The Centuries-Old Road that Still Has Plenty to Offer
Early Spanish explorers, traveling from Mexico City, embarked upon the untamed wilderness that was Texas 300 years ago. They followed a series of trails first trodden by Native Americans like the Caddo tribe. Their mission was to find treasure, expand the Spanish empire, convert others to Christianity (establishing four Catholic missions in East Texas), buy and sell merchandise, and at times move troops to protect the land.
Their paths were many, but their direction was the same, and over time the trails became known as one: El Camino Real (pronounced “Ree-Owl”) de los Tejas. It became the primary overland route from the Rio Grande to the Red River Valley of Louisiana.
Today, the historic “King’s Highway” awaits those who want to discover many treasures through East Texas and beyond. It offers travelers many historic gems — forts, missions, towns, and homes of early settlers — and even contemporary “finds” like quaint shops, museums, eateries, and outdoor fun.
Texas Route 21 best identifies the trail today as it comes up from Laredo on the Texas-Mexico border, through San Antonio and Austin to pass through Crockett, Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Toledo Bend Lake at the state line before ending in Natchitoches, Louisiana, not far from the first capital of Spanish Texas, which was in Robeline, Louisiana. The National Park Service dubbed the trail a National Historic Trail in 2004 — one of 19 in the nation.
Much of the original trail through rural areas is still visible. Geologists and historians regularly visit the mostly private land to view great indentions to the earth’s surface that should not be there based on the natural lay of the land, but formed by an untold amount of foot traffic, livestock, and wagon wheels.
“When you’re standing looking at these trails, you can see what the landscape looks like that these people traveled on,” says Jeff Williams, a researcher of the trail from Stephen F. Austin State University.
Over time, much of the pathways turned into dirt roads on the 1,500-mile section in today’s Texas. History buffs and researchers often visit some of the more trodden sections to experience the royal highway in person. Geologists often look for remnants of previous travelers.
El Camino stretches some 120 miles in East Texas before reaching the Texas border of Toledo Bend Reservoir. The distance fits well with either a full daytrip or a more leisurely weekend to include more sightseeing and shopping. Besides the numerous hotels along the way, overnight accommodations range from beautiful bed and breakfasts or the Pine Creek Country Inn, a “hotel in the woods,” in Nacogdoches to Cypress Bend Resort on Louisiana’s lake side of the state line.
The old trail enters East Texas up from Bryan-College Station through the town of Crockett and continues through two national forests, named Davy Crockett and Angelina. The town of Crockett dates back to the state’s origin (1837) and is believed to have a “Davy Crockett slept here” claim to fame on his way to fight and die at the Battle of the Alamo. Check out the Monroe-Crook House, built in 1854 by the grandnephew of President James Monroe who chose Crockett as his new home.
Further down the road, Caddo Mounds State Historic Site near Alto shows how the Native Americans dating back 1,200 years lived on the land also eventually linked to El Camino. The park includes a replica of a grasshouse and a museum displaying artifacts from archeological digs there. A self-guided trail along an original section of the El Camino Real trail allows visitors to learn about the historic road and see a piece of the road.
Nacogdoches’ claim to fame is as the oldest city in the state. El Camino’s linkage is partly why nine flags have flown over the city on the then Texas frontier. A statue — “Gateway” — on the city’s historic square recalls Anglo settlers walking westward into the new land. A pamphlet at the visitors center offers a self-led walking tour of that statue and 10 others that depict the town’s solid place in Texas history.
The influences of Nacogdoches’ 240-year history are still found on its brick streets, noteworthy structures, and early neighborhoods. The Opera House (now Cole Art Center) was where, in about 1916, the touring Marx Brothers, originally a humorless music act, allegedly turned into a comedy act after they made light of a runaway mule outside that briefly interrupted their performance inside.
Not to be missed are the numerous shops in the old downtown that make Nac a unique place to visit. Some excellent antique shops are common, but other welcoming establishments include Glass Castles, packed with colorful stained and etched glass merchandise; Yarnia, with knitting and crocheting; and Blue Horse Bakery, offering delicious cupcakes and cookies.
For lunch or dinner, Liberty Bell Restaurant offers travelers tasty dishes and frequent live music. The more informal Dolli’s Diner features paintings of local artisans hanging on the walls. Another option is Pine Creek Country Inn. Its menu featuring black Angus steaks, lamb chops and roasted rabbit is well worth the drive to its location in nearby piney woods.
If staying overnight, Nacogdoches offers 12 B&Bs, some dating back 100 years. The beloved and stylish Fredonia Hotel reopened last summer to the tune of a $11-million renovation. First welcoming guests in 1955, the six-story mid-century modern boutique hotel is one of the few “community-owned” hotels in the nation; average city residents bought more than 50 percent of the stock that greatly complemented gifts by big donors.
Eastbound on the trail, travelers can visit the new Naca Valley Vineyard or the new Front Porch Distillery for adult beverages or can take the whole family on a zooming journey among the treetops at Zip Line Nac.
San Augustine was founded in 1832, but its nearby Mission Dolores began 100-plus years earlier when the Spanish believed converting Native Americans was the best way to settle the region. While the original walls no longer exist, the Mission Dolores State Historic Site — listed as a national landmark — provides an informative retelling of the story of its part in Texas history.
It’s the county seat of San Augustine County. James Pinckney Henderson was the first governor of Texas. His statue graces the county courthouse. His home still stands, along with 24 other state historic houses and eight historic churches, making San Augustine a sightseer’s dream. The city holds recognition from the Texas State Society of Architects as one of the 25 places of special significance in the Lone Star State.
More evidence of the original trail greets travelers next. On Highway 21 in Sabine County are two sets of deep and parallel swales extending about one-quarter mile through the Sabine National Forest. Called the Lobanillo Swales, the curvature of the land — a gulf that is 20-feet deep and 12-feet wide — is the best visible remnant of this “superhighway.”
The ancient trail winds out of Texas at a place where some modern-day explorers’ journey came to an end. The Patricia Huffman Smith NASA “Remembering Columbia” Museum in Hemphill pays tribute to the fateful NASA voyage and its seven astronauts that came to rest in Sabine County in 2003 after a tragic re-entry explosion. The museum’s theater offers an inspiring film which tells the stories of some of the thousands of local volunteers who helped with the search and recovery effort.
The final leg of El Camino extends into the heart of west central Louisiana. Continuing on, travelers can visit Los Adeas Historical Site, the first state capital of Spanish Texas; fish on Toledo Bend Reservoir, the largest man-made lake in the South; stay at Cypress Bend Resort and take in a game of golf; visit Fort St. Jean Baptiste, a 1716 French stronghold made of a quarter-million feet of pine logs; and get a taste of Cajun life in ever-popular Natchitoches.
For more information, visit nps.gov/elte/index.htm.