If you’re looking for a place to hike and do a little birding in the Houston area, then make your way outside of Galveston to visit Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary. It provides some fun trails, and the small island on the water is a bird rookery where you may see some fantastic nesting bird species.
What you need to know:
From Smith Oaks Website:
- Entrance Hours: Smith Oaks Sanctuary is open year-round, 7 AM -7 PM. (except during spring migration when the Old Mexico Rd entrance is open dawn to dusk). The Winnie Street Entrance is thru a pedestrian turnstile gate, year-round. Visitors should use the pedestrian turnstile — the trail swing gate which is next to the turnstile is only open for work vehicle access.
- The Winnie Street entrance does not allow for bus turnaround; buses or large vehicles will need to drive in and back out. The Old Mexico Road entrance is open February 15 – June 15 and weekends in the fall: September 15 – October 15.
- Parking: Parking is available year-round at the Winnie St. entrance. The Old Mexico Rd. entrance is open daily during spring migration and on weekends the rest of the year. See the Google map below for parking locations.
How The Trip To Smith Oaks Came About
With my toes sinking into the warm sand on top of a dune at the East End Lagoon in Galveston, TX, a car pulls into the space behind me. With the camera to my face, the gentleman asks, any luck? After a brief conversation about my trip he recommended that I skip my original final destination and head to Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary on Bolivar Island.
I was heading out that way to visit Anuhouc National Wildlife Refuge, but based on the time of year he thought I’d enjoy the sanctuary maintained by the Houston Audobon chapter.
He was right.
The diverse coastal landscape changes so much from Brownsville to the Louisianna border, but its importance to birds and other wildlife is no more important than the rookeries that are home to the newly hatched birds that begin their life here.
Four sanctuaries make up the conglomerate on High Island and they are, Boy Scout Woods Bird Sanctuary, Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary, Eubanks Woods Bird Sanctuary, and S.E. Gast Red Bay.
They each offer different scenery, and each requires separate admissions to help support, so if you have the extra time try and go to each place to knock those birds off of your life list.
Smith Oaks Bird Sanctuary Details
You’re driving through some back roads and eventually, you’ll see the unassuming sign greeting you down the rocky road. Right as you enter the opened gate you’ll see the donation box for the sanctuary. Continue on to the main parking lot, and here is where you can use the restroom, put on your bug spray, and get situated for a fun walk.
Did I mention the bug spray? Spray, head net, long sleeves, and pants, all of it. You’re going to need it.
At the entrance, you’ll see some signage about what to expect, and the trailhead sign with some additional information about Houston Audubon and the trails here.
At the very beginning, you’ll notice the Pump House pavilion, but it’s not a visitor’s center. Just a symbol of life on the land, and a place to enjoy some shade or even a picnic. Visit the full site to learn complete details about the sanctuary’s history.
Hiking Trails at Smith Oaks
The hiking here is mostly flat, but take a picture at the trailhead so you can be sure which part of the loop you’re on.
You can experience this place from above or on the ground, so if you’re short on time get up on the observation platform and enjoy the view from the treeline. You’ll be able to enjoy some interpretive signs, birds flying by, and a bird’s eye view of the alligators that call this place home. More on that in a bit.
On a recent visit, I was able to walk along the platform and then made a small loop to each of the viewing decks, on the map they are labeled A-E.
Each one gives a new perspective of the rookery that they face, and you’ll see different birds nursing the young through the branches as you walk down each one. Such a sight to see!
As you make your way through the trails you may notice sights of the alligators that also call this place home. There’s a bit of widlife agreement between the gators and the birds it turns out. The alligators protect the birds from wildlife that may be enticed to swim across and attack, and as payment for the bird’s protection, the gators are free to feast on any eggs that fall to the ground. Nature finds a way.
But it’s important to stay aware of the gators. When the sun is overhead they do find shade near the banks just below the trails. Be mindful of your distance, don’t atagonize, and do not feed the wildlife. Ever, ever, ever.
Find a loop that you want to explore, and if you’re here for the birding, make your way to the various drip points on the map. These locations will also have benches, and usually shade, to take a moment to enjoy the wildlife.