Half an hour north of downtown Houston, groves of cypress trees echo with the calls of chickadees and woodpeckers, and magnolia and white oak trees grow to stunning size. Spring-fed oxbow lakes—some of them almost 50 feet deep—harbor 8-pound bass. And beaches of soft, sugary white sand fan out along the creek banks.
The trails along Spring Creek, which winds along the border of Harris and Montgomery counties, currently run for 14 miles in the Spring area. But the creek is the future site of what could be the nation’s longest, connected, forested urban greenway—a network of parks and trails that county officials say will eventually span 40 miles of forests and wetlands.
Plans for the Spring Creek Greenway have attracted fresh attention during the pandemic. Visitorship to the existing trails began rising in spring 2020.
“When everything shut down during the pandemic, people really started to understand the importance of natural areas and spaces,” says Suzanne Simpson, land stewardship director of the nonprofit Bayou Land Conservancy “It really emphasized the value of having public lands. Most people don’t have time to drive out to Big Bend on a Wednesday, but they can come here.”
The project began back in 1982, when officials in both counties began toying with ways to preserve undeveloped land along Houston’s northern floodplain. For decades, it was a quixotic dream of Dennis Johnston, Harris County parks director, and funding was hard to come by. The project finally broke ground in Harris County in 2008, laying out the first stretch of asphalt path. Montgomery County soon followed with a network of natural surface trails in 2014, constructed and managed by the Bayou Land Conservancy.
“Texas in general, and Houston in particular, have been way behind on helping people get out and enjoy nature,” says Monte Parks, Parks Department superintendent in Harris County Precinct Four. “Our work out here is on the cutting edge of something that’s never been attempted before in Harris County.”
On the Harris County side of the creek, around 80% of the required land has either been acquired or is under agreement to be bought, Parks says. When finished—a process likely to take many more years—it’ll connect from US 59 in the east to State Highway 249 in the west.
Right now, the roughly 14-mile paved trail system caters to a wide range of outdoor uses: newly planted groves of native edible plants stand near dog parks, while bikers and joggers zip along the asphalt. The greenway is also home to a bevy of Harris County park events, including archery, biking, fishing, guided reptile and bird walks, and pond ecology events.
“The goal is for each family to learn more about the greenspace they’re in,” says Kris Linberk, director for Trails as Parks, Harris County Precinct 4. “And hopefully, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll have fun and leave caring about the greenspace.”
Along the north side of the creek in Montgomery County, quieter paths run through multiple wilderness preserves, offering fantastic opportunities for birders and wildlife enthusiasts, Simpon says. The forests on both sides of Spring Creek offer plenty to see: migratory birds, otters and beavers, amphibians and native butterflies.
The greenway isn’t just for visitors—although nearby mixed-use developments like City Place and the Woodlands are touting their proximity to the trail as a way to draw in visitors. Protecting the creek corridor is important for an increasingly flood-prone city, too, Simpson says. The natural wetlands along the floodplain catch and slow floodwaters, allowing them to spread out and nourish the forest rather than swamping homes and businesses.