Things to do in Houston

Hiking in Houston: Guide to Houston’s Hiking Trails

Experience the unexpected natural beauty of hiking in Houston, and use it as a starting point to explore the wide range of things to do in Houston.

Houston is probably best known as a commercial and sporting epicenter, with oil in them thar hills, and home to some of the tallest buildings. But the local landscape is a patchwork of marshes, prairies, forests, and hills, making hiking in Houston an exciting journey, indeed.

1. Armand Bayou Nature Center

Much of Houston has been urbanized and developed over the years, but local wildlife still has a cushy home at the Armand Bayou Nature Center. With 2,500 acres of space on hand, the ABNC is the largest preserve of its kind in the United States. Some 370 species call the preserve home, including reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and more than 220 kinds of birds that use the land as a place to rest as they migrate along the famous Central Flyway.

These birds travel from the Canadian Prairies to land around the Gulf of Mexico. So, bring your birdwatching group here at the right time and there will be more than enough fodder for your journal.

The Armand Bayou is also a historical site. Excavations have uncovered artifacts left behind by tribes such as the Akokisas, Guapite, and Atakapa that called the region home. Settlers took over in the mid-1800s, thriving off of the game and seafood they caught in and around the bayou and sold off to sustain their families.

Today, the beauty appreciated by natives and settlers centuries ago can be enjoyed by visitors who walk miles of cultivated trails, including a looped boardwalk and a bison-viewing platform.

There are plenty of formal activities on the docket, too. Sign up for a night hike, enroll the kids in a months-long ecology program, take a paint-by-nature class, or go on a kayak tour with your BFFs.

Photographer: Rojith Thomas

2. Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park's position up against the Brazos River almost guarantees you a hike with a front-row seat to animals galore. Alligators prowl along the wetlands here, as do everything from snowy egrets and American white ibis to white-tailed deer and North American river otters. Furry? Check. Feathered? Check. Scales and mega-large teeth? Better watch where you step!

This spot is just 45 minutes from downtown Houston, which makes it easy to pack your smartphone and a pair of comfy shoes. Before you know it, you'll be on your way to a choice of over 37 miles of trails in no time at all. Some of the trails are wheelchair accessible, and there are options to bike or ride a horse, too. Choose from nature trails through the wetlands, Houston hiking trails that circle the lake, or multi-use trails where you can mingle with other peace-seekers and take turns snapping photos for the ‘gram.

3. Sam Houston National Forest

The city of Houston wasn’t established until 1837, but the area marked as Sam Houston National Forest has been occupied by humans for around 12,000 years. You can spot some of that history courtesy of the 128-mile landmark Lone Star Hiking Trail. Afraid you’ll get lost? No need for Hansel and Gretel-style crumb markers here. Park management has put out aluminum stakes to help you stay on track.

There are shorter trails, as well. The Four Notch Loop Trail is only 9.2 miles long and can be tackled in one afternoon. Or, you can split up the hike into several days and find a spot to camp at between legs. For pure scenery and a real-life Snow White moment, try the South Wilderness Trail.

The marshy ground demands shoes you don’t mind sacrificing to Mother Nature, but in return, you’re likely to see tons of local animal species and some gorgeous wildflowers if the season and circumstances are right.

If you think you might want to stay the night, plan ahead by making a reservation or arriving extra early. There are three developed campgrounds around the forest, but one (Double Lake) takes reservations and the other two (Cagle and Stubblefield) are first-come, first-serve only. Getting there early could mean you get the best spot for services or a trail-adjacent setup that gets you hiking sooner once dawn arrives.

4. Big Thicket

As fun as Big Thicket is to say, it’s even more fun to hike. Think long, arched tree branches that form a canopy overhead as piles of leaves crunch underfoot — but that’s not all. There are as many as 11 diverse ecosystems snuggled into this national preserve, including pine forests, bayous surrounded by centuries-old cypress trees, and sprawling Texas Blackland Prairies.

There are no lines signaling your transition from one ecosystem to the next, so the best thing to do is simply wander. Meander through 40 miles of trails, choosing shorter jaunts when you have the kids and longer loops when you’re feeling daring and athletic like one of our skilled acrobats. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for carnivorous plants, wildflowers, mushrooms, reptiles, all kinds of mammals, and birds aplenty — and if you’ve been hoping to spot the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, this could be your lucky day.

Photographer: Jeffrey M. Frank

5. Bastrop State Park

Bastrop State Park is one of the most storied hiking trails in Houston after the area experienced a rebirth. Following a thorough ravaging at the hands of forest fires and floods, the park has come back to life, with new trees and generations of animals showcasing our planet’s ability to persevere.

You can swim, bike, and even drive your way around Bastrop, but the best way to witness the loblolly pines, snag pics of the black-and-white warbler, and make friends with millipedes is to hike. Trails are rated according to length and difficulty. On a slow day when the coffee just isn’t kicking in, you might stick to the moderately easy, 0.3-mile Piney Hill Spur or Pine Warbler Trail. Piney Hill has exposed Carrizo sandstone that’s worth a look, while Pine Warbler is a sweet spot to see what your footprints look like next to animal tracks.

Lost Pines Loop is 8.2 miles long and the most challenging of the bunch, but your reward is a rolling landscape that includes steep hills and lovely views.

6. Lake Houston Wilderness Park

It’s a quick 30-minute drive north from Houston on Highway 59 to Lake Houston Wilderness Park, which means you’ll barely have time to listen to a handful of top 40 hits before you’re ready to park and explore. Much of this 5,000-acre park is thick with foliage and fauna, but over the years park management has made space for cabins, campsites, and 20 miles of marked trails.

You can check maps ahead of time to see which trek suits your physicality, time constraints, and other needs best. There are plenty of short nature trails perfect for tired legs and beginning hikers, such as Peach Creek that’s about 5 miles long and includes a walk over a lovely bridge so you can admire the brook as it babbles along below.

There’s also space for mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, biking, and birdwatching, but you’ll have to bring your own equipment. Same goes if you want to camp on site, though there are also some cabins available if an indoor version of the great outdoors is more your speed.

Photographer: Brandon Ryan Mcgee

7. Huntsville State Park

Huntsville State Park is everything you think of when you picture a lakeside retreat. You can camp, fish, swim, rent a kayak, or have a picnic, but whatever your plans, try to work in a hike. There are 21 miles of trails here, ranging from the more challenging Triple C Trail (8.4 miles round trip) to the relatively easy Loblolly Trail (just 0.2 miles round trip), the latter of which starts and ends at the park’s nature center.

As you test your stamina on some of the best hiking trails in Houston, keep your head on a swivel. In addition to witnessing bald eagles and American alligators in their natural habitat, you can see work done by Company 1823, a group of African-American WWI veterans that helped build various things around the park, including the CCC Lodge.

8. Terry Hershey Park Hike and Bike Trail

In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with replacing the Buffalo Bayou with paved stretches better suited to the Corps’ needs. Environmentalist Terry Hershey stepped in, gaining support from the community and a then-budding politician named George H. W. Bush, and the bayou was preserved.

The Terry Hershey Park Hike and Bike Trail was named in her honor. It’s an urban life-meets-wildlife park that gives anyone with the motivation an opportunity to explore nature while relaxing in the knowledge that exercise stations, restrooms, and even city views are all a stone’s throw away.

Pro tip: The west end of the Hershey Trail hooks up with the George Bush Park Hike and Bike Trail. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can double down on your day outdoors and continue your exploration on some or all of the additional 11-mile path.

9. Buffalo Bayou Park

In many ways, Buffalo Bayou Park is Houston’s answer to NYC’s Central Park, and it's just one of the best parks in Houston. There are 160 acres of land secluded near downtown Houston, leaving plenty of room for nature play areas and picnic tables to dog and skate parks. Droves of people come here to lounge along the bayou or play Frisbee with friends in front of the alfresco art installations. You can also bike and hike to your heart’s content — all with the stunning city skyline as your backdrop.

The Kinder Footpath is one of the widest and most forgiving Houston trails. It’s all asphalt and measures 5 feet across, leaving room for walkers and joggers to coexist peacefully and progress at their own pace. The Sandy Reed Memorial Trail is even wider at 10 feet across. This trail also leads cyclists and explorers through varying landscapes, so you can see the best of the bayou without ever leaving the city.

Photographer: Anvesh Uppunuthula

10. Houston Arboretum & Nature Center

The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center sits on the western edge of Memorial Park, straddling the line between city living and natural wonder. The sanctuary contains 155 acres of safe spaces that shield native plants and animals from possible devastation. As skyscrapers cast their shadows, life continues on here, with kids playing on the updated boardwalks and youngsters learning about their surroundings courtesy of six educational field stations set up around the grounds.

This is also home to one of Houston’s hiking trails that's best suited to families. The 5-mile walk is free of charge and so easy to navigate that thousands of students come to visit each year. For some city dwellers, this may be their only chance to see prairie and savannah landscapes and admire bugs skimming across a placid pond, and it’s literally 4 minutes from downtown.

Photographer: Matt Beltz

11. West White Oak Bayou Trail

Locals who need to dash out from work for a quick jog or residents of downtown skyscrapers in need of fresh air can easily get what they need on the West White Oak Bayou Trail. This pathway is urban hiking at its finest, with paved trails, railed bridges, and city scenes interspersed with lush greenery and smaller parks such as T. C. Jester.

The marked path also takes hikers through a couple notable neighborhoods. Jog through Houston Heights, a historic enclave that dates back to the 1800s and has a fun, eclectic vibe, and Woodland Heights, which was established by the William Wilson Realty Company in 1907. Both areas are full of prime examples of Queen Anne and Craftsman homes.

12. Martin Dies, Jr. State Park

While some Houston hiking spots are so close to the city you can plod around the forest in the morning and still make your plans for a late brunch, Martin Dies, Jr. State Park is just beyond city limits. It’ll take you about 2 hours to get from downtown Houston to the park, but it’s worth the journey to see where the Angelina and Neches rivers meet.

The hiking trails at Martin Dies range from a short-and-easy 0.3-mile skip to more challenging 2.2-mile trails that aren’t necessarily long but do require traversing several bridges and rugged shorelines. You can also paddle the park’s creeks or bike along Island Trail for fresh air. With any luck, you may see local wildlife, such as opossums, nine-banded armadillos, raccoons, foxes, and bobcats. This spot hosts a varied clan, not unlike our diverse community of performers. 

There's another bonus to being this far away from the city: The lack of artificial lighting makes this one of the area’s go-to spots for stargazing. Go out when the Quadrantids or Perseids are high in the sky, then spend the day hiking before you settle in for a night of becoming one with the universe.

Embrace the Trails: Houston's Natural Symphony Awaits

With such a diverse array of pathways and parks on offer, hiking in Houston can be as easy going or as challenging as you like. Make it an hour-long activity, or drive a couple hours and spend a week communing with nature and reconnecting with your inner peace. Just remember that summers here are hot and humid and winters are short with temps hovering around 53 degrees. Dress accordingly, with layers in cooler months and lots of water and electrolytes to power your walk.

Ready to come in from the forest? Houston’s exuberant nightlife awaits. Grab dinner and drinks, then head over to one of our performances. Our Houston shows epitomize what it’s like to harness a riot of creative energy and turn it into a look at diversity, art, and what it’s like to be human.

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