The best outdoor adventures in Houston involve the finest parts of Texan nature. From the sweeping piney woods of the surrounding national forests to the salty airs of the Gulf of Mexico, there are acres of lush parks and nature reserves in the U.S. state.

    Houston is best known for its cosmic space center, BBQ brisket kitchens, and buzzing Downtown core of theaters and bars. But whoever said that the Big H was just for the city slickers? Not a chance. You've gotten urban green spaces that'll help you forget about the metropolis vibe with their gurgling rivers and open meadows. Pack your bags and escape for an active weekend near Houston.

    1

    Buffalo Bayou Park

    Greenery in the heart of the city

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    Buffalo Bayou Park carves its way right through the heart of Houston's urban core. It stretches straight west from Downtown, straddling a winding waterway as it meanders toward Memorial Park and Interstate 610.

    At a whopping 160 acres in all and ranging over 2 miles from end to end, Buffalo Bayou Park is one of the go-to green spaces in the metropolis. It offers adventure both on and off the water. You can find kayak rentals, canoe spots and Stand-up paddleboard outlets that offer you the chance to skim over the surface between Houston’s skyscrapers. Next to the water, you'll find running paths and a muddy nature playground for the little ones. 

    Location: Gulf Freeway, Houston, TX 77007, USA

    Open: Daily from 6 am to 11 pm

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    2

    Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

    Watch out for gators, folks

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    The Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to head for a glimpse at the unique ecosystems and biodiversity of the Texas Gulf Coast. The reserve, which clocks up a mega 34,000 acres of land, spills down from the oat-topped dunes of the Bolivar Peninsula and across the edge of the East Bay. Expect it to be around a 30-minute detour off the I-10.

    Access is tricky because the whole place is given over to partially flooded swamps and gator-filled marshes. However, there are 2 dedicated visitor's centres, the biggest of which is in the town of Anahuac itself. You can head there to get trail maps and learn all about the important waterfowl and migratory bird species that fly by each year.

    Location: FM1985, Anahuac, TX 77514, USA

    Phone: +1 409-267-3337

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    3

    Sam Houston National Forest

    Palmettos and pines for as far as the eye can see

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    The Sam Houston National Forest is the closest to Houston of the four major national forests in Texas. It lies around 50 miles north of the city limits. Thankfully, I-45 whizzes straight in that direction, so you can be swapping your BBQ brisket for hiking poles in under an hour.

    At over 163,000 acres, the Sam Houston National Forest is a hefty reserve. It oscillates between sweeping pine woods and dwarf palmetto forests, gurgling creeks and riparian swamp. The main activity is rambling, especially as the 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail now links up the key portions of the reserve, offering backcountry camping and birding on uncrowded walking paths.

    Location: 394 FM 1375 West, New Waverly, TX 77358, USA

    Open: Monday–Friday from 8 am to 11.30 am and from noon to 4.30 pm (closed on weekends)

    Phone: +1 936-344-6205

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    4

    Lake Conroe

    Splashing around in a Houston suburb

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    Lake Conroe is a much-loved summertime escape from the hustle and bustle of Houston. It lies to the north of the city and is even often considered a suburb of the town. The Interstate 45 can whisk you there in less than an hour, but there’s also public transportation from the City of Conroe.

    Aside from being a hub for Houston's jet setters and celebs, many of whom have front-row properties on the lakeside, Lake Conroe is a great place to cool off when the Lone Star State's temperatures start creeping up in June and July. There's a duo of bathing spots, one at Lake Conroe Park, the other at Scott's Ridge. But there's really no substitute for hopping on a boat and setting sail just as the locals do.

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    5

    Blue Lagoon Texas

    A secret spot that's plucked from the Caribbean

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    The Blue Lagoon deceives with its looks – you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd traded the Lone Star State for the Bahamas here. Located just past Conroe and Huntsville on the I-45 north of the city, it's a place where the piney woods open to reveal a shimmering pool of turquoise waters dashed by white sand.

    Of course, it's not tropical at all. Instead, the Blue Lagoon fills two old limestone quarries. The uber-clear waters make it a real draw for scuba divers. There's even an onsite school that offers guided dives and PADI certification. There is an entry fee for non-divers but the reward is a swim in some of the freshest water in the whole Houston region.

    Location: 649 Pinedale Rd, Huntsville, TX 77320, USA

    Phone: +1 936-438-8888

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    photo by Janine Curry, Ph.D. (CC BY 2.0) modified

    6

    Davy Crockett National Forest

    Forests thick with hiking paths

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    The Davy Crockett National Forest is the second national reserve in a long line of national reserves that spreads out from Huntsville, Texas. That puts it about 2 hours' drive north and east of Houston city centre. The trip will take you through some of the wilder portions of land in this corner of the state.

    When you arrive, be ready for an overload of pine forests and mixed hardwoods that seems to roll on and on all the way to the horizon. Delve in and you'll find some very remote hiking paths, like the trio of walks on Hickory Creek and the scramble up Neches Bluff. There are also backcountry campgrounds for a full-on getaway from the big city.

    Location: 18551 Texas 7, Kennard, TX 75847, USA

    Phone: +1 936-655-2299

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    7

    Galveston Island

    Family fun and coastal adventures

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    Just a mention of the name Galveston Island is usually enough to get Houstonians dreaming of their summertime R&R. Why? This salt-washed barrier isle to the south of the city is firmly established as the premier family destination on the Gulf of Mexico. It's gotten vintage Victorian streetcars, charming sports, funfairs – the whole shebang.

    Nature lovers might also find lots to like. For appetizers, Galveston Island is fronted by a long, powdery beachfront that runs for miles and miles, waves forever bashing in this way and that. Then, you get the surrounding wetland reserves nearer Quintana, which are birding meccas and come filled with alligators.

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    8

    McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge

    A pitstop for snow geese

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    The flat and rolling wetlands of the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge join with the reserves of Texas Point to create one of the largest waterfowl migration grounds in the whole state. It lies to the east of the city down I-10, just about as close as it's possible to get to the Louisiana state line before leaving the home of rodeo altogether.

    The landscapes here are spirit-level straight. They unfold in a carpet of lush coastal marshes, where blue crabs scurry through the mud. The birds are by far the most famous aspect of the local fauna. That's because the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge is on the Central Flyway migration route, so you can spot snow geese at certain times of the year.

    Location: 7950 S Gulfway Dr, Sabine Pass, TX 77655, USA

    Phone: +1 409-971-2909

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    photo by Junglecat (CC BY-SA 2.5) modified

    9

    Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge

    A great place to spot birds of all shapes and sizes

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    The Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge was added to the mix of waterfowl refuges on the Mexican Gulf back in 1969. Today, it's an important area on the Central Flyway migration route for many birds, who use the spot directly south of Houston to rest and rejuvenate before making the long trip north or south to the Arctic or the tropics.

    Birders come from all around the world during the winter months. Populations of migrating snow geese in Brazoria can top 100,000 at that time, making this one of the best places to see the elegant white flier. Also be sure to keep the eyes peeled for other native species, including larks, egrets and the long-billed ibis.

    Location: 24907 FM 2004 Rd, Lake Jackson, TX 77566, USA

    Open: Monday–Friday from 9 am to 5 pm (closed on weekends)

    Phone: +1 979-964-4011

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    10

    Surfside Beach

    Hit the waves and enjoy the sunset

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    Surfside Beach is washed by the waves of the Gulf of Mexico some 65 miles southwest of Downtown Houston. It's a major summertime getaway spot for families, but a touch quieter than its compadre to the west.

    Shacks and condo rentals line the shoreline here, spilling onto salt-scented coast roads that converge on the Surfside Beach Recreational Neighborhood. That's a clutch of undulating dunes and wide sands that's great for sunbathing and chilling. Surfside Beach offers decent waves for bodyboarders, along with ample opportunities for marine safaris out into the gulf. Oh, and the sunsets are pretty spectacular to boot.

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    photo by Mike Cole (CC BY 2.0) modified

    Joseph Francis | Contributing Writer

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