There's something here for just about everyone to enjoy, from the sedentary
to the very active. The two sentences I quoted above don't even begin to
list all the available activities. I'll expand on them here, and give
additional information about day-use and overnight facilities on a second page.
If you've read or scanned the six previous entries in this series you
already know how beautiful this park is and what a wide diversity of plants and
animals it showcases. It is a nature-loving photographer's dream, as much for amateurs like
me as for serious hobbyists and professionals.
Every time I hiked or rode around Elm and 40-Acre Lakes I saw one or more photographers who are regulars at the park. They
appeared to be "focused" primarily on the numerous species of wading
and shore birds. They had
expensive equipment, and plenty of it -- long telescopic lenses, a
variety of other types of
lenses, sturdy tripods, and other gadgets stuffed into large camera cases they slung over their shoulder as they
lumbered from one vantage point to the next.
I always tried to walk or ride slowly/quietly past them so as not to scare their
winged subjects into flight. That didn't always work out so well for the photographers
but they are used to having to share the lake trails with numerous other visitors, many
of whom are totally oblivious to the people around them.
Jim and I quickly learned to ride our bikes on the most popular lake trails
only when the fewest people were likely to be out there. Why is it --
when you courteously warn, "Bicycle on your left" -- the majority of
folks move into your path???
Casual "tourist" photographers like me are more common at Brazos Bend, and pretty
easy to identify: we're the ones who are still captivated by the
alligators and take lots of pictures of them! Casual visitors enjoy the birds,
too, but they tend to take more pictures of the landscape and
each other than the regulars do.
Many of the tourists have big 'ole telescopic lenses, too. Sometimes I feel
quite inadequate -- until I edit my photos. It's amazing what you can do
with a simple digital camera! I'd rather keep it simple at this point in my
life. It's so much easier to schlep a little camera when I'm walking or cycling
than a larger SLR and its accoutrements.
The best way to see what Brazos Bend has to offer in terms of wildlife and
terrain is to get out there on foot or a bike and explore the various trails,
not just the most popular lakes. Wildlife and plants are diverse and abundant
in the three distinct ecological zones in the park.
Brazos Bend is a very popular park with birders, especially in
the winter when various species migrate south to find warmer
Birders seem to fall into amateur and professional
ranks, too, or at least into "less obsessed" and "more obsessed"
groups. Both can come well-armed with powerful binoculars and/or cameras.
A visitor "focuses" on a duck in Elm Lake.
Dennis, one of the rangers who has been at the park nearly as
long as Dave, loves to share stories about the animals at Brazos
Bend and the people who come to see them. We enjoyed listening
to them when he was able to spend some time with Jim and me. He
also gave us copies of some of the best stories that he's
written down. They should be published!
One of his funnier stories describes the trick he played on a
particular type of bird watchers.
These are people obsessed with what I would
call competitive birding; Dennis calls them "listers." He
uses the term with disdain because their goal is to check off
huge lists of birds they've spotted in order to brag about them
to like-minded individuals -- rather than to observe the
birds long enough to enjoy their beauty and watch what they do.
This observation deck gives great views of
Pilant Lake (L), 40-Acre Lake (R),
and the wetlands on either side of the
spillway trail (background) that leads to Elm Lake.
"Listers" tend to go to great lengths, literally and
figuratively, to spot and add unusual species of birds
to their lists, sometimes doing potential harm to the
environment (such as trampling sensitive habitat) or to the
birds themselves (such as luring nesting birds off their nests
to see them better).
A few years ago Dennis decided to have a little fun and make a
point to the listers who visit Brazos Bend by emulating the
great Roger Tory Petersen, "a saint to the birding community"
and author of the first practical bird field guides.
A view of Pilant Lake from the observation
deck: this is a great place to spot a variety of birds.
Dennis painted a reasonable decoy of a duck that's found much
farther north on this continent and
planted it out in the swamp. He advised the rare bird recording
folks so they wouldn't put it on their list of birds found in
southern Texas, but he didn't tell anyone visiting the park that
might see it.
Dennis said that if anyone spotted the decoy and actually
watched it for thirty seconds they'd realize it was a decoy and
get a good laugh out of it -- and hopefully be reminded
of what bird watching should be about. Less observant
folks would probably be thrilled to add another new
bird to their growing list
. . . and might never know it wasn't real!
Which proved Dennis' point about their "sport," of course.
A kingfisher in Pilant Swamp
That's a great practical joke.
I forgot to ask him if the decoy is still out there.
I'd see it anyway. Dennis put it out far enough that someone would
need powerful binoculars to spot it -- the type of
equipment avid birders use!
WINGED POETRY IN MOTION
Brazos Bend is perhaps more fun and full of wonder for people like
Jim and me who don't
know the names of half the species of the birds we see . . . but
simply enjoy their beauty and behavior.
I love to watch long-legged herons and egrets slowly wade
through the water, then gracefully soar skyward on wings that
spread three to four feet wide:
A great blue heron
Egret in flight
I love to see beautiful roseate spoonbills with their
flamingo-pink bodies and wide, spoon-like bills, or pure white
ibis with their long, curved, bright pink beaks:
Members of the duck family amuse me as they silently float on
the surface of the lakes, suddenly diving into the water to
catch a morsel of food:
Diving duck (center, butt in the air)
Moorhens put on a fascinating show at sunset, swimming across Elm Lake in a
long line and parading on foot across the levee trail to Pilant
Evening ritual on Elm Lake by hundreds of
moorhens -- what a treat to watch!
Owls entertain visitors with their hoots at all hours of the day
and night. Hummingbirds delight campers who hang feeders at their
campsites. Songbirds fill the air with delightful sounds in
every nook of the park, if we are just quiet enough to listen to
You don't have to be a professional birder or serious hobbyist
to enjoy some of the 300+ species of birds that have been
spotted at Brazos Bend.
Egret (L) and ibis (R)
If you'd like more information about birds in this park there are
several field guides and books available at the park headquarters and
Nature Center. There is a pdf.
link on the park website to a checklist
dated 2006 with the names of 304 birds found in the park to that date.
No, Dennis' decoy is not on that list!
This is a popular activity and ones that kids will enjoy, too.
Large pier at 40-Acre Lake; high
observation deck across lake in background
Fishing is easily accessible in six of the lakes at Brazos Bend.
Four of them have piers (Elm, 40-Acre, Creekfield, and Hale).
Fishing is allowed from banks or piers only; no boats are
permitted -- and you'd have to be nuts or incredibly
stupid to wade
out into any of the lakes to fish, considering all of the
Species found at Brazos Bend include largemouth bass, white
bass, catfish, crappie, and sunfish. You can find more
information on the park's
website or by purchasing a
field guide at park headquarters.
I have totally fallen in love with the trails at Brazos Bend in
the last month and have spent as much time on them as possible.
A total of about 35 miles of trail are available for foot, bike,
and/or horse travel. I hiked or
biked on all but about five miles that were closed this
month because they were either under water or still too muddy to
negotiate. I was finally able to access a mile of the Pilant
Slough Trail this week after the water level was lowered about a
View of Pilant Slough from the trail
Each time I explored a new trail I came back raving to Jim about
it until he went out to run it, too!
These trails are just about the opposite of the mountainous
single-track trails we usually crave. Most of them are pretty
We didn't get bored with them, however. There are some hills
here and there to relieve the monotony, and all of the trails are
interesting as they meander through woods or next to water -- or
both. They are great for hiking, running, and cycling.
Trails vary in width from about two to eight feet. Surfaces
are dirt, crushed rock, or grass. There are lots of wooden
bridges spanning inlets and outlets, but no long "bog bridges"
like those at Huntsville; Brazos Bend could use
some of those in a bunch of wet spots.
Bridge over part of Pilant Slough
The Creekfield Lake Trail is paved and billed as
handicapped-accessible, although it is uneven in places where the
asphalt has been patched:
It's probably easier for folks
in wheelchairs or pushing strollers to negotiate the wide dirt
and crushed rock trails on the levees around 40-Acre and
An artist paints a scene along the 40-Acre Lake
Our favorite trail is the rather hilly, single track Red Buckeye
It became quite jungle-like by the end of March, and just
gorgeous with all the red buckeyes in bloom.
Several trails are soft and grassy, like this part of the Bayou
All of the trails are open to foot traffic (when they're dry
All but two or three miles are open to off-road biking. Only
eight miles can be used by equestrians.
Runners, walkers, and cyclists can also enjoy seven or eight
miles of paved roads through the park and campgrounds. Speed
limits vary from 5-30 MPH in the park and drivers are used to
lots of kids and adults riding bikes. It's one of the safest
places I've ever cycled on roads.
The paved trail around Creekfield Lake is
about the only place cyclists can't ride.
[NOTE: Since I'm writing this entry more than a year
late (not uploaded until April 19, 2011),
I'll describe the trail system in a series of entries in the 2011
journal. I'll be able to include photos and descriptions from trails I wasn't able to
access in 2010 because they were too wet.]
NATURE CENTER ACTIVITIES
Brazos Bend has a larger nature center than we've seen at other
Texas State Parks but it needs an even bigger one for all
the exhibits it displays and programs it conducts. It not only
sits near the geographic center of the park, it is also the
center of educational and interpretive activities in the park:
The Nature Center is run by a staff of enthusiastic park
personnel and volunteers. It is open to the public on weekdays
from 11-3 and on weekends
and during Spring Break from 9-5.
Visitors can learn a lot about the park and its wildlife by
perusing the many attractive displays inside the Nature Center.
There are also large freshwater aquariums (one with baby alligators,
the other with
pond life), about a dozen cages holding native venomous and
non-venomous snakes, and lots of things to touch -- live baby
alligators, live hairy tarantulas, animal skulls and hides, and a
tactile model of the park.
Tank with baby alligators
Nearby is an outdoor amphitheatre that probably seats about a
There are at least three interpretive programs and hikes offered
each weekend and many more during busy weeks like Spring Break.
I have the "Spring Break Marsh Madness" list from
Saturday, March 13 to Sunday, March 21. A whopping 33 different
programs, hikes, and workshops were available to visitors. Jim
and I attended several of them. Program subjects included angler
education, alligators, pond life, bobcats, snakes, owls and
other birds, armadillos, butterflies and other insects, nature
nocturnal animal activity.
Program about snakes in the park
Weekday programs and guided hikes for educational organizations
are also offered for a fee during the school year.
STAR-GAZING AT THE GEORGE OBSERVATORY
I believe there are only two Texas state parks with space
observatories in their boundaries: Davis
Mountains, in west Texas, and Brazos Bend. It's quite a
distinction to have these available to park visitors.
The George Observatory features three domed telescopes and the
Challenger Learning Center. It is operated by staff and
volunteers from the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Why is it located 'way out at Brazos Bend? That's a 30- to
50-mile drive (or more) for many Houston residents. Wouldn't it
attract more students and other visitors if it was closer to the
Sure it would. But how well would they be able to see distant
stars and galaxies with all the artificial light surrounding
them in one of
America's largest metro areas?? When you see how
many vehicles come into the park every Saturday night for public
viewings, you realize that avid star-gazers are more interested
in the quality of the experience than by how far they've got to
drive to enjoy it. The state park is the perfect venue.
Most visitors walk this paved path across
Creekfield Lake to reach the observatory
from the parking area at the Nature Center;
handicapped visitors may park closer.
The Observatory is open to the public on Saturdays from 3-10PM.
Viewings through the telescopes begin at dusk and are
limited to a certain number of people every 15 minutes. The cost
is $5 per person (unless you bring your own telescope!), plus
the $5 cost of entry into the park if you don't have a TX state
parks pass that allows free entry.
I wish we'd been able to spend more Saturday nights at the
observatory but each was too cloudy this month to see much in the sky except the one
clear night I did attend a "star party." I really
The path is lit at night; each lamp post
has information about
a planet or asteroid that visitors may see
through the telescopes.
The observatory also sponsors special events throughout the
For more information about what you can see and do at the
observatory, check this
next page . . .
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil