishing, and hunting. Hiker trails are flagged throughout the park for special use.

The 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail winds its way through Sam Houston National Forest. This trail is gaining in popularity as a through-hike destination during the winter months. It is designated as a National Recreation Trail. While I have yet to walk the entire length, I do frequently hike portions, and it is incredibly well marked with aluminum trail markers. Because this is a National Forest, primitive camping is allowed right off trail, with restrictions during hunting season.

Backpack Trip Ideas:

Four-Notch Loop Trail is an excellent backpacking trail for beginners. We enjoyed a 2 day-one night trip here in January, entering the trail at the Lone Star Hiking Trail Trailhead #8. The trailhead offers ample parking and is well signed.

We opted to start our trek southbound and did approximately 7 miles before we took a short diversion to camp at the John Stokes Memorial Campground.

As we were only gone for 2 days, we took all drinking water with us. Streams that meander throughout the area did have some water but were not flowing abundantly. There are quite a few steep stream crossings, so it would be important to know stream conditions of the area before venturing out. It had been mostly dry before we went, so we found most stream crossings to be easy and dry.

The trail felt incredibly safe and well-marked. We passed a group of boy scouts, and another smaller group. We had cellular reception, through Verizon, for the duration of our trip. I have heard stray dogs can be an issue on the Lone Star Hiking Trail. On this portion, we saw nothing of concern but the beagle “Scout”, aptly named as it appears he believes his sole purpose in life is to guide people along this portion of the trail. After following us for a while, we called his owners who said he always returns in the afternoon. The next day, he met up with us at the end of the hike to lead us out. I think he’s a trail angel.

The John Stokes Memorial Campground is accessed through a trail that is clear-cut through the forest. It was difficult to find, as the end portion is covered with new growth lob-lolly pine trees. After crossing another stream, we came to the camping area which is a cleared location at the circular end of a dirt road. Though there are no amenities, we were thankful for the open space, as the wind was blowing quite a bit that day and we didn’t want to camp in an area with abundant tree cover for safety reasons.

The night was full of owls and coyote pack sounds. It was restful, and beautiful weather with a balmy 65-degree night in the tent.

One of the benefits of hiking in forest service public lands, is that you can usually take your dog with you. That is not the case in most national parks. We used this opportunity to take our dog with us, who donned his own backpack and carried his own supplies.