Red Hills Lake Recreation Area is the best kept swimming secret of East Texas. It is where the locals go to enjoy the serene lake and forest environments, without battling the fisherman and tourists for a crowded spot on Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn reservoirs.
The 19- acre lake was hand-dug by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940 and is managed by the National Forest Service. Admission is $3 per vehicle per day, $10 per day for a campsite with electricity, and $6 for primitive campsites. There is no attendant at the entrance to the park, but the Forest Service checks vehicles for permits regularly, so bring exact change and a pen.
For a quick day trip, remember to bring plenty of snacks and beverages because other than the small Martin’s Corner café three miles away, it is at least a fifteen minute drive to Hemphill or Center and the nearest supplies. Alcohol is prohibited.
The lake is set in the tallest hills in the area in a mountain-esque way. Take the downhill slope to the swimming area that is clean and doesn’t require swim shoes like the nearby reservoirs do. There is a fifty feet long wooden pier that begs for horseplay. The hill is a doozy to climb back up after a long day of swimming, especially for children, so bring all the essentials to the beach area in one trip. The beach area offers very few benches that are usually taken by 10 a.m. in the summer. Bring a lawn chair, blanket or beach towel to stake out your spot. Picnic tables are a short walk away, also.
Boats are allowed on the lake, but are not allowed in the swimming area and are rarely seen other than the occasional canoe or kayak.
The lake and swim area is gorgeous just before sunset, but remember to go to the restroom and pack up before it gets too dark. The restrooms and walkways are not lit and primitive.
There is a half-mile hike to the site of an old fire watchtower. It’s an easy and beautiful hike for those in good health, but very steep, overgrown, and littered with branches, pinecones and debris so bring tennis shoes or hiking boots.
The nine camping sites with electricity for recreational vehicles or tents fill up quickly. The remaining 17 tent sites without electricity are popular, but not always booked. Showers are open-air to the public, so bring an extra set of trunks to rinse off in, go without a shower, or get comfortable with public nudity.
The park is open from May until Labor Day. Pets are allowed in the park, but not in the swim area.