Fresh Air: Nine outdoor destinations perfect for a socially distant semester
Traditionally, the end of August signifies an end to a summer of trips, getaways and parties. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put a hard stop to the romanticization of summer break this year, with most (responsible) human beings in the United States restraining their urges to throw a pool party and opting for a solitary swim instead. So it’s probably no surprise that college students who have returned on campus, jaded and sun-deprived, would feel an even stronger desire than before to escape their endless Zoom sessions on the weekends and have a little fun. What’s standing between them and that desire, besides the strict social distancing policies most universities have announced, is the understanding that one needs to sacrifice their own pleasures for the wellbeing of, well, everyone.
However, despite COVID-19 being the end of college parties, socially distancing from others does not have to mean distancing yourself from nature. Finding peace within a leafy urban escape and getting a breath of fresh air away from the stress of academics not only feels good, but is also great for mental health. To help you find your own getaway, here are nine easily accessible, exciting, and beautiful outdoor spaces and trails in Houston to explore freely at your own socially-distant pace. Mask up and enjoy.
James Turrell Skyspace
Arguably the most beautiful outdoor sight Rice has to offer, the James Turrell “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace gleams in soft auras before sunrise and sunset. And even though it’s not technically an escape from campus, the Skyspace fits plenty of other criteria — it's scenic, serene and allows for proper social distancing. Bring a blanket and your favorite book to watch the sun rise in the warmth of the Skyspace’s resplendent colors, or have an outdoor chat with your friends after dinner on the spacious seats. After all, Rice’s campus is one of the most highly rated tourist attractions in Houston.
It’s not a true weekend getaway without a picture-perfect picnic at a park. Luckily for us, Hermann Park is only a one-minute walk away from Rice, making it the most accessible off-campus outdoor destination. It promises a Japanese garden, a fountain that lights up under the night sky, a playground and a lake. Even though the Miller Outdoor Theater cancelled all shows due to the pandemic, the small hill in front of it that used to be occupied by audiences is now the perfect spot for a romantic picnic. If you plan on going there with your friends, don’t forget to bring along some outdoor games to thoroughly enjoy your weekend!
One of the largest urban parks in the United States, Memorial Park is a more reclusive spot that’s around a 15-minute drive away from campus. Farther away from both the joys and troubles of Rice life, Memorial Park has just about everything Hermann Park has to offer and more. Nestled in greenery, the park’s most distinctive quality is its conduciveness to outdoor sports. The nearby Trail Head in Memorial Park is the start of several trails increasing in difficulty for those who want more of a challenge. If you are looking for a weekend mountain hike, a space for cycling or skating, tennis and volleyball courts for a match with your friends or wilderness for your morning run, Memorial Park is the perfect place for you!
The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards
If your vision for weekend escapades involves something more dramatic than letting your mind run free in nature, we present to you The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards — an outdoor drive-in movie theater perfect for car-owning film fanatics devastated by the months-long vacancy of movie theaters. Only a 15-minute drive from campus, it offers a wide variety of movies, from blockbusters to indie films. The most recent movie list includes films such as “Baby Driver,” “The Princess Bride,” “A Star Is Born” and “Pulp Fiction.” Fasten your seatbelts, friends, and don’t forget your popcorn.
Marvin Taylor Trail
This two-mile trail is a quick hop from Rice: a mere 15 minutes via Metro or a short four-minute drive. Both sides of the walkway are framed by live oaks, promising a much needed shady oasis during humid weekends. The path has a harder granite surface, as well as improved drainage that provides a more reliable surface to run on in case of the unpredictable weather for which Houston is famous. It is also pet-friendly, as long your furry friends are kept on a leash. If you’re looking to avoid peak times, it’s best to visit before noon during the weekends. Foot traffic picks up during weekday evenings as well. Along the way you may see the Bill Coats suspension bridge, which connects Hermann Park and Brays Bayou.
Brays Bayou Greenway Trail
Continuing through the Bill Coats Bridge and stretching for 33.8 miles, this next trail follows the Brays Bayou and is made of mostly concrete and asphalt. The trail is only a nine minute ride followed by a nine minute walk using the Metro, or a 14-minute car drive away. It’s great for cycling and is one of many trails part of a larger project called Bayou Greenways 2020, which provides Houstonians with better access to nature. The Greenway trail can also be used to visit some of your favorite spots along the way, as it actually intersects with the University of Houston, the Houston Zoo, and part of the Museum District. Sections of the trail are under construction, so be sure to check the map before you go.
Buffalo Bayou Park Trail
A favorite among Houstonians, this trail is known for its lush greenery and various amenities. It is 20 minutes by car or 12 minutes by Metro followed by a seven-minute walk. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership keeps this trail well-maintained and commissioned several art installations as permanent features, which can make for a great Instagram post. Along the trail, the Buffalo Bayou Waterway offers canoeing and kayaking if you want to switch up your daily walk. Also located along the trail is the Wortham Foundation Grove, which offers the “Dandelion:” a sculpture spraying out refreshingly cold water, and a shady garden should you need to beat the heat. Another great facility the trail offers is the Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park, which has remained open through COVID-19. In addition to the skate park, there is even a known bat colony located under the Waugh Drive Bridge, making this trail a fantastic, well-rounded experience!
Seymour-Lieberman Exercise Trail
Located in Memorial Park, this trail is another popular destination that offers shady respite for runners. The trail is located further from Rice, via either a 30-minute Metro ride with a 15-minute walk, or a 15- to 35-minute car ride, depending on traffic. The trail includes a tennis court and a quarter mile asphalt track for those serious about their workouts. Most people tend to run on the evenings during the weekdays and the mornings during the weekends. If it’s too crowded for your taste, you can try the Greenridge Trail if it hasn’t recently rained, as the dirt trail is great for mountain bikes and is tucked away from busy streets.
Houston Arboretum and Nature Center Outer Loop Trail
This loop beautifully exhibits the flora and fauna native to Texas. It is a 50 minute Metro ride with an eight minute walk, or a 15- to 35-minute drive. This trail is completely free and allows pictures, but cycling, running and skateboarding are prohibited in order to protect the wildlife. The loop is open from 7 a.m. to dusk every day, and aims to teach visitors about the natural environment and the importance of protecting it. The trail features different “Habitat Hikes” which direct you towards the specific areas and plants modeled after one of the five habitats in Houston — prairie, ravine, savanna, wetland, and woodland. After COVID-19, many of their events regarding nature education are virtual, which you can find on their website. Weekend visits are popular, but less people tend to visit during weekday evenings.
Before visiting any of these locations, be sure to check on their websites how their safety measures have changed for COVID-19. Usually benches, and sometimes restrooms and water fountains, are prohibited and visitors are encouraged to maintain 6 feet of distancing — but thankfully, all these locations are just as enjoyable regardless! We sincerely hope your semester will be as safe as it is fun, adieu!
More from The Rice Thresher
As school gets back into rhythm and back-to-back Zoom meetings tire out our eyes, places to unwind and be immersed in nature are needed now more than ever. Rice students are lucky that Houston has a variety of parks and gardens right outside the hedges of campus, as easy as a walk or Metro ride away. With plenty of walking trails, beautiful flora and fauna and special events, these parks offer a chance to relax and unwind – and enjoy the weather before it gets humid again!