Houston, Have Some Springtime Fun
In spring Mother Nature offers us a fresh palette of color, scent and sound, complete with a dose of cool sunny weather. These seasonal stimuli help absolve our wintertime woes, but only if we get out and explore nature.
If you think Houston is just a big slab of hot urban concrete, think again. Says Jaime González, conservation education director at the Katy Prairie Conservancy, “A lot of people, even if they’ve lived in the Houston area a long while, haven’t explored the outdoors much. Houston is a surprisingly good spot to get into nature. We have first-class parks and green spaces in easy access all around the city, and just beyond there are some truly world-class ecosystems and habitats to enjoy.”
It’s easy to find your Houston outdoor adventure—from a pocket park or prairie picnic inside the city’s 610 Loop to a leisurely walk or a bike ride on the new Buffalo Bayou trails or in Terry Hershey Park. If you want a wilder setting, find it in a kayak on Armand Bayou or a forest at Brazos Bend State Park. Both are accessible, less than an hour by car, and they are out of sight of our city skyline.
“That is precisely the attraction for me here in Houston,” says González. “We have a combination of places close at hand where people can find their own outdoor adventure that’s right for them and their families, if they only look for it.”
An example on Houston’s southwest outskirts is Brazos Bend State Park. Park naturalist David Heinicke says, “If I summed it up in a few words, Brazos Bend is a nature lover’s paradise. We have about 5,000 acres, most of any park in the greater Houston area, and there’s over 300 species of birds, 35 species of mammals and over 1,200 species of plants here.”
Heinicke adds, “The Park is diverse, including bottomland forest, tall grass prairie and several different aquatic ecosystems from swamps and marshes to lakes and rivers. These environs give park visitors an amazing and diverse springtime experience, and it’s all located within about 50 miles of four million people. This gives them a wonderful opportunity to see and experience it firsthand. Springtime is the best time to see the wildlife in action and the wildflowers in bloom.”
The most popular animal at Brazos Bend is the American alligator and spring is its breeding season. Early in the morning the male alligators come out, strut around and bellow. Their sound echoes eerily through the park and is like the roar of lions in the African wild.
“We’ve had people visit Brazos Bend from Norway,” says Heinicke. “When we asked them how they heard about our park, they said that ‘Our next door neighbors visited the park and told us about it.’ Yet, we still get first-time visitors who’ve lived their whole lives just down the road in Sugarland and come visit the park for the first time.”
A hint from the Heinicke: “If you can come out to Brazos Bend during the week, you can have the exhilaration of just about having the whole place to yourself.”
An equally unique wildscape on Houston’s northeast side is Sheldon Lake State Park and Environmental Learning Center situated only about 30 minutes from downtown Houston. The park consists of 2,800 acres that incorporates a 1,200-acre lake and many small ponds. This site was a waterfowl sanctuary until it became a state park.
According to Park Ranger Hannah Buschert, “Springtime at Sheldon Lake is the place for bird watching. With the spring migration in full force in March and April, this place is all a-flitter with songbirds in the trees, ducks on the ponds and shore birds in our wetlands.”
Sheldon Lake State Park has self-led activities (hiking, biking, fishing and picnicking), ranger-led activities and family-oriented educational programs on the weekends and this park even has something for techies. Says Buschert, “We have geocaching—a real-world, outdoors treasure hunt that uses GPS-enabled devices and smart phones. Participants navigate to specific coordinates and try to find the geocache [container] stashed nearby that is filled with some of the park’s hidden secrets. This is a fun way to use technology in a natural setting for family fun and learning. It works particularly well with teens and their smart phones.”
For those who want their wildscape experience closer at hand, the place to go is a peaceful 155-acre oasis inside the 610 Loop adjacent to Memorial Park at the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center. The Arboretum contains nature trails that meander through forest, pond, wetland and meadow habitats and an array of gardens attracting hummingbirds, butterflies and wildlife that titillate both your senses and intellect.
“Another side of spring activities that are a rewarding facet of the Arboretum’s offerings is volunteering,” says Amy Barton, the Arboretum’s marketing and development associate. “Here, volunteers can get down and dirty and help clear trails or plant new vegetation. They can also do lighter activities tending native plant gardens while learning about the value of these plants to our natural environment.”
Volunteers can help the Arboretum’s botany staff identify wildflowers and collect samples for display in the nature center, or work with classes and tours for Houston-area schoolchildren helping them gain an appreciation for nature. “When people give these activities a try, they get a real sense of fulfillment they have often been missing,” Barton adds.
Why wait? Put on your comfortable closed-toe shoes and a hat, and pack a snack and some water. Don’t forget your camera, binoculars or your dog (on leash), then find your nearest trailhead and get going on some springtime fun … outdoors!