The Bayou City has enough public green spaces to satisfy even the pickiest of urban nature lovers. From Hermann Park to Menil Park, to Buffalo Bayou Park and Discovery Green, there are a myriad of ways for nature-inclined Houstonians to get their great outdoors fix without venturing beyond the 610 Loop. At the top of that list is the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, Houston’s best-kept hidden gem.
Located on the western edge of the city’s vast Memorial Park, the arboretum established as a 155-acre nonprofit urban nature sanctuary in 1967. Since then, the park has provided intrepid urban nature with access to five miles of pristine trails winding through the sanctuary’s native prairie, savanna, wetland, woodland and riparian habitats. The arboretum is one of only a handful of urban green spaces in Houston that you can truly get lost in. While strolling through its arboreal-inclined trails, it’s often impossible to see any evidence of the surrounding city, only the distant hum of nearby traffic.
Its ability to fully immerse its visitors in nature is what sets the arboretum, open daily from dawn to dusk, apart from Houston’s other green spaces. A side effect of this ability however, is that it’s pretty easy for hikers to become disoriented in its tangled web of trails.
Whether you’re looking to visit the arboretum for your first or 10th time, this guide will provide you with some helpful tips on what to wear, what to pack and what to see during your visit.
What to wear: Hiking the arboretum is a bit different than walking downtown, and it requires an appropriate outfit. Hiking shoes are a must, as is comfortable athletic clothing. In the cooler times of the year, layers are highly recommended. If you heat up as you hike, which you likely will, you can easily shed these layers. Light layers are also recommended in the summer months since they can help protect you from sunburns as well as the ever-present threat of mosquitos, the most loathsome of the arboretum’s wildlife. Hats with a large brim are also helpful, as are umbrellas if you’re sunburn prone.
What to pack: Fill a backpack with a selection of snacks in case you get hungry during your walk. You should also bring a water bottle (there are water-filling stations in the arboretum’s central complex), as well as sunscreen and bug spray. Just remember to pack light if you’re planning on doing a lot of hiking.
If you’re bringing a four-legged friend with you, remember to bring waste disposal bags in addition to a collapsible water bowl to provide them with much-needed hydration during the hike. Although dogs are welcome at the arboretum, they must be leashed and remain on the trails at all times. They are also prohibited from swimming in any of the arboretum’s bodies of water.
What to see: The arboretum can be somewhat difficult to navigate for first-timers, and it often takes several trips before someone is able to get a firm grasp on the lay of the land. An easy way to understand the arboretum is the analogy of Beltway 8 and the 610 Loop. Encircling much of the arboretum is the Outer Loop, a mostly sunny and wide-laned trail that serves as the site’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. Inside the Outer Loop is the Inner Loop, a smaller and mostly forested loop featuring trails that are smaller in width and packed full of trees. Connecting both of the loops together are several trails that function much like highways.
Below, find our recommendations for the top trails to check out once you’ve gotten your Outer Loop and Inner Loop fix.
The Ravine Trail:
Located in the northwestern corner of the arboretum, the Ravine Trail is the holy grail of the arboretum. One of the most picturesque spots on the whole site, the Ravine Trail is where you’ll experience the most elevation change. Connecting the trails are a series of beautiful bridges that take you over the water-filled ravine from which it gets its name. It’s also home to a leviathan sycamore that is rumored to be the oldest of its species in Harris County.
The Wildflower Trail: Located in the northern reaches of the arboretum, the Wildflower Trail is a lovely loop that provides great views of wildflowers and other more brush-like denizens of the arboretum. Since it’s located near the Woodway Parking Loop, it’s a great spot from which to start your visit.
The Couch Birding Trail: Located in the southernmost tip of the arboretum is the Couch Birding Trail. This heavily-wooded trail leads to an elevated field station overlooking Buffalo Bayou. As the name implies, it’s a great place for birdwatching.
The Buttonbush Trail: Located in the west side of the arboretum near the Conservation Center, the Button Bush Trail is a short, but fun trail that includes a raised deck that takes you directly above a swamp. It’s a great spot to look at aquatic wildlife, including toads and minnows.
The Meadow Pond: Located in the southeastern corner of the arboretum between the North Meadow and South Meadow trails, the Meadow Pond, adjacent to an expansive meadow, is one of the crown jewels of the arboretum. The pond is surrounded by raised decks that allow direct access to the water. It’s a great spot for looking at turtles, and there’s even an alligator somewhere within its watery depths.
North Meadow .09 mile
South Meadow .13 mile
The Donor Boardwalk: Located in the northeastern corner of the arboretum, the Donor Boardwalk is a spiraling, raised boardwalk that takes you across the picturesque South Woodway Pond, which is full of aquatic wildlife and foliage.
For more information on the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, visit here.