Even the toughest city slicker needs a break from the heat and bustle of Houston. A diverse range of natural environments are in and near the city, with no shortage of camping opportunities for refreshing the spirit and invigorating the soul. Campers have their choice of hiking, mountain biking, birding and even backpacking excursions in wilderness regions a short drive away from Space City.
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Brazos Bend State Park
In the Houston area, Brazos Bend State Park offers phenomenal camping in a wild and luscious setting, including primitive equestrian sites. Spot alligators from the 40-acre Elm Lake and its trails or hike into the hardwood forest. The Creekfield Lake Nature Trail is fully paved, accessible and offers stupendous views of wetland wildlife. Biking and fishing also are popular at Brazos but be sure to learn proper alligator etiquette for the most fulfilling expedition.
Sam Houston National Forest
If you're pining for wilderness but only have a weekend to spare, head north to Sam Houston National Forest. Hike the 7.7 mile-loop after pitching a tent under the oaks and dogwoods of Stubblefield Lake campground, or gather supplies for a longer backpacking trip down the 129-mile long Lone Star Hiking Trail. Whip through pine forests near Cold Springs on a rugged mountain biking trail, made for and by bikers. If you have an extra few days to spare, head out to Kelly Pond or the Little Lake Creek Wilderness with fishing tackle and pup tents for the most private, primitive camping in the forest.
Lakes Houston and Livingston
Only half an hour from the city, Lake Houston Wilderness Park provides stellar camping within heavy forest. Bring your own kayak or mountain bike to take advantage of the fresh air, or hike along 12 miles of trails. On the other side of Sam Houston, the popular Lake Livingston State Park boasts three boat ramps and 5 miles of trails through pine and oak woodland. Work up an appetite with an afternoon of fishing, or challenge yourself by kayaking through the lake. Paddle a canoe across the channel up Rocky Creek, then plunge in a swimming hole for maximum reward.
Galveston Island and Bay
At the Galveston Island State Park, wake to a stellar sunrise with views of migratory fowl by beach or bayside camp sites. Track nesting bird patterns in the spring before biking along the bayou, as Galveston Bay Island is known for some of the best birding in the country. Take an eco tour of the bay by kayak, or slice the waves with a rented Jet ski. Ride the Bolivar Ferry to Port Bolivar to spot bottlenose dolphins and breathe the salty air. Further up the bay, Seabrook offers great hiking through a rare Pine Gully freshwater slough environment. The same trail is used for the Seabrook Lucky Trails marathon and half marathon. Be sure to drive the extra half hour to check out Brazoria or Anahuac Wildlife Refuges, where you can watch roseate spoonbills fly across the horizon or find loafing 12-foot alligators on the banks of these coastal marshlands.
Big Thicket National Preserve
For the most adventurous camper, Big Thicket National Preserve is the place. No developed campsites exist at this park, only backpacking camping is allowed, including on the sandbars along along Village Creek and the Neches River. Backcountry permits are free. Several half-mile loops and an 18-mile loop take hikers throughout one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. During the last Ice Age, various biomes were pushed into the area, creating an 83,000-acre thicket of East Texan Piney Woods. Today, backpackers can seek out orchids or carnivorous plants as they weave through a maize of rivers, swamps and impossibly dense forest.