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Top 10 Boardwalks

From exotic birds to carnivorous plants, you never know what you might find under the boardwalk.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Wetlands sustain an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life. So much untold beauty and drama lies within the mysterious marshes and obscure swamplands of Texas. To experience and witness the ever-changing cycles of life that unfold within these fragile environments, you’d have to don waders and rubber boots, then slog your way through the mire. Not only would you get grungy fast, but your tromping through the water would further damage an already imperiled habitat. Thanks to manmade boardwalks, you can experience wetlands firsthand without getting soggy. Across the state, a number of “sidewalks over water” have been erected to provide an easier and gentler method of viewing the diverse species of birds, animals and plants that inhabit our marshes, swamps and bayous. Amazingly, Texas boasts a number of boardwalks, including one as far west as Big Bend National Park. Read on, and you’ll learn about 10 sites across the state that host great boardwalks. As a bonus, there’s an “honorable mention” list of a few more boardwalk sites you’ll want to check out, too.

1. Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, Paradise Pond,
Wetland Park, Port Aransas

Leg deep in murky water, a tricolored heron stands perfectly still, its eyes sharply focused on something moving within the marsh’s shallow depths. Oblivious to the small crowd that’s gathered on the nearby boardwalk, the slender-necked, gray-feathered bird moves ever so slightly, then darts its long yellow bill into the water.

“He got a minnow!” exclaims an onlooker. “A pretty good sized one, too!”

At the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center in Port Aransas, you’ll get an up-close look at life in a wetland from a wooden boardwalk that extends past a jungle of cattails and into a large body of brackish water. Birders armed with binoculars gravitate to an elevated observation deck (located midway down the boardwalk) that offers panoramic views of the marsh.

As you stroll down the boardwalk, red-winged blackbirds call out raucously from their hiding places amid the cattails. In the water, turtle heads pop up here and there while a sociable group of cormorants sun themselves on a triangle-shaped roost fashioned from wooden boards.

Around the marsh’s edges, brown pelicans, great egrets and roseate spoonbills hunt for meals. Two American alligators — nicknamed Boots and Bags — also claim the marsh as home.

At the end of the boardwalk, a bevy of noisy black-bellied whistling-ducks, northern shovelers and dowitchers feed and feud in the shallow water.

Less than a half-mile away from the birding center, you can slip into a heavily wooded wetland habitat via another wooden boardwalk at Paradise Pond. Three outboxes offer views of the freshwater pond, where an abundance of birds, including great blue herons, warblers and other songbirds, feed and nest.

Within a short drive, you’ll find the 361 Wetland Overlook, a short boardwalk and gazebo that overlook tidal flats, home to many water birds and cranes.
(361) 749-4158; www.portaparks.com

2. Big Thicket National Preserve

You’ll find the biggest number of boardwalks at — where else? — the Big Thicket National Preserve. More than 75 boardwalks of varying lengths can be found within the preserve’s 97,000-plus acres in East Texas, where three biologically rich ecosystems — hardwood forests, coastal plains and midwest prairies — converge. In all, the preserve has eight trails totaling more than 45 miles. The Kirby Nature Trail System and its 15 boardwalks meander through a mixture of hardwoods and pines, then bald cypress swamps, while the Turkey Creek Trail and its 43 boardwalks cross through sandhill pine uplands, mixed forests and flood plains. Don’t miss the Pitcher Plant Trail, which features an observation deck with benches for optimum viewing of the preserve’s fascinating enclave of carnivorous pitcher plants.
(409) 951-6725; www.nps.gov/bith

3. Laguna Madre Nature Trail, South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, South Padre Island

The dynamic handiwork of wind and waves can be seen at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, one of nine sites that are part of the World Birding Center network in South Texas. Here, a 1,500-foot-long boardwalk cuts through tall marsh grass and links four acres of wetlands to the Laguna Madre shore. From two observation blinds, you can watch birds, fish, turtles, crabs, dragonflies and maybe even an alligator. Along the boardwalk, informative panels tell about the dune systems and birds that frequent South Padre Island, the first stopover for migratory species making the cross-Gulf trip from Southern Mexico and northern Central America.
(800) 767-2373 or (956) 761-3005; <www.worldbirdingcenter.org/sites/spi/> and www.sopadre.com

4. Galveston Island State Park, Galveston

Walk along one of 14 boardwalks here that lead to the beach, and you’ll likely spot some small, mysterious holes dug into the dunes. Land-loving ghost crabs — named for their light coloring and swift little legs — inhabit those sandy burrows. Among the dunes, you may also see cottontail rabbits, mice, coyotes and diamondback rattlesnakes. Approximately 4.5 miles of trails that include two boardwalks wind through the park’s wetlands. Watch for blue crabs, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, mullets and other wildlife.
(409) 737-1222; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/galveston

5. Formosa Wetlands Walkway, Lighthouse Beach and Bird Sanctuary, Port Lavaca

Sunrise breaks gently over Lavaca Bay and across Lighthouse Beach, casting a warm amber light on the Formosa Wetlands Walkway. The elevated boardwalk, constructed of recycled plastic, stretches for some 2,200 feet over coastal wetlands and a tidal exchange basin. From the Alcoa Bird Tower and an elevated gazebo along the walkway, you can watch the many birds, crabs, fish, snakes and other animals that inhabit the area. Beautiful roseate spoonbills often perch along the walkway.
(361) 552-1234; www.portlavaca.org/beach/lhbeach.html

6. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Anahuac

Come summer at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, long-legged black-necked stilts and colorful purple gallinules build nests around Shoveler Pond, a large freshwater marsh. Shielded by tall stands of cane and cattails, a wide, 750-foot-long boardwalk gives a water-level view of resident birds and wildlife, including great blue herons, snowy egrets, white-faced ibis, marsh wrens and mottled ducks. You may also glimpse American alligators sunning themselves on banks. The refuge has no drinking water, so bring your own.
(409) 267-3337; www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/anahuac/

7. Armand Bayou Nature Center, Houston

More than 370 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians inhabit the 2,500 acres of Armand Bayou Nature Center, one of the nation’s largest urban wilderness preserves. The refuge protects remnants of the region’s original ecosystems — estuarine bayou, riparian forest and tall grass prairie. A 600-foot-long boardwalk leads past a raptor exhibit (which houses two rehabilitated red-tailed hawks that are unable to survive on their own), through a hardwood forest and over a pond. Along the walkway, you’ll see an abundance of birds, turtles, armadillos, snakes and white-tailed deer.
(281) 474-2551; www.abnc.org

8. Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

This 100-acre preserve protects four ecosystems found in the Texas Hill Country — riparian forest, oak savannah, tall grass prairie and spring-fed marsh. A 4-mile trail system includes a quarter-mile boardwalk that crosses a marsh. Children especially love to sprawl on their stomachs and peer into the water below. Crayfish, leopard frogs, great blue herons and spring peepers feed and hide among the cardinal flowers, wild rice and buttonbushes.
(830) 249-4616; <www.cibolo.org>

9. Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, Big Bend National Park

Even deserts have wetlands. At Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail takes visitors on a three-quarter-mile loop that crosses a two-acre beaver pond via a wide boardwalk (no handrails). Fed by a warm freshwater spring and surrounded by mountains, the pond hosts the world’s only population of endangered Big Bend mosquitofish (Gambusia gaigei). Along the water’s edge, thick stands of willows and honey mesquite attract green kingfishers, American bitterns, common black-hawks, roadrunners, warblers and shore birds.
(432) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe

10. Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, Fort Worth

Forests, prairies and even wetlands comprise this 3,600-acre wilderness just a short drive away from downtown Fort Worth. The Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge — one of the country’s largest city-owned nature refuges — straddles the West Fork of the Trinity River and protects almost 1,000 acres of pristine wetlands. The 800-foot-long Marsh Boardwalk stretches across a wide marsh that was once a river channel. During summer months, hundreds of lotus lily pads burst into bloom, dotting the marsh with lemon-colored flowers. Prothonotary warblers, eastern phoebes, great blue herons and occasionally pileated woodpeckers can be seen around the marsh. American alligators, turtles, bullfrogs, toads, snakes and even green tree frogs inhabit the area. The marsh’s fairly clear water allows good visibility of resident orangespot sunfish, spotted gar, gambusia and minnows.
(817) 237-1111; <www.fwnc.org, www.naturecenterfriends.org>

Honorable Mentions:

* Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Austwell
Come see the refuge’s boardwalk and its star residents — endangered whooping cranes (late October to mid April).(361) 286-3559; <www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas.html>
* Brazos Bend State Park, Needville
The Creekfield Lake Nature Trail is a half-mile, paved trail that includes a boardwalk and observation deck for wildlife viewing at the park’s wetlands. (979) 553-5101; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/brazosbend>
* Hans A. Suter Wildlife Park, Corpus Christi
An 800-foot-long boardwalk with a viewing platform extends into a marsh. (361) 880-3460
* Queen Isabella Causeway Wetlands, South Padre Island
The boardwalk here passes by some of the largest black mangroves in Texas. (800) 767-2373 or (956) 761-3005
* Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary, Brownsville
At this 527-acre sanctuary near the Rio Grande River, a boardwalk passes through a jungle of Sabal Palm and Texas Ebony trees. (956) 541-8034; <www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/sabal/>
* San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, Brazoria
Three trails — Bobcat Woods Trail, San Bernard Oak Trail and Scoby Lake Trail — feature approximately 1,000 feet of boardwalks. Follow the San Bernard Oak Trail to pay homage to the state’s champion live oak. (979) 964-3639; <www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/texasmidcoast/san bernard.htm>
* Sheldon Lake State Park, Houston
Two miles of nature/interpretive trails feature boardwalks and viewing platforms. (281) 456-2800; <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/sheldonlake>
* Tony Houseman Wildlife Management Area, Port Arthur
At this 3,343-acre wildlife management area, a 600-foot boardwalk leads visitors from a Texas Travel Information Center into the Blue Elbow swamp. (409) 736-2551; <Tony Houseman WMA>
* Double Lake Recreation Area, Sam Houston National Forest, Coldspring
The Double Lake Nature Trail features a 475-foot-long boardwalk with a birdwatching area. (888) 361-6908 or (936) 344-6205; <www.fs.fed.us>

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