THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Brazos Bend State Park: Touch an alligator, see the heavens and go fish in Houston's shadow

Brazos Bend State Park: Touch an alligator, see the heavens and go fish in Houston's shadow

Some families demands more from their weekend destination than spotless tent sites and a warren of hiking trails. They want a place where they can pet a baby alligator, gaze upon the rings of Saturn and fish with no license required. Thankfully for Houston’s discerning campers, Brazos Bend State Park offers all these and more just 45 miles away.

Soaring, rain-plump clouds lumbered across the coastal plain as I drove through the park gates. The wall of trees, bursting with green from the recent precipitation, crept closer to the sides of the road and the yells of birds and bugs grew louder as I made my way to the nature center. There I met one of the volunteers who keep Brazos Bend a popular destination for guided nature walks, birding and wildlife demonstrations.

Six-year veteran Marilyn Vossler filled me in on programs from hummingbird leg banding to hands-on demonstrations with snakes and their bigger cousins from the swamp.

“We let them handle an alligator," Vossler says. "They get to touch it.”

Outside the nature center, she’s partial to hiking, but Vossler notes that biking trails of varying difficulty and the equestrian facilities are popular as well. In all, some 24 miles of trails weave between seven small lakes and three miles of Brazos River frontage.

After our chat, I cross the street to find a wheelchair-friendly nature trail around Creekfield Lake. Almost immediately, I find myself in a staring match with a downy white crane just a few feet from the path. Rowdy ducks object to my presence and squawk at me from the swamp where a heron leaps from the reeds on my way back.

One aspect of the park’s setup that’s particularly admirable is the access to wildlife. Multiple viewing platforms, accessible trails and even narrated walks for the visually impaired bring visitors close to ecosystems that would require miles of hiking or a boat to explore elsewhere.

Farther up the same trail, the Houston Museum of Natural Science offers visitors a glimpse of the heavens through three telescopes at the George Observatory and Challenger Learning Center. Saturday viewings start at 3 p.m., run through 10 p.m. and cost $5. Bits of one meteorite on display bear interstellar grains — the traces of an ancient supernova and the oldest substance known to man. Kids also are likely to get a kick out of the simulated mission control center, spacecraft and space missions.

Brazos Bend welcomed between 600 and 800 visitors during Memorial Day weekend. Not surprisingly, the park’s campground fills up quick. Sites range from primitive backcountry spots to shady grass-lined tent pads and slots for opulent motor homes fit for the Jonas Brothers.

Most are reserved months out during the popular spring and fall months, with less traffic August, December and January.

As I passed several deer, a big brown bunny and oak shaded picnic sites with tables as far as the eye can see, the reasons for the park’s popularity are obvious. As Vossler succinctly summarizes: “It’s a neat place.”

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You never know where a Brazos Bend trail will lead you. Photo by Peter Barnes
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It's hard to believe you're only 45 minutes from downtown. Photo by Peter Barnes
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A picnic cooler lunch? Photo by Peter Barnes
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You're not seeing these flowers in your garden. Photo by Peter Barnes
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Making new friends at Brazos Bend. Photo by Peter Barnes
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One of the great things about the park is the accessibility of its nature. Photo by Peter Barnes