As a lover of natural things, from time to time I have to get out of my semi-urban surroundings and get out into the wild. From my home base in Houston, I discovered one such place that left me feeling like I was way out in the wilderness, though in reality I was only about an hour away from my home. That place is Brazos Bend State Park, situated to the southwest of the ever-expanding Houston metropolitan area.
Passing the open expanses of ranchland, and the greenery specific to humid East Texas (a far cry from the arid landscapes of West Texas) the park is an oasis of swamplands, grassy fields, tranquil (though gator-infested) ponds, huge trees and its namesake river. It is also home to a large observatory, but more on that later.
From the visitor center, where they display maps, information and a collection of snakes that can be found in the park, the elm lake trail isn’t far away. This level loop of packed gravel sports scenic views of both the lake and swamps, and offers visitors the high probability of encountering alligators in the wild. Upon my visit, toward the late afternoon, they were most definitely out in force; we saw at least a dozen, some from just a few thrilling/frightening feet away, as the concept of a trail seems lost on the gators who will just sprawl out wherever the mood takes them. That means great photo ops and an adrenaline rush for the rest of us. It also means you should keep your kids and dogs on a short leash!
Along the trail are wooden overlooks jutting out in the water where at times the gators will be floating or swimming by. Or as was the case during my visit, fighting each other in a thrash of roiled water like something right out of National Geographic.
There are miles of other trails, each with their own appeal. Large oaks with dripping Spanish Moss are everywhere, and around sunset they catch the light in a mesmerizing way. There are picnic tables, campgrounds and other such facilities at various places, allowing for a full day’s outing. But in my opinion, the real fun happens after dark.
The George Observatory – a satellite complex of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (pun not intended) is open to the public on Saturday evenings. There are three large telescopes pointed at various attractions in the night sky, and it is necessary to pay a fee to look through them. On a clear night, it is also necessary to wait on a really long line as there’s no shortage of prospective stargazers. A free option for the frugal and less patient is to line up near one of the numerous volunteers that come out in force bringing their own massive telescopes, who will allow you to take a peek at the wonders of the cosmos. Granted, to a man they seemed a bit weird, but dealing with a little quirkiness was a small price to pay to gaze out at Jupiter and its moons or the Orion Nebula. If you’re there looking for a date, then that’s another story.
A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning a visit. First, there is a $7 per person entrance fee irregardless of how many cars you come in. The chance of you seeing an alligator and/or being up close to one is rather high, so be careful of your surroundings, especially near water, and if you have small children or pets with you be doubly so. In and around the observatory there are numerous signs forbidding the use of camera flashes or phone lights (everything is lit by eerie red lamps that are less stressful on the eyes) and if you dare use one you will invariably draw the very vocal ire of those around you. Be respectful and keep your lights off. For more information and tips, check out the informative park website.
No doubt about it, for a slice of the bayou, some wildlife viewing or amateur astronomy, Brazos Bend State Park has something for everyone. Bring your bug repellent, zoom lens and telescopes if you have them. Whether up, down or in the middle, this park has no shortage of things to see.