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Where it is: 28 miles southwest of Houston
What you’ll do: See more waterfowl than you thought existed
Where you’ll sleep: In a tent under tall elm trees
What you’ll learn: If the alligator is hissing, you’re too close (trust me)
Even if this park consisted only of the rectangle of forest bordering the river, Brazos Bend State Park would still be one of the state’s great destinations. Majestic trees and thick undergrowth conjure the illusion that you have ventured deep into Sherwood Forest, so virgin is this swath of greenery. But in the five thousand acres of Brazos Bend there are marshes and more than seven lakes, in addition to forest and prairie, and these invaluable acres of wetlands are home to more wildlife than I have ever seen in one place.
Start with a stroll around 40-Acre Lake to the observation tower, where you can look out over an endless-seeming expanse of marsh. Bitterns boom from the reeds, and herons and ibis perch in the channels. Coots and ducks skitter across the open water as you approach. Alligators were everywhere on the day I visited; you should know that real alligators look exactly like life-size plastic replicas of themselves, so much so that I was convinced that the first one I saw was fake until it opened its mouth.
The location attracts serious nature photographers, who crouch in the grass at the water’s edge with their long lenses aimed at nervous waterfowl. But it is worth continuing east over the spillway, through the wooded swamp called Pilant Lake. A mixture of ash, cottonwood, and invasive Chinese tallow grow in what was once the Brazos and is now a watery home for myriad feathered creatures. On a slow stroll along the wide gravel path under a bower of tree limbs bright with the fresh green of spring, I enjoyed a command performance of birdsong that would have impressed Bach.
A path winds around Elm Lake, which boasts seven fishing piers (with one more under construction at press time), and into the woodlands, where you can camp in the gracious shadow of grand pecan, cedar elm, and oak trees. From here, a number of trails, great for biking or hiking, lead deep into the forest and eventually to the camping area for equestrian types, who get access to the backcountry from the other end. Follow the Yellowstone Landing Trail down to the Brazos River. If you time it right, you can enjoy a picnic on the wide sandbar at the bend for which the park is named as the sunset lights up the high red-earth bluffs on the eastern bank.
TRIP TO TOWN: The First Colony Mall (16535 Southwest Fwy., first¨colonymall.com), in Sugar Land, is only thirty minutes away, for a complete change of pace. Even better, try the mix of Asian and Latin American cuisine at Japaneiro’s Sushi Bistro and Latin Grill (2168 Texas Dr., japaneiro.com).