Sabine National Forest
I wanted to write a trip report of me and my friends’ recent experience from our second attempt at the ETX450 and our first time dispersed camping in a National Forest in hopes that this may be helpful to others in the future.
My buddy and I got the bug for overlanding after we both purchased new Jeeps at the end of 2020. We live in North/NE Texas and it doesn’t take much research to learn that Texas isn’t great for overlanding. Due to Texas history, virtually all the land in the state is private. Of the few routes that are circulated in the Texas overlanding community, the ETX450 seemed like a great choice for us to do our first shakedown trip before moving onto better experiences further away– it’s a multi-day route through 3 national forests (Sabine, Angelina, and Davy Crockett) that’s not overly remote– gas, food, and help are always less than 1 hr away, and it’s not technically challenging. These were brand new vehicles and our daily drivers– we weren’t looking to get stuck or break something. Just get our feet wet with the offroad + camping experience.Unfortunately, other than what’s obvious from looking at the route in Gaia, I could find precious little information about the route (ie, which parts are bad, what sort of pace is required to complete the route and get to camp at reasonable times, ETC).
East Texas 450- 3 day overlanding route (including LLSP bypass) (GaiaGPS)
The route suggests camping in Rusk (KOA), Livingston (Lake Livingston State Park; ie, LLSP), and a campground in the Sabine National Forest on Lake Toledo Bend (Beans VIP), although there are plenty of other alternatives should you desire different daily start/end points.
On our first attempt in March 2021, we chose Rusk as our starting point, as it’s the closest to where we live. A few months before we left, I got an electric RV site reserved at LLSP for our first night and called and got a verbal reservation at Beans VIP for the second night. Our plan was to drive the last leg back to Rusk and instead of camping a 3rd night, just drive home.
Unfortunately, due to personal issues, we only did 1 leg (Rusk -> Livingston), camped 1 night, and then drove home the next morning.
March 2021 – Track recorded in GaiaGPS
This year, we decided to try it again, but this time we wanted to see the entire route…
ETX 450: April 2022 – Day 1- Rusk to Sabine National Forest
This time we were blessed to have a 3rd vehicle and 6 passengers in total (2 per rig). We were still approaching the route from the north/north west, so starting in Rusk still made the most sense for us, but this year we decided to do the loop clockwise (Rusk -> Toledo Bend) since 2 of us had already experienced the Rusk -> Livingston leg.However, instead of camping at Beans VIP as suggested by the route’s creator (Beans never answered the phone when I tried calling them), we decided to try dispersed camping in the Sabine National Forest (more on that later). But not having an exact location for our final destination for the first day left me apprehensive about timing– I wanted us to enjoy the route while also getting camp setup at a reasonable time. Some who were with us had never been camping before, and I still mostly have “generic camping” gear as opposed to fancy and quick-to-setup overlanding gear, so I knew we would need considerable time to setup and breakdown camp.
However despite our plans to meet in Rusk and hit the route by 8:30am, we didn’t actually get started until almost 10am. My hunch was that we wanted to start searching the national forest for campsites by 4pm, and we decided that we would bail off the route whatever time would be required to make that happen.
The first day went well– we stopped several times during the day for bladder relief (and with a woman in our group this time, the stops take a little longer for her to handle the logistics of peeing in the middle of the woods), and also to break out the drone when the canopy opened up enough. (I haven’t heard back from our done pilot yet, but I’m hoping those videos turned out good). What few experiences I could find during my research of others completing this route, several mentioned a slog of red clay and mud that halted their progress, and as we had gotten a decent amount of rain the last few weeks, I fully expected us to hit stretches of water and mud bad enough to warrant us to bypass them. However, while there were opportunities splash around and get dirty, we never encountered bad mud. My buddy’s Tacoma is a brand new TRD Offroad 4×4 with stock street tires, and I’m still running the stock Rubicon BFG ATs– we weren’t looking for deep boggy stretches of mud to get stuck in.
By 3pm it became clear that we would get to the National Forest late if we finished the day’s route, so we bailed and drove straight to the area we planned to look for a campsite.
Camping in the Sabine National Forest
I have read a good bit about dispersed camping, but I’ve never actually done it. I’ve spent many an hour at work watching overlanding videos instead of… uh, working… and something I learned is that many people grab a route published on Gaia or OnX and don’t vet the route. Many of the routes shared within the community traverse private land or roads in national forests that are closed per the Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM), and I’ve heard examples of overlanders receiving tickets from Rangers for using said routes.
Image of Sabine NF Motor Vehicle Use Map (US Forestry Service)
Ever since learning this, I’ve aways carefully vetted routes I find online, and during my research for this year’s trip I became well acquainted with the MVUM for Sabine NF. The MVUM specifies which roads are open, closed, condition of the road surface or what type of vehicle is recommended, and… *off of which roads dispersed camping is allowed.*I’ve always understood this to be taken literally– as in, camping is only allowed off the roads listed in the MVUM. But after reading about a few other redditor’s experiences camping in the NF, it was clear that they were not camping off of one of the aforementioned roads. In Sabine, for instance, there’s only one road in the list that is near the lake’s edge, and it was clear from their photos that they weren’t off that road. Were these campers just delinquent hooligans or is there something I’m missing?So I called the local Ranger’s station for Sabine NF and asked them how dispersed camping worked, to which they said “Camping is allowed anywhere in the national forest.” So I said, “Yeah, but on the MVUM it lists specific roads for dispersed camping”, to which they replied, “Yeah, the MVUM is just for telling you what roads are open. As long as you only drive on open roads, you can camp anywhere in the national forest”. This contradicted what I understood and had read about NF dispersed camping, but I decided to take the ranger station at their word.On a separate but related note; I also knew that not all land within the national forest boundry is actually public land. Gaia has a great Public Land layer that displays public land in bright green. Equipped with the Public Land and Motor Vehicle Use maps, I researched and noted:
Every open road in the NF that was also
Near the water, that was still
On public land.
Armed with this info, I hoped we were ready to find a campsite.
So after arriving in the National Forest around 4pm, we headed to the first site I had scoped out, which is near Ragtown Recreational Area in the northern portion of the NF. My thoughts were if I was near a recreational area with restrooms, we could bail out to real facilities should any of the new campers get squeamish doing their business in front of god and the wilderness, or fall back to it if we failed to find good dispersed camping.My first pick seemed like an obvious location (a road with a loop very near the water), so I was prepared to find that other campers had already claimed the location. However, upon arrival, we found a single truck, and lots of smoke. The grass and underbrush nearest the water was smoldering. Clearly a fire had gotten out of control.An older guy and two dogs were there; he said he was a local who saw the smoke from his house and ran over to control the blaze. Apparently, ruckus campers have been a problem at this location and he often has to come police campfires that escaped their ring and pickup litter and junk left by others. It was quite windy and a campfire flaring up and escaping seemed plausible (my LEO friend was not convinced, but that’s neither here or there).After he insisted that he had it under control (and it seemed to us that he did), we rolled out and checked out the next closest location I found in my research.
The second location appeared to be on public land according to the Gaia Public Land map layer, but upon arrival, we found it was gated and had ‘no tresspassing’ signs out the whazoo. The Public Land layer did show it was very close to private land, so maybe it’s not fully up to date, but it also seems like maybe it’s just within the margin of error.On to the next pin in the map!
The third location was just further down the same forest road, and upon traveling approximately half-way down the road… it just sort of abruptly ended at an oil or gas valve station or something (I apologize for my oil-field ignorance). But we had seen a small break in the trees as we drove in that we decided to check out on our way back up the road. It wasn’t an obvious location for a campsite when viewed from the map, so it wasn’t one of the locations I had found in my research. Nevertheless, the break was big enough for the vehicles to pass through, and it was clear we weren’t the first to be there.
Semi-hidden entrance to our campsite in Sabine National Forest
After a short trail into the woods with a steep incline, we were dropped into the most charming ‘forest grotto’ I’ve ever seen– on the lakes edge, but a 100+ feet up on a cliff. Secluded and small. Protected by trees but still let good wind in from off the lake. Perfect for our little group. After some clever parking on the most unusable terrain, we setup camp!
Dispersed camping– success!
ETX 450: April 2022 – Day 2- Sabine National Forest to Livingston?
One of the things I’ve struggled with as we attempt to stretch our legs and enjoy overlanding, is the scheduling and timetables of it all. I want to get to each new campsite with a solid 3 hours of daylight, and I want us to enjoy the drive and stop for photos, video, breaks, snacks, etc as we please.To me, it’s not vacation if it’s too regimented. But I’ve struggled to find that balance when there are so many unknowns.
We decided we would do our best to leave no later than 10, and if that meant we had to bail on the route early again, so be it. I personally would prefer 9, but traveling with a group demands compromise. And despite being mostly packed and ready to go by 10, we didn’t actually leave the area until closer to 11 because we stopped by the Ragtown Recreational area to use the bathroom and properly dispose of our trash.
As we got back on the road we discovered another problem– despite our radios showing full bars all day the day before, they were now dead. We made it a point to turn them off when we got to camp, but nevertheless they failed to work the next morning. And to make matters worse, my buddy had forgotten the charger(s) for them, so we couldn’t have recharged them even if we wanted to. You can swap the rechargeable packs for AAs, and I had some spares with me, but not twelve of them. So we drove straight to the closest town (San Augustine) for batteries and decided we might as well gas up and replenish ice while we were at it. And then by that time it was basically noon, so we decided everyone would make a sandwich in the Brookshires Bros parking lot and get any snacks they needed– we weren’t stopping again until the next campsite.
So we hit the trail around noon, and decided to pick up the route moving south closest to San Augustine. This part of the route is particularly beautiful, IMO, with thick canopies on winding hilly gravel roads cut into the forest floor. Not entirely different than we saw on day 1, mind you, but somehow still striking. (damn, here is where I was going to insert a photo of this area, but somehow I didn’t get one!)
A few hours later, Just before exiting the Sabine national forest, we were surprised to discover a road closed sign in the middle of the forestry road we were traveling. It was clear that this road closed sign had been there for some time– it appeared that the drainage culvert under the road had collapsed, and the road just diverted through the creek in what turned out to be a really fun, unexpected little obstacle for us to tackle.
This is just south of Yellowpine on National Forest Development Road 111 (NFDR111), about halfway between FM87 and NFDR114.
4×4 vehicles recommended at location marked by red Jeep pin
A short time later you exit the NF and the route dumps you back onto a decently-sized highway (RE 255) where you travel for 20 min at highway speeds before weaving back off onto country roads on the west side of Sam Rayburn Reservoir (admittedly, the view from the road over the spillway is not too shabby).
Unfortunately, here is where our route had to diverge from the ETX450. Even though we were way too behind schedule to make it to Livingston, Lake Livingston State Park was closed during our trip anyways, so during the planning phase I had to seek alternatives. I had considered trying to disperse camp in the Angelina NF for our second night, but having never done it and wanting to plan for the worst scenario, we got a site at Martin Dies, Jr State Park, and we decided as we were leaving Sabine NF that we would just use it since we’d already paid for it anyway. Looking back, I kind of regret not dispersed camping the second night also, but the state parks have great facilities, and their potable water and hot showers were put to good use.
Setting up camp was a breeze in the State Park (obviously), although I was a little afraid they were gonna be pissy about my buddy parking his Gladiator in the campsite so we could keep his awning and roof-top-tent in the center of camp. Fortunately, we didn’t see a State Park ranger or police truck the entire time we were there, which is unusual from my experience at other State Parks.
Martin Dies Jr State Park – Sites 100, 102, & 104
Other than being extremely windy, we had a great meal and second night of camping.
ETX 450: April 2022 – Day 3- Martin Dies SP to Home
Unfortunately after a long discussion with everyone at camp the second night, a few decided that they couldn’t afford to get back to North Texas as late as they would if we spent 5 hours trying to finish the route, so instead of finishing the second half of leg 2 or skipping over to leg 3 back to Rusk, we all just leisurely packed up our site and headed home directly from Martin Dies SP.
Here’s the resulting track from our two days on the route–
April 2022 – Track recorded in GaiaGPS
It was a good trip, but I’m bummed we still only managed to complete half the loop on our second attempt. I think we’re moving on to bigger and better things in Arkansas, but maybe one day we’ll get the itch and try a 3rd time to complete the ETX450.