Canoeing the Houston-Galveston Region

<Note that this page is a work in progress, as I get time to add details it will fill-out with discussions, pictures, and even Google Earth KMZ files detailing the destination>

I arrived in the Houston-Galveston region in 1992, and I've canoed a few choice spots ever since.  This is a summary of my experiences.  I was particularly active between 1993 and 1999, typically managing to get my old Coleman canoe in the water about once a week during that period, mostly in either Armand Bayou or Halls Bayou.  A lengthy lull followed, with only a few outings leading up to 2006, when I finally got around to investing in a rack and a new canoe.  Recently I've been getting-out and re-exploring my old routes, as well as investigating some new ones.

Over the years I have evolved a philosophy behind my approach to canoeing, both in terms of where I go and what I do when I get there.  When I was a kid my dad introduced me to the downstream river trekking approach to canoeing in northwestern Pennsylvania, which involved putting-in at one point, paddling downstream with the aid of a current and the occasional excitement of small rapids, and finally arriving at a pull-out.  One obvious constraint on this approach was the need for an additional person (spouse) to either handle the drop-off and pick-up, or at least to shuttle from the pick-up back to the vehicle left at the drop-off.

For many years I considered the downstream trekking approach to the be definitive style of canoeing, and that other styles were dismal seconds in comparison.  Pragmatism and circumstance led me to reconsider and settle on a simpler approach.  Courtesy of the Air Force, I spent ten years in the West Texas town of Abilene, in a fairly arid region.  There wasn't much in the way of rivers as I had come to know them in that part of the state; while the Colorado and Brazos rivers were in the vicinity, they spent much of the year nearly (if not completely) dry and on rare occasions filled with unhealthy floodwaters (as I learned from experience), and they weren't much wider than my canoe was long.  I compensated by canoeing the local lakes, and rapidly learned that the best paddling was in the upstream ends of the lakes, where the dammed water narrowed into the channels of the creeks or rivers that fed the lakes.  A typical outing was simply to paddle upstream as far as time and water would allow, then return.  I learned to live in the moment and enjoy paddling for paddling's sake, as well as the experience of simply being in the outdoors exposed to the elements.  And it wasn't unusual to combine canoeing with a bit of hiking as well.  I also learned to take a jug of 1/2 to 1 gallon of water or koolaid (or better yet, hot tea when the weather's cool) to drink, something to snack on, and something to read.  One of my favorite things to do was to paddle to some quiet, isolated place, and sit under a tree and read a book.

After moving to Galveston county (League City initially and currently, though I spent several intervening years in Texas City as well), I found that my approach to canoeing fit right into the local area.  There is not much in the way of actively flowing rivers nearby.  The Brazos and Trinity rivers are available but beyond routine driving distance, which leaves only an assortment of bayous which are predominantly driven by the tides.  I prefer a quiet, natural-looking area to paddle in -- ideally I like to be able to reach a point where I can hear only the sounds of nature, which is a bit of a challenge to find in this region.

To summarize, these are the characteristics I look for in a canoeing destination:


Places I have been and would recommend:

#1 - Lake Charlotte:  The westernmost cypress swamp in the U.S., and located a couple of miles to the northeast of where the Trinity River crosses I-10 east of Houston.  A longish drive, about an hour for me, by far the nicest local canoe area that I've found.  Lot's of open lake and cypress marsh and assorted bayous and channels, rarely invaded by motor boats, but the waves on the lake can be a little troublesome during high winds..

#2 - Halls Bayou:  This is a little-known gem of a destination, about 15 minutes drive to the west of Texas City, and the wildest bayou that I'm aware south of Houston.  Padding upstream (north) from the Hwy 2004 put-in, it is about 5.5 navigable miles of quiet water bordered by woods and forest, which is in turn surrounded by farmland and ranchland.  The banks of the bayou range from water level up to about 15 feet in places.  There are several branch bayous worth investigating, particularly Cloud Bayou which branches to the east immediately to the north of the put-in.  A portion of the upper bayou seems to have been incorporated into the Halls Bayou Unit of San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, and Halls Bayou is noted as containing some of the last submerged aquatic vegetation in the Galveston Bay system.  Downstream, to the south, it is about 10 miles to Chocolate Bay, a trip not recommended, as this is where all motor boats go, and there is progressively fewer trees and more salt marsh adjacent to the bayou.  On one occasion I did the round trip to Chocolate Bay, 20 miles, and can recommend it only as a test of endurance, as the scenery was nothing special, and I somehow managed to have a strong headwind on both the outward and return segments of the trip.

#3 - Armand Bayou:  Everyone knows Armand Bayou, it is a well-publicised destination, and a surprisingly wild region in the midst of suburbia and industry.  Lot's of birds, and plenty of water to explore, but you can't quite escape the sounds of industry and roads, and the banks may be cluttered with a sad quantity of trash.  Still, one of my favorite destinations, with opportunity to combine paddling with a little hiking. 

#4 - Lake Conroe: The northern section, in the midst of Sam Houston National Forest and adjoining the Lone Star Hiking Trail, is a nice destination in the midst of pine forest and fresh water. Primitive camping is an option, outside of hunting season. Caveat, it's about a hundred miles away and you have to pay to use the put-in at the boat ramp.

#5 - Chocolate Bayou: Worth a visit if you're looking for something different, but otherwise a bit dull and bordered by a little too much rural suburbia.  The optimal put-in is at the boat ramp near the Hwy. 35 crossing, with Albert Finkle Park at CR-171 (Calhoun) as an alternate.  South of CR-171 it becomes too industrial to warrant paddling, so the canoeable portion lies between Albert Finkle Part north to Parker School Road.  Avoid due to high current following a heavy rain, but otherwise it provides a fairly sheltered channel without many motor-boats. 

Places I have been, but don't recommend very highly:

Clear Creek:  Just way too suburban for my taste, and too many motorboats.

Dickinson Bayou:  Southern section has too many motor boats and suburbia.  Northern/western section may be nice, but I haven't found it worth the bother as yet.

Texas City Dike/Galveston Bay/Moses Bay:   Waves, wind, not particularly rural, plus the occasional boat.