Houston 2020: Today’s Best Parks & Outdoor Destinations

Photo courtesy of Buffalo Bayou Partnership

It’s 2020, y’all. As we all embark on this new decade, take a look at some of Houston’s “bests” today. Enter Houston 2020, a new series highlighting 20 local things and places that are at the top of their “A” game, helping to define the city at this very moment. The listings aren’t ranked, and in some cases, will be broken down by category.

Contrary to popular belief, Houston is quite beautiful. And with more investment in preserving and expanding our green spaces, Houston is looking even finer in the year 2020.

Today’s best parks, nature trails, and outdoor destinations offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life, rocking opportunities for hiking and biking, kayaking and birdwatching, skating, swinging and sliding, and outdoor sports like tennis, basketball, and softball, plus community events from movie nights and concerts to kids sing-a-longs and group fitness classes.

Look out for future listings, from Today’s Best Breweries and Brunches to the Best Performing Arts Companies.

Best All-Around Parks

  • Buffalo Bayou Park near Downtown – Stretching from Shepherd to Sabine, Buffalo Bayou Park is one of Houston’s crown jewels, offering 160 acres of picturesque scenery and skyline views. Visit and you’ll discover hike and bike trails winding along the bayou; thought-provoking art installations hidden throughout; performance and outdoor activity spaces including Eleanor Tinsley Park, the Johnny Steele Dog Park, and the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark; kids areas like the Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area; totally cool features like the Waugh Bat Bridge and historic Cistern; and a gorgeous, chandelier-lit kitchen and bar, The Dunlavy. Look out for a lineup of fun events taking place at the park, from the annual Freedom Over Texas fireworks on Independence Day to music, food, and beer festivals.
  • Discovery Green in Downtown – Nestled among Live Oaks and spanning twelve acres in the heart of Downtown, this urban green space offers a beautiful escape from the city. With open lawn space, a lake for seasonal kayaking and ice skating, 600+ free annual events from fitness classes and pop-up markets to concerts and movies, permanent and rotating art installations, in-park restaurants, and a rocking kids playground, the park is fun for all ages.
  • Hermann Park in the Museum District – Serving over six million annual visitors, this gorgeous 445-acre park is one of Houston’s most iconic treasures. That’s thanks to features like the family-friendly Houston Zoo, free performance venue Miller Outdoor Theatre, picturesque McGovern Centennial Gardens and Japanese Garden, nature-filled Bayou Parkland, and kid-friendly Hermann Park Railroad; plus picnic areas, hiking trails, a lake, playgrounds and more.

Best Parks for Hiking, Biking & Fitness

  • George Bush Park in Energy Corridor – Stretched over 7,800 acres, you can spend the entire day exploring George Bush Park. The public park boasts jogging and biking trails lined by swamps, ponds, and forests, plus soccer and baseball fields, playgrounds and pavilions, and a shooting range.
  • Memorial Park in Washington Corridor/Memorial Park –One of Houston’s most beloved green spaces offers a year-round park for outdoor activities in its walkable 1,466 acres. You’ll find locals making their rounds on the three-mile crushed granite loop (even in the hottest months); thirty miles of shaded, twisting trails for hiking and biking; a golf course and driving range; and fields and courts for everything from soccer and softball to tennis and volleyball.
  • Sam Houston National Forest in New Waverly – One of four national forests in Texas, this massive 160,000-acre forest is spread over three counties (Montgomery, San Jacinto, and Walker) and contains Hunstville State Park. It’s the perfect spot for fishing, bird and wildlife watching, biking and canoeing, and camping, but one of the highlights is the award-winning 128-mile Lone Star Hiking trail, which has been dubbed the hiker’s “Jewel of Texas” and a portion of which has gained National Recreation Trail status.

Best Parks for Kids & Families

  • Donovan Park in the Heights – Kids can run through a fortress, climb aboard a wooden train, and hit the monkey bars, swings, and slides at this imaginative wooden playground, which sits off Heights Boulevard. After all that play, popular Heights eateries like Cloud 10 Creamery, Local Foods, Melange Creperie, and even Golden Bagel (over on White Oak) are just a short skip away.
  • Levy Park in Upper Kirby – This playful, 5.6-acre green space is an area favorite for families thanks to its awesome Children’s Park area, complete with a climbing wall and seven-foot-wide slide, Cosmo climbing sphere, lighted tunnels, dance chimes, a three-tiered water feature, play berms, and Children’s Pavilion. It also rocks a picturesque landscape, fun programming, a community garden, and a dog park. Bring the family to experience, do, and play, with activities from art and games for the kiddos to yoga classes and concerts for all.
  • T.C. Jester Park in Garden Oaks/Oak Forest – You’ll find a community pool and splash pads at this neighborhood park, which runs along the White Oak Bayou between 34th and 43rd in the GOOF-area. There are also plenty of shaded spots, a small dog park and playground for the kiddos, 21-hole disc golf course, sports fields, and biking and jogging trails.

Best Nature Trails & Wildlife Centers

  • Armand Bayou Nature Center in Clear Lake – With 2,500 acres of natural wetlands, forest, prairie, and marsh, this colossal nature center is home to over 370 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Explore its hiking trails, go birding, visit a historic farm, take a pontoon boat cruise, or paddle your way through nature on a guided canoe tour.
  • Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge in Lake Jackson – Just east of Lake Jackson and Surfside Beach, this wildlife conservation hosts several species—think waterfowl, shellfish and finfish, blue herons, alligators, frogs, butterflies and more—thanks to a rich habitat created by fresh and saltwater, mild temperatures, bay waters, and a unique blend of soils. Open 365 days a year during daylight hours (sunrise to sunset), the refuge offers activities from bird watching and wildlife photography to nature trail hiking and fishing.
  • Brazos Bend State Park in Needville – Looking for a wildlife experience? Hit this nearly 5,000-acre state park, which sits along the Brazos River. It’s a popular destination for hiking and biking, fishing and birding, horseback riding, camping, and wildlife spotting, from alligators and river otters to foxes and white-tailed deer. It also hosts the George Observatory for stargazing (currently set up near the Nature Center as it undergoes renovations on its main campus).
  • Houston Arboretum and Nature Center in Memorial Park – This 155-acre urban nature sanctuary is tucked away on the western edge of Memorial Park, open to the public daily with free admission. Escape the city life and explore nature by walking its five miles of trails; take a stroll through the sensory garden; make discoveries about Houston’s urban wildlife in the interactive Discovery Room; and check out a lineup of programs (for kids, families, and adults) as well as fun events from bird walks to nature-inspired food, beer, and wine classes.
  • Mercer Botanic Gardens in Humble – Around 30 minutes from Downtown, you’ll find 300 acres of horticultural beauty, complete with manicured hiking trails, a butterfly house, picturesque picnic areas, barbecue pavilions, a cypress swamp, and a wealth of animal life—not to mention the region’s largest collection of native and cultivated plants.

Best Parks for Community Programs & Events

  • Emancipation Park in Third Ward Purchased by community members of Third and Fourth Wards in 1872 (all former slaves) to commemorate the end of slavery, this historic park is the oldest park in Texas. The significant greenspace was donated to the city in 1916, and today, the landmark’s features include Community, Cultural, Recreation, and Aquatic Centers; basketball and tennis courts; a baseball field; a theater; a sprayground and playground; walking trail; picnic areas and more. And don’t forget to check out their calendar of programming, from youth summer programs and movie nights to the annual Juneteenth celebrations.
  • Evelyn’s Park in Bellaire – Five acres of relaxing green space offer locals a chance to unwind in the beautiful outdoors. Hit this local favorite to escape the sun under the canopies of live Texas oaks, stroll the intimate gardens and meander the trails, and let the kids wear themselves out on the expansive lawn and natural playground. The park also boasts public art installations, a café, and fun community events from movie nights and concerts to group fitness classes.
  • Market Square Park in Downtown – The historic Market Square Park may be tiny, but with a Niko Niko’s stand, shady walkways, dog runs, and a packed calendar of events, it’s full of fun. Head here for Blanket Bingo, the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow, outdoor markets, and festivals.
  • Midtown Park in Midtown – Taking over the “super block” of Main, McGowen, Travis, and Anita, this community gem offers three acres of pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and greenspace, complete with a sprawling lawn, playground, game courts, market areas, water features, art, a dog run and more. Look out for a lineup of special events from free Zumba, community yoga and “yappy” hour to big concerts and festivals.

Best Outdoor Destinations Near Houston

  • Galveston Island About an hour from Houston, Galveston Island harbors 32 miles of beaches. Dip your toes in the sand at popular spots like Stewart Beach and East Beach (and be sure to check out these fun things to do). The western end of the island also plays home to the beautiful Galveston Island State Park, a 2,000-acre tranquil state park offering natural surroundings from sand dunes and wetlands to picturesque coastal prairies. There are plenty of opportunities to become one with nature, with an ample mosaic of wildlife and outdoor activities. Go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, bird watching, geocaching, and kayaking; or pitch a tent for a night of romantic beach camping and stargazing.
  • Lake Conroe From boating and boarding to romantic sunsets, a visit to Lake Conroe makes for a perfect day (or weekend) trip. Rent a paddleboard, get out on the water on a boat or jet ski, enjoy some quiet time with a day of fishing, bring a group of friends and spend a day of fun in the sun on a super cool cycle boat (a human-powered party pontoon with pedal stations), or enjoy views of the lake and sunset on a romantic dinner cruise
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Brooke Viggiano is a food and lifestyle writer residing in Houston. When she's not contributing to publications like 365 Things to Do in Houston, Thrillist Houston and the Houston Press, she's on the hunt for the coolest happenings in the city. You can follow her musings on Twitter @BrookeViggiano .