“I hear there’s an eagle in the park,” says Bridgette Mongeon, leader of this trek and founder of Houston Women’s Hiking, a group she created in 2016 to encourage women to explore the outdoors. Mongeon is a sculptor whose work decorates parks and campuses throughout Texas. When she was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease in 2018 and given two years to live, she decided not to let the diagnosis derail her and instead kept lacing up her boots. She says she greatly benefits from the female camaraderie and the healing power of nature. Her hiking group has ballooned to over 15,000 women. “It’s kind of insane,” she says.
Outdoor enthusiasts might not think of Houston—the tallest, largest, most urban city in the state—as a hiking mecca. It’s known for its cultural diversity, food scene, and mindbogglingly confusing freeway system. But despite being a concrete metropolis, it’s called Bayou City for a reason. If you take a closer look, you’ll find hundreds of miles of trails hidden among the strip malls, museums, and traffic. Most of the trails and natural outdoor spaces exist because of environmentalists and conservationists like Ima Hogg, Terry Hershey, Robert Bullard, and Army Emmott, who once described Buffalo Bayou as “a ribbon of life through the concrete of Houston.”
The newly renovated 1,500-acre Memorial Park, where Mongeon is leading her weekly Wednesday back-trails hike, is nearly twice the size of New York’s Central Park. Unlike some of the more famous trails in the U.S., you won’t be able to scale a massive boulder or look out over a craggy peak to a valley thousands of miles below, but you will be able to get your heart rate up and immerse yourself in nature just a few miles from an H-E-B.
“It’s addicting,” Mongeon says. “It’s not climbing a mountain, but it’s hiking.”
I grew up in Houston and remember one of my mom’s favorite quips: An anthill in the city may as well be a mountain. If Houston is anything, it’s surprising. Discovering that there are so many trails, and so many willing hikers, fits the unpredictable vibe of the city.
Tom Peacock heads Houston Area Trails & More, a group of hikers who venture out on weekends for 10- to 12-mile treks. He says despite the city’s reputation for development, the area from Houston to the Gulf is one of the most ecologically diverse major urban areas in the country, with forests, prairies, savannahs, coastlines, bayous, and bottomlands. “Hiking in Houston is not about grandeur,” Peacock says. “It’s about subtlety and noticing the small things that make each area different.”
On the day I join Mongeon’s 1.5-mile hike, 12 women meet at the trailhead. Most, like Heights resident Ann Mahlberg or Mongeon’s daughter, Christina Sizemore, have been part of the group for years. One woman, Margaret Irshad, just joined. She recently moved to Houston from Oregon. “I’ve been cycling in the bayou near my house just to get outdoors and into nature,” Irshad says. She hasn’t found a good outdoor watering hole to swim laps in yet, but she’s determined to discover whatever nature her new city has to offer.
Longtime member Carol Carter has been designated the “sweep.” Her job is to stay in the back and keep the group together, and yell out “Runner!” or “Rider!” to alert hikers about oncoming traffic. She’s also in charge of wrangling any stragglers, which we do a few times by yelling “Marco!” and “Polo!”
I was a little afraid these women were going to book it down the paths and leave me in the dust, but our pace is manageably brisk. Most are rocking Houston Women’s Hiking shirts and hats. Mongeon’s tank top says, “Hike Like a Girl.” Sizemore tells me her husband wears a T-shirt version, which seems to fill her with pride. Some of the women hike quietly and keep to themselves, while others rattle on about grandkids or gossip. “It’s lovely to hear the chatter,” Mongeon says.
The conversation turns to the bright purple beautyberries hanging from arched branches along both sides of the trail. Mongeon says people make jam with them, and Mahlberg says she picks them and puts them into her smoothies. The trail also boasts sunflowers, morning glories, and tiny green beans. Mongeon stops to take a photo with her phone.
“Whenever I see a mushroom, I just have to stop,” she says. Mahlberg explains that Mongeon, being an artist, notices things during hikes that the rest of the women might otherwise walk right past.
Shellye Arnold, president and CEO of the Memorial Park Conservancy, figures people will be surprised at the scope of Houston’s hiking trails. “You can lose yourself there,” she says. “It’s magical.”
Located in the 610 Loop, Memorial Park has more than 25 miles of trails, but it’s not the only hiking spot in town. The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center is a 155-acre sanctuary with 5 miles of trails. If you hike the Ravine Trail, you’ll come across a tunnel covered in a giant mural depicting a great horned owl, painted by local artist Anat Ronen. The Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary along Rummel Creek in west Houston has over 17 acres of trails, but it’s easy to miss since it’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood. AllTrails, an online community for the outdoors, lists almost 90 scenic trails in and around the city.
When the land bridge and prairie in Memorial Park was unveiled earlier this year, Peacock led a hike over the bridge. The project was part of a yearslong plan to, among other things, restore the ecosystem, improve biodiversity, and help with stormwater management. Peacock also takes hikers about 66 miles north of Houston to the Lone Star Hiking Trail, and he says he’s on a “quest” to finish all 129 miles in one year.
In addition to her Wednesday gatherings, Mongeon leads a “mindfulness” hike at the Arboretum on Mondays. Each year, her group takes a camping trip to Huntsville State Park. Some of her members are training for hikes in places far from Houston, like Egypt, or Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. For Mongeon, hiking is her way of defying the “two years to live” diagnosis she received nearly eight years ago. “I’m just trying to breathe,” she says.
The Houston Museum District is an eminently walkable area of the sprawling city. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, at 1001 Bissonnet St., is one of the largest museums in the world, with over 300,000 square feet and nearly 70,000 pieces in the collection. A few blocks away, at 5401 Caroline St., the Holocaust Museum Houston is a 57,000-square-foot space with galleries, events, and tours in English and Spanish. Trek 1.5 miles north of the MFAH to check out the main building of the revered Menil Collection, at 1533 Sul Ross St., for pieces by Andy Warhol and pre-historic masks and sculptures.