Monday, October 8, 2012

Terry Hershey and George Bush Parks

In my opinion, the hike/bike paths in Terry Hershey and George Bush parks are the crown jewels of the Houston biking infrastructure.  They are the most beautiful, the safest, and the most interesting bike paths I know.  Everyone I have introduced them to has fallen in love and most declare them their favorites.  The soul of these parks is the Buffalo Bayou.

The City of Houston has three major Bayous; Braes Bayou, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, White Oak Bayou, which I hope to write about in a future post, and Buffalo Bayou.  Buffalo Bayou is the main Bayou and is much closer to its natural state than the other two; it retains its dirt walls over much of its length.

Buffalo Bayou as it passes through George Bush Park.  Compare this to Braes Bayou.

The biggest exception to this natural state was created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston was dredged to create the Houston Ship Channel. This completely eliminated any trace of the original bayou in this stretch, but allowed Houston to become one of the United State's busiest ocean ports.

Since the 1980's, Buffalo Bayou has been the focus of recreational development, and the city of Houston recently received recognition from the American Planning Association for these efforts.

From the Houston Chronicle, October 4, 2012

Two stretches of Buffalo Bayou have hike/bike trails, the section around downtown, and a section almost 10 miles away at the west edge of the sprawling city limits of Houston, through Terry Hershey and George Bush parks.  I ride the former occasionally and hope to post about those rides in the future, but the Terry Hershey/George Bush section which I am writing about here is the site of my most important training rides.

Terry Hershey park is a skinny park in the shape of a distorted T which follows Buffalo Bayou from Beltway 8 to Highway 6.  The short stem of the T goes up one side of Bear Creek from where it flows into Buffalo Bayou for about a mile and then back on the other side.  At the west end, the trail goes under Highway 6, crosses the bayou on a skinny path along the bridge and then enters George Bush park.  George Bush park is roughly oval shaped and has a dual function.  The park houses a staggering range of recreational venues including the hike/bike paths which are the subject of this post. However, it is also home of the Barker Dam and reservoir.  Normally the reservoir is empty and the land is used as a park, but during times of heavy rains the dam is closed and the park floods to prevent flooding of the city of Houston.  A number of times I have been out riding only to see the path disappear underwater in front of me:

Terry Hershey and George Bush parks contain both paved and dirt hike/bike paths.  For my training, I use the paved paths, and my normal ride covers most of these and is about 18 miles one way.  It goes from the east end of Terry Hershey park to about half a mile past the west end of George Bush park.  By including side paths, this can be increased to 20 miles.  Although there are options for some small internal loops, for the most part your only option is an out and back route, so a round trip ride will be 36 to 40 miles.  For longer rides, I repeat all or part of the route.  My longest training ride, 90 miles, represents 2 1/2 out and back repeats of this route.

The one disadvantage of this route is that it is about 30 minutes away from my home by car.  I am painfully aware of the irony that I burn more gas going to and from bike rides than for all of my other driving combined.  Some of the features that make these paths so attractive (and worth the drive) are as follows:

1) These paths are bordered by multiple parking lots, contain many water fountains, bathrooms and even the occasional shower for cooling off during the summer.

2) There is almost no traffic on the 20 mile route.  Every place where the path crosses a road, it makes use of the bridge over the bayou to route the path under the road.  The only exception is that in the middle of the path through George Bush park, the route briefly exits the park and joins about a mile of extremely quiet residential street, an exception not worth noting.

Hike/bike trail in Terry Hershey park passing under Dairy Ashford Road

3) The east end of the path in Terry Hershey park contains what may be the closest thing to hills in the entire city of Houston.  These hills are not very long since they derive from going up and down the bank of the bayou, but they can be fairly steep in places.

I don't know how to photograph hills, but hopefully the sign lets you know what the trail is up to :-)

4) The scenery is gorgeous.  Terry Hershey park is landscaped in a semi-wild style and is complemented by the landscaped back yards of the homes which can be clearly seen butting up against this skinny park.  George Bush park is, in many parts, just plain wild.

5) Other interesting features include wood bridges and cobblestones.

6) These parks may be the best places in Houston (outside the zoo) to see wildlife.  Terry Hershey park because of its proximity to houses and limited landscaping has less wildlife, but in addition to Houston's typical plethora of birds, I frequently see rabbits and snakes in this park.  George Bush park almost always hosts of a staggering variety of waterfowl, but I have seen deer and turtles there as well.

Perhaps the one disadvantage of this venue is that, between walkers and strollers and dogs and skaters and wheelchair racers (not to mention other cyclists) these paths can get quite crowded.  Repeatedly calling out "on your left" significantly increases the cardio aspect of my workout.

It took me almost two and a half years after I restarted cycling to discover the trails in Terry Hershey and George Bush parks.  If you bicycle in the Houston area, don't delay, check them out as soon as you can.

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