10 big Texas-style adventures for your trip to Houston

January 08, 2016                 7m read time
Kristen Bailey


Everything’s big in Texas, including Houston and its residents’ appetite for outdoor & cultural fun. Boat on the bayou, hike or bike the large network of trails, and get up to some wild and crazy shenanigans such as tanker surfing and cable wakeboarding. Slather on the sunscreen and head into the Houston sun for some serious cavorting, Texas-style.

They say everything is big in Texas—the hair, the barbecue, the rattlesnakes, high school football—and Houston is no exception. The largest city in the state and the fourth largest in the U.S., there’s a wider variety of non-NASA-related things to do in H-Town than its “Space City” nickname implies.  

For starters, Houston has one of the most robust museum districts in the country with no less than 18 within a few city blocks. From the Museum of Natural Science, to the National Museum of Funeral History, to the John C. Freeman Weather Museum—which features a Cyclone Room that contains an actual cyclone chamber—your appetite for culture will be aptly whetted.

And museums are just the beginning. Green spaces abound: Memorial Park is Houston’s whopping 1,466-acre response to New York’s 843-acre Central Park, while the beloved Buffalo Bayou Park is home to 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats that emerge at nightfall to hunt mosquitoes. If watching a batty spectacle makes you hungry for a nighttime snack, do as locals do and flock to House of Pies for a midnight snack (we suggest a hearty slice of Bayou Goo).

Get your fill of 10-gallon hats at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo—the largest event of its kind in the world—or take a subterranean safari 20 feet below street level through the Houston tunnel system. A six-mile network connecting 95 city blocks, this underground city features hundreds of restaurants, movie theaters, and retail shops.

Bottom line? Whether you like art or bats or pie or something else entirely, Houston’s got it all in spades. Here are 10 favorites.

1. Find Happy Trails On Horseback

Horseback riders in the woods Peter Braakmann

Horseback riders in the woods

Peter Braakmann

 

Whether you’ve been riding horses for life or are a total newbie, Cypress Trails Equestrian Center just 20 minutes north of downtown has a trail and mount appropriate for your skill level. With beautiful breeds including Arabians, Paints, Spanish Mustangs, and Appaloosas, your steed will be as beautiful as the maze of lovely wooded riding trails that await. Choose from a one, three, or all-day ride that covers 10 miles and includes lunch. Or, make a day of it and opt for a 24-mile round-trip picnic ride.

2. Hoot and Holler at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in Houston, Texas Ed Schipul

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in Houston, Texas

Ed Schipul

 

Every March, folks from around the globe slide into their Wranglers and Tony Lamas and pour into town for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. The biggest and most elaborate of its kind in the world, this 20-day festival is an ag-lover’s dream with a petting zoo, milking parlor, birthing center, honeybee exhibit, and tons more. The main event, naturally, is the rodeo, which draws more than 65,000 fans to its 20 daily performances including bareback riding, team roping, chuckwagon races, bull riding, and mutton bustin’. The entertainment lineup has some serious pop culture cred, too, with musical blue bloods like Beyonce and Mary J. Blige having graced the stage in past years.

3. Paddle Clear Lake & Swim at Sylvan Beach

Man on a stand up paddle board Terry Schmidbauer

Man on a stand up paddle board

Terry Schmidbauer

 

Southeast of Houston lies brackish Clear Lake. A favorite destination for paddlers, it’s one of the largest boating communities in Texas with more than 7,000 boat slips and 20 marinas. Rent a canoe, stand-up paddleboard, or kayak from All Points of Sail to explore the lake and nearby Armand Bayou, encountering feathered residents such as egrets, herons, and pelicans. You may also spy an alligator or two—including one that’s more than 10 feet long. When you’re all paddled (and alligatored) out, head to Sylvan Beach for a dip in the water. Located on the bay just south of Clear Lake, this popular hangout beckons swimmers with small waves, fine sand, and the absence of unappetizing seaweed piles.

4. Take a Waterfront Stroll by the Bayou

Houston skyline and Buffalo Bayou in Texas Katie Haugland

Houston skyline and Buffalo Bayou in Texas

Katie Haugland

 

Nestled east of downtown, Buffalo Bayou Park is a 124-acre green haven with waterfront hiking and biking trails. A local favorite is Sandy Reed Memorial Trail, which follows Buffalo Bayou for 4.5 miles. Thanks to the Hobby Center Pedestrian Bridge, you can stroll or pedal the entire distance without crossing busy streets. Keep an eye out for art installations throughout, like stainless steel canoe sculptures with engravings depicting local history. Perhaps the most interesting feature is the lighting scheme illuminating numerous bridges, trails, and water. Designed by artist Stephen Korns and lighting firm L'Observatoire, the blue-to-white lights change with the phases of the moon. Don’t forget: The bayou can get hot and buggy, so pack sunscreen and insect repellent.

5. Kelly Slater, Eat Your Heart Out: Catch the Longest Wave with Tanker Surfing

Girl surfing at sunrise Away

Girl surfing at sunrise

Away

 

The feeling of catching a wave is amazing, but obnoxiously short-lived. Wouldn’t it be great if your waves could last for miles? Experience the exhilaration of an endless ride by going tanker surfing, which is exactly what you think it is. Ride the long, rolling waves drummed up by a giant tanker ship just southeast of Houston in Galveston Bay between June and September, when the water is warm and the wind is light. Tanker Surf Charters takes you and up to three pals on the open water, where, depending on the conditions and your skill level, you may end up staying on a single swell for up to five miles. There’s no guarantee you’ll catch the ultimate wave, but in the interim enjoy lounging on the deck, eating, relaxing, and wake surfing behind the chase boat. Tanker wave or no tanker wave, it’ll be a glorious day out on the water.

6. Spy Out Hidden Art Installations in Discovery Green

The Field of Light art exhibit in Discovery Green in Houston, Texas michaelhwhitten

The Field of Light art exhibit in Discovery Green in Houston, Texas

michaelhwhitten

 

Don’t leave Houston without a stroll through Discovery Green, a 12-acre interactive urban park in downtown Houston. Kayak across itty bitty Kinder Lake or splash around in Gateway Fountain, a gently sloping granite water installation with 14-foot high arcing jets. On weekends, beautiful weather entices vendors to emerge with their fancifully decorated motor carts loaded with colorful wares and recreational equipment you can rent for free with a valid ID. Parkgoers of all ages get a kick out of the “Listening Vessels”—two Alabama limestone sculptures separated by 70 feet of space. Whisper into one, and your buddy at the other will hear your deepest, darkest secret plain as day. Other features include several promenades, a jogging trail, seasonal art installations, performance spaces, and green areas for picnicking, lounging, and people watching.

7. Ahoy! Cast Off For a Sail

Ships sailing in the sea Andrey Bayda

Ships sailing in the sea

Andrey Bayda

 

If you’ve always wanted to sail, Texas is a great place to give it a whirl. About an hour southeast of Houston in the town of Kemah, say ahoy to South Coast Sailing Adventures, a sailing school offering a three-hour introductory course that covers basic sailing terminology, maneuvers, and rigging techniques. Or, if you want a hands-free experience without taking the helm, opt for a half- or full-day sailing charter on the Gulf of Mexico. For an entirely different type of slumber party, consider the Boat & Breakfast package. You’ll be lulled to sleep by the sounds of gentle, lapping water and awakened by the cries of seabirds come sunrise—all while safely tied to the dock.

8. Whimsical and Wonderful - Explore the Folksy Orange Show Monument

The Orange Show Stage at the Orange Show Monument in Houston, Texas Ed Schipul

The Orange Show Stage at the Orange Show Monument in Houston, Texas

Ed Schipul

 

One of Houston’s most unique attractions wasn’t built by a prominent artist or architect. Rather, the city has the late Jefferson Davis McKissack—a postal worker—to thank for a fantastically quirky, indelible mark on its landscape. Between 1956 and 1979, McKissack built the Orange Show Monument: a 3,000-square-foot environment on Houston’s East End extolling the virtues of good nutrition, hard work, and eating oranges (McKissack’s favorite fruit). Using a smorgasbord of found and reclaimed materials, McKissack constructed a whimsical wonderland dotted with walkways, a pond, oasis, stage, outdoor decks, and more. Today, this odd and imaginative architectural attraction serves as a sanctuary for artistic vision and is regarded as one of the most important folk art masterpieces in the U.S.

9. Like Disneyland for Wakeboarders - Visit Wake Nation Houston

Young man wake boarding behind a boat Delmas Lehman

Young man wake boarding behind a boat

Delmas Lehman

 

Situated south of Houston in Rosharon, Wake Nation Houston is an adventure park for wakeboarders and other water sports aficionados. Boarders are pulled around a 12-acre lake by an overhead cable system, making it a safe and appropriate activity for novice riders as young as seven. For those who have experience, optional rails and jumps add to the adrenaline rush. Back on dry land, try your hand at an aerial high ropes course towering high above the water.

10. Pedal through a Peaceful Urban Oasis

Houston skyline from Memorial Park holbox

Houston skyline from Memorial Park

holbox

 

Situated in the shadow of downtown’s skyline, Houston Memorial is one of the country’s largest urban parks. This former military training facility now serves as a peaceful 1,465-acre oasis and memorial to those who lost their lives in World War I. Locals head to this vast green space to stay fit: It’s outfitted with sports fields, croquet courts, a tennis center, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an 18-hole municipal golf course, and a whopping 30 miles of trails. Rent a bike at Memorial Park Bicycle Rentals and ride through the mixed pine and oak woodlands. Keep your eyes peeled for the winged wildlife that calls the park home, including bats, owls, vultures, blue jays, mockingbirds, and the occasional bald eagle.

Kristen Bailey

Kristen is a freelance writer based in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska, which is conveniently located smack in the middle of the country for easy access to both coasts and everywhere in between. When she isn’t writing articles or exploring new cities, you’ll find Kristen building things in the backyard, writing songs for her indie rock band, The Inbetweens, or creating sweet, yet macabre, collages from images found in old textbooks and other ephemera.

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