Soak up Houston's picture-perfect weather and get a chance to explore the nature. Houston is an outdoor city. The metro area offers tons of places to get out and experience nature in small ways (an urban downtownpark) and big (a 2,000-acre preserve).
Serenity on the prairie
You could probably easily get lost in the backwaters of the Armand Bayou Nature Center, a sprawling 2,500-acre preserve situated between the town of Pasadena and Galveston Bay. But that's what the guided tours are for. You can experience a leisurely morning canoe ride through the park, observing numerous species of wildlife, from alligators to deer to waterfowl. There are also miles of hiking trails that take visitors through the three different ecosystems present at the center—tall grass prairie, bayou and forest. For a little taste of 1890s farm life, there's the Martyn farm house, which offers a glimpse of rural life more than a century ago. Next, check out the center's Bison Observation Deck, where you can see the two bison Armand Bayou acquired in 2008. For a slightly spooky experience, consider a night tour. The center conducts a moonlight pontoon boat cruise or a hayride through the prairie. With help from spotlights guides will show you the nocturnal creatures such as raccoons and armadillos that call this place home.
Walk the wild
Since the mid-1990s, a multimillion dollar master planning effort has transformed Hermann Park into one of the crown jewels of Houston, making this a prime destination for 6 million visitors annually. Bordered by the Museum District, Rice University and the Houston Medical Center, Hermann is a 445-acre urban park offering a gamut of activities including peddle boats on Lake McGovern, antique miniature train rides, an 18-hole golf coursepicnic areas, a large amphitheater for live performances, multiplechildren's play areas and much more. Hermann is also home to the Houston Zoo, one of the city's most popular attractions showcasing more than 4,500 exotic animals from all over the world. See big cats up close, visit theWortham World of Primates and hang out with a large herd of Asian elephants. But that's just the beginning. This December the zoo opens the first phase of the most ambitious project in its history, African Forest. Set on 6.5 acres, the first of African Forest includes new habitats for the zoo's chimpanzees, rhinos, giraffe herd and cheetahs, all set in an environment designed to emulate the forest landscape of western equatorial Africa.
See the bayou beauty
It's no exaggeration to say that Houston owes its very existence to Buffalo Bayou. It was on a stretch of this 52-mile serpentine body that the brothers August and John Allen stepped ashore in 1836 and laid claim to the land that would become the nation's fourth largest city. Through the years the bayou helped Houston thrive as a commercial hub, now it's a focal point of recreation for the millions who live here and visit every year.You can take in the view from one of the many paths that line Buffalo or tour the bayou via kayak or canoe.
Discover urban green
Houston'sdowntown has undergone a renaissance in recent years, adding more shopping, nightlife, events and residences to the commercial heart of the city. One key part of that renewal has been green space. Take Discovery Green, the 12-acre park that opened in 2008 next to the George R. Brown Convention Center. Here you'll find a multitude of things to do, no matter what the season—from a weekly farmers market and film screenings to art exhibits and yoga classes. There are also two restaurants, The Grove and The Lake House, each with a distinctive menu and dining atmosphere. During the holidays, Discovery Green gets into the spirit with a 7,200-square-foot ice skating rink sponsored by St. Joseph's Medical Center as well as visits from Santa Claus, and an art installation called the Video Tree comprised of numerous television sets. But Discovery Green is just one the urban oases in downtown Houston. The recently renovated Market Square Park provides a place for entertainment, dining, public art and just plain green space on the north side of downtown. That park sits on the site ofthe original Houston City Hall and features a Greek restaurant, enclosed dog run, garden and numerous artistic sculptures. Nearby Tranquility Park, named for the lunar Sea of Tranquility, take up one square block near Houston City Hall. The lush space with its fountains and walkways was built to commemorate the first landing on the moon and was dedicated in 1979 on the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. The mounds and depressions present throughout the park emulate the moon's surface. NeilArmstrong's famous words, "Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has Landed," are written in several languages on plaques at the entranceof the park.
Ever feel like you just need a nice long walk through the trees? Enter Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. This 250-acre preserve set on Cypress Creek in Humble has one of the largest collections of native and cultivated plants in the Houston region. Here you'll find miles of hiking trails, picnic areas a butterfly house and a boardwalk over a cypress swamp among other features. You'll also see a wide ranging collection of flora and fauna, from vibrant camellias and orchid trees to Pine Warblers and Black-capped Chikadees. The arboretum is named for Thelma and Charles Mercer who purchased the original 14-acre tract along Cypress Creek in the 1940s. Thelma, an avid horticulturalist, brought in many different species of native and non-native trees and plants. In 1974, Harris County purchased the Mercer's land and has since dramatically expanded the preserved space. The arboretum is always free.
Play with the ponies
For a little open air fun on horseback, head north to Humble and Cypress Trails stables. This established equestrian center is open seven days a week for endurance and pleasure riding. Cypress Trails offers rides by the hour or for longer periods and also provides lessons in general horsemanship and competitive riding. If watching horse and rider in action is more your speed, check out The Houston Polo Club. Founded in 1928, the Houston Polo Club has a rich history and is home to more than 60 club players who competein weekly tournaments. There are also regular matches by visiting international players, increasing the excitement of Sundays at the club.Polo clinics and private lessons are available for those looking to break into the sport of kings.
Birding in Southeast Texas
The area between Houston and the Gulf is a birding mecca
The upper Texas Coast south of Houston and surrounding Galveston Bay has been described as a bird lover's paradise. Winged beauties of all kinds are found here, particularly during the colder months of November to March when many species migrate to the area to escape frigid northern temperatures.
As an activity, birding continues to be popular among both travelers and those looking for nature in their own backyard. Whether hiking the trails of area wildlife refuges in search of birds or driving along the bayous and preserves of the region, there are a number of ways to see species such as whooping cranes, egrets, blue herons and roseate spoonbills.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers good information on popular birding destinations across the region, which are all part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, a system of hundreds of viewing sites covering more than 40 counties from Beaumont to the Mexican border.
Here are a few of the more popular spots in the Greater Houston area:
Around Anahuac. Sites such as White Memorial Park and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge offer an impressive selection of woodland and coastal species.
Around the Katy Prairie. A series of interconnected lakes within Paul D. Rushing Park make up the 100-acre Chain-of-Lakes habitat. You'll find summer birds such as the black-bellied whistling duck and black-necked stilts. Winter brings waterfowl, bald eagles and crested caracaras.
Around Bolivar Peninsula. A number of bird sanctuaries dot this peninsula southeast of Houston where you'll find mostly shorebirds and gulls mixed with warblers and others.
Around Clear Lake/Bay Area. The Mustang Bayou Trail, Nassau Bay Park and Armand Bayou Nature Center are all great places to bird in and around Galveston Bay, where you'll find sedge wrens and Le Conte sparrows.
Around Galveston. Parks and refuges including Harborside Wetlands of Galveston and San Luis Pass offer a breadth of coastal species such as terns, black skimmers and Bonaparte gulls.
Fun on the Water
Some of the best spots to enjoy the coastal life
When you're looking to escape the bustle of the city, there's nothing quite like a little sand and surf. And from coastal sailing and fishing to kayaking area lakes and bayous, the Houston region offers an abundance of activities on the water.
Canoe and Kayak
Take a guided canoe or boat tour along scenic Armand Bayou at the Armand Bayou Nature Center near Clear Lake. You're bound to see wildlife such as alligators and river otters, not to mention beautiful fauna long the banks of the bayou. Nearer the heart of the city enjoy kayak and canoe tours of Buffalo Bayou, the serpentine waterway on which Houston was founded. You'll see beautiful views of the Downtown skyline and get up close and personal with nature in this urban wilderness.
Several companies offer charter and public cruises on Galveston Bay. Star Fleet has five yachts that can accommodate up to 365guests and include amenities such as bars and dance floors. The 100-foot Star Gazer is one of the most recognizable vessels on the waters around Clear Lake. Star Fleet also has sailing catamaran cruises. Houston Party Boats offers regular public cruises of the waterfront as well as public dinner cruises on both party boats and the Spirit of Texas Paddlewheeler. Both companies are available for private parties and special events.
FishingAlong Cypress Creek in Spring, you'll find Collins Park, a 55-acre park with multiple nature trails and fishing opportunities along the creek. Late winter and early spring are the besttimes for catching white bass and crappie, while catfish can be caught year-round. Further north of Houston, Lake Livingston is a large reservoir lake surrounded by natural beauty. The lake is a notable whitebass and catfish fishery. Around the lake you'll find opportunities forpicnicking, camping and mountain biking. White-tailed deer, swamp rabbits, mallards and other wildlife are frequently seen in this part ofthe Piney Woods. For a bigger adventure, hook up with Captain Mike Williams at Galveston Fishing Guides for an offshore trip to catch tarpons, sharks, redfish and more.
Jetski and SailPly the waters off Kemah on a Yamaha jetski through Nautica Watercrafts. Nautica has a large fleet of high speed jetskis and other vessels such as sea kayaks. You can even go on day-long or half-day captained fishingcharters into Galveston Bay. For a more relaxing time, take a day, sunset or night cruise aboard one of Nautica's captained sailboats. Eachcruise is roughly four hours long and is a great option for those seeking a romantic experience. South Coast Sailing Adventures has something for everybody - whether you are a beginner or experienced sailor. The South Coast sailing school offers ASA lessons for all skill levels, taught by instructors that will familiarize you with the ins andouts of navigation, racing and cruising. And South Coast's creative variation of the bed & breakfast concept allows you to spend a romantic night in a nautical setting.
Scuba DiveThe Spring/aquifer fed waters of 288 Lake are naturally filtered by the limestone and sandstone providing visibility ranges of 4 to 25 feet. That makes this one of the best places in the region to scuba dive, allowing certified divers to explore an ecosystem of aquatic plants and animals in a relaxed, contained environment. 288 Lake also offers kayaking and day access to its beach.
Sun and Surf
The 32-acre Sylvan Beach Park located on the northern end of Galveston Bay boasts fine sandy beaches and smaller waves perfect for swimming. You'll also find picnic tables, a fishing pier, boat ramp and more amenities. About an hour south of Houston is Galveston Island and the Galveston Island State Park, which features miles of scenic beaches and amenities such as picnic shelters, restroomsand more.
Looking to get a little wind in your face? Head to Kemah and take a ride on the Boardwalk Beast. This adrenaline rush of a speedboat takes passengers four miles into Galveston Bay at speeds up to 40 mph. Music, wind and waves are all a part of the fun on the Beast. Meanwhile, Wake Nation is a full-scale cable wakeboarding park set on a 12-acre lake just off Highway 288 south of the city. This attraction boasts 35-foot steel towers carrying a unique overhead cable system enabling riders to wakeboard, water skate, water ski, and kneeboard without a boat around the lake at up to 40 mph. For novice riders, a practice pond is available for an "easy start" ride. For the more experience riders, the lake is outfitted with custom-built jumps, grind rails, and sliders.
Dare to get your thrills at these area attractions
Soar in the Sky
The extreme sport of soaring uses sailplanes for motor-less flight so people can experience the feeling glide through the air. Located just east of Wallis, Texas, the Greater Houston Soaring Association offers gliding every weekend, weather permitting. Soaring in modern sailplanes gives you the opportunity to fly like the eagles. Today's sailplanes can fly for hours and cover great distances.
Located on a 134-acre airpark 25 minutes south of the 610 Loop, Skydive Spaceland offers classes, tandem and individual skydiving experiences with some of the best instructors in the industry. Do a first-time jump with a tandem instructor or spend a week in training and get your skydiving license. Skydive Spaceland is open seven days a week and can handle as many as 300 first-time jumpers each day. The facility also welcomes large groups.
Ready, Aim, Fire
Whether you're an expert marksman or a novice, shooting sporting clays is a great time. A game designed to simulate wing shooting of various game birds, sporting clays is set up a lot like golf, with various stations around a course where clay targets are thrown in pairs. This is just one of the activities available at American Shooting Centers in West Houston's George Bush Park , which also offers skeet shooting and rifle and pistol bulls-eye shooting.
Ever want to see who would fare better in a combat situation, you or your buddies? Well whether you're a paintball pro or a complete novice, you'll get a full-throttle experience at Urban Warzone --and figure out who can really hack it in war. As you navigate the field and the various bunkers, you'll get that adrenaline rush you crave.
Rock the Cradle
If you dream of riding bowls, grinding rails, or cutting and sweeping through the largest cradle in the world, don't miss the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark. Designed by the premiere skatepark firm Gridline, this state-of-the-art, public 30,000 square-foot in-ground skate park is the first world-class, in-ground skatepark in the Houston region.
With 42 top rope stations and a dedicated bouldering area, Texas Rock Gym draws climbing enthusiasts from across the region to its West Houston facility. Texas Rock Gym offers a wide assortment of classes and clinics for climbers as well as team building activities and organized programs for schools, companies and other groups. Visitors can access Texas Rock Gym on a day pass or an ongoing membership. A series of packages and add-on extras such as shoe rental are also available.