As travelers strive to tread more lightly on the planet, more and more hotels, resorts, restaurants, parks, and attractions are plotting their course on the green map, going the extra mile to consume less and conserve more. And since practical conservation is often about efficiency—whether it’s serving locally grown food, recycling creatively, or taking advantage of new heating and cooling technologies—travelers don’t need to sacrifice all creature comforts. Let’s take a look at some destinations that offer first-rate travel experiences while helping take care of Texas.

In Irving and Houston, the Element Hotel features energy efficient design and adheres to the philosophy of 'reduce, reuse and recycle.' (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Element Hotel, Irving and HoustonIn Irving and Houston, the Element Hotel features energy efficient design and adheres to the philosophy of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’ (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Element Hotel, Irving and Houston

The taupe window shade somehow bathes my suite 0 in a meditative green glow at Irving’s Element Hotel, Stanvood Hotels’ new mid-priced hotel brand. An illusion? Perhaps, but other green elements
aren’t: soy-foam sofa cushions, bed headboards made from wood harvested from a green-certified forest, reverse-osmosis filters on the faucets (to reduce the use of bottled water), dual-flush toilets, and low-VOC paint.

The rooms have full kitchens with energy-efficient appliances. And of course there’s a recycling bin and a program allowing guests to opt out of daily linen laundry.

The closest parking spaces are reserved for hybrid vehicles. A sliding glass door opens into a modernist lobby with floor-to-ceiling double-pane windows that keep the heat out while they letting in natural light. Want to take greenness even further? Borrow a complimentary bike and cycle to your business meeting.

Great Wolf Lodge, Grapevine

Happy squeals echo through the 80,000-square-foot indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge as little kids—and big ones, too—frolic in seven pools and on 12 waterslides. After everyone’s thoroughly exhausted, they can choose from one of a half-dozen restaurants or retire to one of more than 600 guest suites.

This place uses lots of water. How can it be green?

Because it works at it. Most of the park’s water gets filtered, treated, and returned to the pools and chutes through a state-of-the-art filtration system that uses 80 to 90 percent less water— and far less chlorine—than a traditional system. And the lodge controls humidity and temperatures to lose as little water as possible to evaporation. The lodge’s environmental initiative encompasses everything from the paint used on the walls to the detergent in the laundry department, including guest suites that use low-flow showerheads and faucets; lights in low-traffic areas go off when there’s nobody around; and restaurant oil that becomes biofuel.

Do you think about that while you’re splashing around? Of course not. But the nonprofit environmental group Green Seal does, and it has given Great Wolf one of its three Texas silver certifications.

At the end of each day, a local shelter gets the resort’s extra food, and the water very quietly goes through another recycling—all under the radar while you sleep to splash another day.

Chisos Mountains Lodge, Big Bend National Park

You can’t help but feel at one with nature in the midst of the 801,000 acres of rugged Big Bend National Park. There’s only one place to stay that has walls: Chisos Mountains Lodge, in the shadow of 7,100-foot Casa Grande mountain in the Chisos Basin. The lodge, a member of the Green Hotels Association, takes its stewardship of the environment seriously.

The lodge recycles, and in this West Texas wilderness, that’s no small feat. The staff goes through tourist trash every day and pulls out recyclable goods to combine with the park’s own recycling. The lodge also uses low-flow sprayer heads in the restaurant, low-flow faucets and toilets in the rooms, and efficient lighting.

The park’s biggest news? Its reduction of light pollution. A project completed last summer reduced ambient light at the Panther Junction visitors center from a 2,238-watt glare down to 112 watts. That’s enough to enable visitors to read a map and still enjoy the night sky.

Next up: a wattage cut at Chisos Basin. Soon, we’ll be able to see the stars at night, shining big and bright.

Environmental scientist Federico Marques oversees planet-friendly initiatives at Ruggles Green in Houston. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Ruggles Green, HoustonEnvironmental scientist Federico Marques oversees planet-friendly initiatives at Ruggles Green in Houston. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

Ruggles Green, Houston

I’m sitting beneath hanging vines on the pleasant 0 outdoor patio of Ruggles Green, and Chef German Mosquera has placed before me a perfect bite: a slice of sweet yellow beet from the farmer’s market down the street, topped with crunchy honeycomb produced by bees 45 minutes away, and drizzled with the tart juice of a Rio Grande Valley lime.

Let’s hear it for eating local.

Ruggles Green is one of only eight restaurants statewide to earn the endorsement of the Green Restaurant Association, a national nonprofit organization that requires energy efficiency and sustainable food sources of its members. Chef German Mosquera fills plates with produce from local farms, herbs grown in a garden behind the restaurant, shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas buffalo, and grass-fed beef from Oklahoma. The menu—which offers a variety of inventive soups, salads, pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches—includes many gluten-free and lactose-free selections.

The restaurant, which will open a second location in Houston’s new CityCentre development this spring, even has its own environmental scientist, Federico Marques, who oversees planet-friendly efforts like using dimmable fluorescent lighting and low-flow rinsing heads, toilets, and sinks; and recycling several tons of cardboard and glass monthly. If you order takeout, your box will be made of biodegradable sugarcane fiber. Frying oil gets repurposed as fuel for the restaurant’s truck.

Of course, all the environmental efficiency in the world won’t bring in customers if the food’s not good. No worries here: It’s delicious! On my visit, I delight in a salad made with field greens, seared salmon, hard-boiled eggs, queso fresco, and crunchy sourdough croutons. My dining companion raves about the beef “hempanadas” (the dough is made from hemp flour), piquant with garlic-cilantro sauce and made lively with mint and mandarin oranges.

When I have lunch here, I know I’m doing the right thing for the planet’s health, and mine, too.

Aquarena Nature Center, San Marcos

From my seat in a 50-year-old, wooden, glass-bottom boat, I watch a baby musk turtle skitter past a largemouth bass hovering lazily amid the feathery cabomba. We’re in Spring Lake, a man-made reservoir above the San Marcos River. This clear spring water protects the lake’s resident plants, fish, and other creatures, including endangered salamanders, fountain darters, and Texas wild rice. Thanks to these glass-bottom boat tours, visitors can see what they can’t touch.

“It’s like looking at your grandmother’s jewelry under glass,” says the center’s director, Ron Coley.

Preservation of this rare ecosystem wasn’t always the first priority. Aquarena Springs originally operated as an amusement park. Non-native swans kept natural shore birds away, and the lake became choked by hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant.

Texas State University purchased Aquarena Springs in 1994 and shifted the focus from entertainment to conservation. Volunteer divers tend the underwater garden and its residents of some 50 fish species. Turtles sun on rocks and partially submerged tree limbs. On the shore, lizards zip past great blue herons, white egrets, and various grebes and coots.

Explore the lake, then meander across the wetlands on a floating boardwalk of recycled plastic planks, where buzzards peer balefully at you from live oak branches. The water gives way to muck as the boardwalk leads into a riparian area beneath graceful black willows. Nature has reclaimed its playground, and it welcomes you to visit.

From the April 2010 issue
The September 2022 cover of Texas Highways: Visual Wonders


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