Finding places to hike around Houston continues to be a top interest for CultureMap readers, particularly at the beginning of the year, when the weather is cool and our resolution to exercise more kicks into high gear. But rather than travel to outlying areas, there's a wonderful park right in the center of the city, with hike and bike trails, a picnic pavilion, a magnificent underground cistern, a massive dog park and other places to escape.
A multi-million dollar renovation of Buffalo Bayou Park, wedged between Alley Parkway and Memorial Drive from downtown Houston to Shepherd Drive, offers one of the best urban parks in the nation, with more than 160 acres of enhanced hike and bike trails offering spectacular views of the downtown skyline — and so much more.
It's now easier to get to the park since Allen Parkway was recently revamped, with landscaped medians and stoplights at Dunlavy, Taft, Gillette, and Park Vista Drive, so pedestrians can cross the busy thoroughfare without feeling like they're taking their life in their hands. The $14 million project, overseen by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority and the City of Houston, also includes 132 new diagonal parking spaces along Buffalo Bayou between Taft and Sabine, so finding a spot to park is a lot easier. (Parking costs $1 for 3 hours.)
There is also a small free parking lot near the Wortham Insurance Visitor Center on Sabine, where you can obtain a map of the park (the center is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 8 am to 7 pm) and start exploring. That's what we did on a recent weekday afternoon, when the park was filled with joggers, walkers, bikers and families at play.
Heading west from the visitors center, there are wide bike trails along Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway, but walkers or joggers can follow along their own trail, known as the Kinder Footpath, located a little closer to the bayou. The Kinder Foundation contributed $30 million dollars toward the Buffalo Bayou project as Nancy and Rich Kinder have been big proponents of upgrading the parks along Houston waterways in an initiative known as Bayou Greenways 2020. (They contributed another $50 million to to the Bayou Greenways initiative.)
Among the most welcomed improvements are two pedestrian bridges that allow parkgoers to cross over Buffalo Bayou at key points. For years, Houstonians could only admire Jose Morales' magnificent Police Officer Memorial from afar as it was virtually impossible to access it. But now a striking pedestrian bridge of ribboned steel allows up-close views of the sculpture, which resembles a Mayan temple and it has become one of the park's most distinctive and popular attractions.
Other popular attractions are the two-acre Johnny Steel Dog Park, located near Montrose Boulevard, with ponds, washing areas and a large expanse of land for pooches and their owners to frolic: the Waugh Bat Colony, where thousands of the mysterious creatures alight at dusk amid a pungent odor ; and Lost Lake, which houses another visitors center and The Dunlavy, a glittery glass house with dozens of chandeliers that serves breakfast and lunch and is available for private parties at night. (The popular Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark is closed for renovation.)
Park planners struck a bonanza upon discovering an underground cistern that provided Houston's drinking water in the the early 20th century but has gone unused for years. Rather than bulldoze the area, as often happens in Houston, they turned it into the park's newest attraction, currently featuring a striking and spooky video art installation by Magdalena Fernández. (The Cistern is open Wednesday through Friday from 3 pm to 7 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 7 pm. Reservations are required at buffalobayou.org or 713-752-0314, ext. 301.)
For the adverturesome, there are also opportunities to rent boats or kayaks, with guided tours or the opportunity to head out on your own. B-cycle stations are also located around the park, so a bike can be rented for a hour or two for those who want to explore the park through downtown and beyond.
While these and other attractions make the park a magnet for visitors, it can be appreciated on its own as a place to wander amid a setting that is so pristine and natural, you forget you're in the middle of the the nation's fourth largest city. On days when it seems imperative to get away from the stresses of urban life, a walk in the park can do wonders.