Getting Dirty in Houston: Mountain Biking in Memorial Park

Great Riding Right in the City

houston memorial park MTB
Riding in Memorial Park. Photo by David Elizondo/Flickr

Houston's Memorial Park at nearly 1500 acres is one of the nation's largest urban parks. Opened in 1924, the park features the normal collection of features you'd expect in a big city park: golf, playgrounds, fields for baseball and softball, tennis, sand volleyball, a nature center and arboretum and the like. But look a little closer and tucked away you'll find a hidden treasure: miles and miles of some pretty excellent mountain bike trails, and all in the heart of the city.


The Nitty-Gritty About the Memorial Park Trails

The mountain bike trails in Houston's Memorial Park will be a pleasure for beginning riders all the way through intermediate and advanced cyclists. Simply put, it's a fun place to ride and offers enough variety and challenge to satisfy whatever it is you're looking for. Only those seeking extremely 'technical' riding -- any collection of almost unconquerable obstacles, such as rocks, steep grade, roots, whatever -- may be disappointed, because there's not much of that here.

What you'll find is a a collection of interwoven, color-coded paths through a thickly wooded area that allow you to mix-and-match trail segments, tying in different pieces to get the terrain and difficulty you desire. It's been recognized as one of the best bike trails in Houston, a city that has a surprising number of places to ride.

Mostly flat, the only grade changes come when you go down into and then climb back out of creek beds.

With just a few rocks, the trails are mostly hard-packed, somewhat sandy soil, with only a few soft full sand places to slow you down.

The easiest trail is the purple path, a fire-road that forms a loop around the area. Though it's easy to get mixed up on the red, yellow, orange and blue trails that criss-cross inside, you won't get lost if you keep the purple path as your outer boundary.

These interior paths are lots of fun, and pretty similar in terms of their mid-level difficulty. You can spend all day riding these trails.

My favorite of all however, is the the green trail, a linear path that goes from the park's east entrance and ties in with the other trails at the ballfield trailhead. It's a bit more difficult, which makes it fast, fun and challenging, without being overwhelming.

Downside to Memorial Park - Beware the Swamp

There are a couple of minor negative aspects to riding in Memorial Park that you should know. None of them are a big deal, but certainly something to be aware of before you go.

First is that the trails do not drain well in Memorial Park, and so the parks department will close them after it rains. And that happens a lot in Houston, which is definitely one of the wettest cities in the United States. So anytime it rains, you'll want to check the open/closed message line at before you go -- (713) 221-0499 -- even if it's been a few days.

This practice makes sense, so the trails aren't getting torn up, but they'll still be closed even a couple days later when everything else is bone dry. When I was in Houston, three or four days after the last rain the trails were still closed, and I figured that either the rangers hadn't been out to check them or had forgot to take the 'closed' sign down.

But the section of the park where the trails are is essentially flat and sits adjacent to the Buffalo Bayou, and so when I was finally able to get in, even then when everything else in the whole city was scorched dry, there were still mud holes and wet patches of trail.

The second downside are the mosquitoes. Because of the bayou nearby, these airborne attackers are a constant presence and you will want to bring insect repellent. They won't bother you while you're riding, but if you stop, there will be a swarm of them on you instantly, no joke. Literally dozens, biting on all exposed skin. It was to the point that I didn't want to stop for water or to put more air in my slightly soft rear tire because the mosquitoes were so fierce.

Avoiding the Crowds

The third downside to Memorial is all the other riders, which is almost inevitable, given its location in the middle of a big metro area.

On a weeknight in July, the park itself was busy; the mountain bike trails were packed. In addition to the other riders --which you'll meet almost constantly as there is no designated trail direction--the trails are also used by walkers, runners and people out with their dogs. Just be alert and use trail etiquette (like calling out before entering a blind turn, letting foot traffic know you're passing, etc.) and you'll be fine. And pick off-hours too, for your riding, if you have that chance. I went early one weekday morning and hardly encountered anyone.

Memorial Park -- Recommended for Mountain Biking?

If you live in Houston or are visiting and are thinking about mountain biking, by all means take a spin through Memorial Park's trails. You'll have a great time, and the trails offer a nice challenge and the types of terrain and levels of difficulty that will suit just about anyone. Mostly flat, thick woods, lots of nice flow to the trails.

Keep in mind that off-hours are best -- weekdays and early mornings on the weekends -- for the best chance at uninterrupted riding. Any other time you'll see lots of other people. And be sure to check the trail closure line before you go: (713) 221-0499. The Memorial Park trails hold water and will still be wet and muddy, and therefore closed much longer than you'd expect.

Oh yeah, if you like the road bikes, too, Memorial Park offers weekly crit races and a 1.2 mile paved course local riders call the Picnic Loop and use regularly for training.