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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Houston Arboretum and Nature Center - Go Now!

Left: A typical trail in this glorious urban park
Right: One of the ponds teeming with wildlife

Introduction:The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is a 155 acre non-profit urban nature sanctuary very close to the center of Houston. The robust visitor's center includes a research library, a gift shop, reception area with information about the center, and The Discovery Room for educating children about nature with interactive exhibits, touch screens, and lots more.

There are over 5 miles of nature trails, including forest, ponds, wetland and meadow habitats. The Arboretum and Nature Center is managed carefully to insure a balance of natural habitats and wildlife in the park. Much of the acreage is left natural and you get a real sense of being in a forest or out in the country. Fallen trees are left to decompose providing habitat for wildlife and nutrients for the soil. You may see trees destroyed by woodpeckers or lightning, ponds bubbling from decomposition and with floating tannin slicks, turtles and snakes, armadillo digging trails, and more. There are regular tours given by a naturalist on staff which are well worth your time. Naturalist, Melissa Geis, led a tour I attended and was easy-going, friendly and very knowledgeable about the park's flora and fauna. I was amazed at the things she pointed out that I would have missed seeing or hearing. Event calendars are available at the visitor center or by calling 713.681.8433.

Trees and shrubs in the park include loblolly pines, river birch, American beautyberry, dogwood, ash, holly, privet, sweetgum, magnolia, sycamore, laurel cherry, many species of oaks, and more than 100 species of trees and shrubs. Some trees have markers indicating the type. Check out the tree map available in the visitor center.

I was at the Arboretum a couple of years ago, got lost (hey! it can happen) and never went back. The center has dramatically improved their maps and signage so that my experience there recently was wonderful. And I'm kicking myself for missing two years of walking there. So if you haven't been there recently, go, go, go.

The Arboretum and Nature Center is located at 4501 Woodway Drive, adjacent to Memorial Park. Maps are located at: http://www.houstonarboretum.org/hours.asp and http://www.houstonarboretum.org/propertymap.asp Excellent trail maps are available for a minimal cost in the visitor center. Parking is at the Visitor's Center along the central driveway as you enter the park. There are two additional maps available: the "Checklist of Trees and Shrubs" which includes a map of trees (with names) along the driveway into the park; and the "Bird List" which has a list of the 167 species of birds having been seen in the park.

Hours: Open 7 days a week. Grounds and trails 8:30 to 6 pm. For all other closures and times, see http://www.houstonnaturecenter.org/hours.asp

Scoring: Walking = 5 Nature = 5
Walking: Most of the trails are boardwalks with some mulched trails. Good signage. Lots of shade. Level trails with enough room for passing. Jogging and cycling are not allowed on the trails which makes it easier for walkers. Only negative (at least for some) is that it is not open early morning and at night.

Nature: Really beautiful and wild nature sites. Good variety with ponds, a meadow, wetlands, and lots of different types of plants and wildlife. It's hard to believe you're just a few miles from downtown. The only drawback is road noise on the north and west sides of the park. Most of the trail system is restfully quiet.

Background: The Arboretum and Nature Center are part of Memorial Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country. From 1917 to 1923 it was the site of Camp Logan, a World War I Army training camp. After the war, the land was deeded to the City of Houston to be set aside as park dedicated to the memory of the WWI fallen soldiers. It was not until the 1950s, that Robert A. Vines, a local ecologist and educator, advocated carving out a piece of Memorial Park to serve as a nature sanctuary. Through the work of thousands of volunteers and the major contributions of philanthropists, the Arboretum became the showcase it is today.

Coolest Thing About Park: It's a true nature experience close to the city center and the people at the visitor center are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. They make it really easy to get information. The park's history is also fascinating, having been a part of Camp Logan during WWI. The armadillos occasionally dig up WWI artifacts in their nightly wanderings.

Trails: There are more than five miles of trails available. There is an Outer Loop trail and an Inner Loop Trail. All other trails are named (Alice Brown, Willow Oak, Palmetto, etc.) and go between these two loops. There is a good trail map available in the visitor center for a nominal charge. Signage is good throughout the trails.

  • Outer Loop = 1.9 miles
  • Inner Loop = .5 miles
  • Alice Brown Trail = .5 miles (most accessible)
  • Arrowwood Trail = .18 miles
  • Couch Birding Trail= .33 miles
  • Muscadine Trail = .22 miles
  • Palmetto Trail = .26 miles
  • R. A. Vines Trail = .47 miles
  • Willow Oak = .16 miles

Most of the trails are raised boardwalks, with some of the trail being mulched, packed dirt areas. Easy to walk with good drainage. Trails are wide enough for folks to pass or to walk with several abreast. There are plenty of signs so you won't feel lost. Restrooms and water are available at the visitor center. The North and West side are closer to roads and thus are noisier, however, not as noisy as the three mile jogging loop around Memorial Park, most of which is on the road. The rest of the Arboretum trails are relatively quiet. Since the trails are closed at night, lighting is not an issue.

Other things you'll want to know:

1. There is no admission charge, although donations are appreciated. (You are never asked for money, there are just discreet donation boxes in the visitor center.)

2. No picnicing or eating in the park to protect the wildlife.

3. No jogging, biking or horseback riding on the trails.

4. No feeding or bothering the wildlife. Snakes and spiders live in the park (as they do in all parks). I was told that copperheads and coral snakes have been seen (and are allowed to stay). Water moccasins are rather territorial and aggressive and are moved out of the area to the bayou when found. That being said, I've never seen a snake on the trails.

A big THANK YOU to volunteers, Jim Ohmart and Eileen Hatcher, and Arboretum Naturalist Melissa Geis for showing me around this beautiful park.

All blog content is copyrighted, 2006 Mary Anne Fields and Life Unfolds.

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