The Wonders of Houston’s Great Memorial Park
May 17, 2023
We’ve been spending some time recently exploring the enchanting bayou woods of Houston’s magnificent Memorial Park. Some of these woods were familiar: the marked trails, for instance, part of the Bayou Wilds, open to both hikers and bikers, on the west side of the park south of Memorial Drive.
But we hadn’t been on the little-known trails in the far west of the park north of Memorial Drive and between Memorial and Woodway since riding horses through there as a teenager. And there are still horse riders through there. And bike-riders.
Oddly, we managed to get lost on the marked trails, the purple, blue, red, yellow, orange, and aqua trails of the Bayou Wilds west of the Picnic Loop on the south side of Memorial Drive. The signage is confusing and even wrong, confirmed a middle-aged man on a trail bike who was studying the map posted on a trail. In fact, we encountered numerous people puzzling over the posted maps and color-coded posts, which, though they give a helpful coded location in event of a 911 emergency, sometimes seemed to point in two directions at once. Some public woods elsewhere have simple, easy-to-read directional signs with arrows and names and distances.
But it was a lovely walk through the shady, tangled woods, and not just because of the trees. We encountered numerous couples holding hands, people exploring together and having a romantic stroll through wild nature, individuals who nodded and smiled, families with happy young children, all reflecting the wondrous diversity of Houstonians.
But we did get lost, not necessarily a bad thing unless you’re on a time schedule. We ended up far to the east (downstream) of where we planned to be, emerging from the woods near the eastern end of the Picnic Loop. Traipsing across the mushy grass in the middle of the picnic area, we couldn’t help but remark that these were actually wetlands—mowed for some reason. It seemed contradictory, given the amount of money recently spent to create a large wetland prairie pond to the west where the playing fields had been. Seems like letting these wetlands grow in the middle of a large grassy area would be beneficial. And attractive.
Magically Lost Again
On another occasion we got delightfully lost entering the woods on a well-worn footpath, on a whim, having already lost a sense of direction, thinking we were somewhere else. (Okay. Getting old and distracted, too.) Actually it was Easter Sunday, and the Picnic Loop area was jammed with people grilling, playing volleyball, playing music, tossing colored Easter eggs; massive, oversized trucks parked everywhere.
Following the informal footpath (obviously other nature-loving humans were doing this too, treading exploratory paths all over the park as well), we ended up on the main tributary creek that flows from the center of the park, stepping down and across the sandy banks as we did as a child growing up on the mysterious bayou. Then clambering up the bank and walking back on the lengthy, wonderful, winding Green Trail. The parked car was somewhere.
We hope these magical woods will survive the landscaping projects of the park’s Master Plan, though the future seems to be removing a lot of trees (and undergrowth) and taking out the grassy picnic area. (p. 78) Some of that may be good. The picnic areas will be disbursed throughout the park. We hope it’s not turning a truly rare wild area in an urban setting into a more managed experience.
Far West Trails
The little-known far west trails seem to be mostly used by mountain bikers, though the enchanting paths north of Memorial are mostly flat and easily walkable. They are accessible from the sidewalk along the northern edge of Memorial Drive. Go to the Living Bridge near the railroad tracks and the Running Center at the western side of the park, take the stairs on the north side of Memorial Drive (or the roadside sidewalk if you don’t do stairs), and walk until you see an empty wooden sign on the right. The path to the right leads into what are known as the Northwest Trails, which are mostly flat, filled with tall Loblolly Pines, wild berries and flowers. The path to the left leads down into the creek bed which takes you through a drainage culvert and then another which leads you into the rugged, hilly trails known as the Triangle between Memorial Drive and Woodway. These trails are also accessible through a large drainage culvert in the Arboretum.
Note that these are some of the large culverts used by wildlife to cross under Memorial and Woodway, as our late founding president Frank Smith repeatedly argued to anyone who would listen.
These far west trails once had map displays and colored posts to help show the way. But the wooden map stands are weathered and empty now and the colored posts faded.
We asked the Conservancy’s CEO Shellye Arnold about the current plans for these lovely trails. According to the Conservancy’s 2015 Master Plan, the proposal is to remove the six lanes of Memorial Drive where it splits from Woodway and join these two parcels of woods, add 274 parking spaces, an entrance from the West Loop 610 feeder road, a 1.75-mile 24-foot wide asphalt cycling track to replace the roadway around the Picnic Loop currently used by cyclists and walkers, and 5.1 miles of multi-use trails. (pp. 78-79)
The Picnic Loop with its aging concrete picnic tables will no longer be a picnic area. Many trees will be removed. But there will be 5.4 miles of 2-3-foot-wide natural surface hiking and birding trails through the new savanna and old bayou woods as well as 7.4 miles of biking trails to the north and a 2.4-mile 12-foot wide soft-surface Southern Arc trail with wooden boardwalks and bridges. (pp. 77-79) Hopefully this will all be something like the delightful Eastern Glades north of Memorial. Picnic areas will be dispersed throughout the park. (p. 27)
But projects on the west side (except for the Old Archery Range west of the Loop) are not included in the Conservancy’s Ten-Year Plan, begun in 2018 and projected to be completed in 2028, pointed out Arnold. Next steps, according to the plan, include the Southern Arc trail and the controversial Memorial Groves (removal of forest and planting of rigid rows of a monoculture of pines), as well as the approximately 30 acres of wild woods of the Old Archery Range off Woodway west of the 610 Loop. These woods include a public boat ramp as well as historic structures, including a 19th century brick kiln about to fall into the bayou. (pp. 84-85 and 134)
However, Arnold said that the Conservancy might consider adding 911 location posts on the west side trails.