It's no easy task to get off the beaten path, when every trail in the Houston area has been beaten senselessly by the throngs. But the Big Thicket is waiting -- and wild. It's an hour or so drive from Houston, and worth every minute of it. Exit I-10 onto U.S. 287 near Beaumont (and leave the Louisiana-bound gamblers behind) and the dense stands aren't far away. Seven miles north of Kountze is the FM 420 cut-off to the Big Thicket National Preserve visitor center, a well-stocked, mandatory stop for first-timers. From there, pick your pleasure from among nine separate sections of the 97,000-acre park. There are short well-marked hiking routes that wind through hearty vegetation, and more daring long-distance trails that would tempt Davy Crockett himself. Options abound -- this is the place where the prime southeast forests flow into the plant life of the coastal plains and Midwest prairies. In other words, majestic cypresses and pines are neighbors with cactus. The real beauty is that the thicket is still relatively undisturbed. See it while it lasts.