George Mitchell, who made his fortune in oil and is considered the father of fracking, had the foresight to buy wooded land from the Grogan-Cochran Lumber Company in the 1970s. 2,800 acres of the land Mitchell bought became one of the first planned communities in the United States. It has since expanded to 28,000 acres, but the plan remains the same — offer walkable neighborhoods with plenty of green space, lessen the commute by having businesses within The Woodlands, and keep the forests as intact as possible.
The Woodlands is 30 miles north of downtown Houston but feels a world away. Once exiting from Interstate 45 North and entering the township, public art and intact mixed forests of pine, oak, and flowering trees greet you and invite you to slow down, spend time in nature, and enjoy all the area has to offer. Niche.com named The Woodlands the best city to live in America in 2021 out of 228 contenders and number 7 of 228 best places for retirees to live. I moved here before the report came out and I couldn’t agree more.
Whether you’re looking to relocate to a warmer climate, move to a retiree-friendly community with a population of about 114,000, or just looking for a weekend getaway, head to The Woodlands. Here are 10 things to do on a visit or for a lifetime:
1. Enjoy The Water
Lake Woodlands and The Woodlands Waterway are focal points of The Woodlands. You’ll see kayakers, rowing teams, stand-up paddle boarders, and people who opt to paddle a swan boat along the Waterway, albeit in a more leisurely fashion than the others.
A vantage from the water is like no other – whether you glide up and down The Waterway checking out the restaurants, parks, and public art, or cruise around the lake admiring the mansions that line its shores.
Along with the manmade things you’ll see, waterfowl are abundant in the area, including cormorants, herons, and egrets.
Pro Tip: Riva Row Boat House and sister company, Lakes Edge Boat House, rent single and tandem kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, water bikes, and swan boats daily up until an hour before sunset.
2. Explore A Green Space
The Woodlands has 140 parks and more than 220 miles of walking or biking trails. You can go just about any place using one of these trails. They’re paved and wide enough for bicyclists to pass walkers and their dogs.
Parks range from a lot-sized green space with playground equipment tucked in a neighborhood to a sprawling outdoor space with picnic tables, pickleball or tennis courts, splash pads, swimming pools, and lakes.
For an urban stroll, take a walk along The Woodlands Waterway that begins at Lake Woodlands. The entirely paved walkway passes public art, fountains, restaurants and bars with outdoor seating, and plenty of benches from which to admire the view. The Waterway continues to The Woodlands Mall at the eastern edge of the township.
3. Take In A Concert
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, named for George Mitchell’s wife, hosts big-name entertainers in the award-winning amphitheater from April until October. And all genres are represented here from country to classical, with plenty of musicians boomers will recognize.
The pavilion is also a venue for Houston’s orchestra, ballet, and opera. Tickets range in price to suit every budget. Open seating on the lawn that rims the amphitheater is the most reasonable.
Speaking of reasonable, a number of concerts in The Woodlands are free. Outdoor venues at The Woodlands Waterway, Northshore Park, Market Street, and Hughes Landing, as well as restaurants and bars, feature local and regional artists. Visit The Woodlands’ calendar for upcoming events.
4. Admire The Art
Public art is scattered throughout The Woodlands, beginning at each main entrance to the township. A giant abstract sculpture greets visitors on Woodlands Parkway while a peaceful “Dreamer” sleeping in the grass is just several miles deeper into The Woodlands along Woodlands Parkway and to me symbolizes the “Hometown America” feel.
Each neighborhood has its share of art, but along The Waterway, you’ll be treated to an abundance. Flora and fauna mosaics cover bridge abutments and artsy benches invite you to sit and enjoy the view. Tree trunks wrapped with lights add a festive feel to the area.
Pro Tip: For a full listing of public art, visit the township’s website.
The Glade Gallery, a non-profit museum, showcases contemporary art by American and European artists in an airy contemporary space. The space is a perfect backdrop for permanent artwork by David Adickes and temporary exhibits of paintings, sculptures, and glass.
Pro Tip: The Glade Gallery hosts jazz concerts and weekly wine-tasting events at the Mercury Bar.
5. Plan Your Trip Around A Festival
The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival is held annually in April when the weather is perfect to stroll from the Town Green Park along The Waterway to browse the booths of nearly 200 juried artists who work in watercolors and oils, ceramics, glass, metal, and mixed media.
While the Arts Festival is the best known, expect to see events throughout the year, from fireworks on the Fourth of July and food truck “Feastival” in September to indoor ice skating at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion from mid-November to mid-January.
Pro Tip: For information on the art festival, see The Woodlands Arts Council webpage.
6. Do Some Shopping
The Woodlands Mall is an upscale enclosed, air-conditioned mall with hundreds of shops from big-name anchor stores to small, independent shops. You could spend an entire day shopping and eating here.
For “downtown” shopping, head to Market Street where you’ll find Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, and Sur La Table. Steps away, you’ll see Orvis and Eddie Bauer. If you tire of shopping, you can enjoy a movie, people watch in Central Park, or get a massage at The Woodhouse Day Spa.
Pro Tip: The ADA-compliant trolley provides easy access to the main attractions in The Woodlands’ Town Center. You can download a trolley map here.
7. Commune With Nature
It’s only fitting that a portion of The Woodlands township was set aside to remain undeveloped. It’s also fitting that one nature reserve bears George Mitchell’s name. A band of forested area follows Spring Creek as it winds its way along the southern border of The Woodlands.
One access point to George Mitchell Nature Preserve is off Flintridge Road. From there, an easy 2-mile hiking loop has options for shorter walks. Signs warn about snakes and alligators, although I haven’t seen either when I’ve been there.
This part of the preserve has a 3-mile bike trail that has more ups and downs than the hiking trail as well as some tight corners and some very narrow parts. I don’t have a mountain bike, but it would be better than a road bike for this course.
The 14-mile Spring Creek Nature Trail traverses George Mitchell Nature Preserve and joins the trail off of Flintridge Road. This trail follows Spring Creek, from the Piney Woods ecosystem to marshes and wetlands. Not many people use this trail beyond the first few miles at the trailhead in the Creekside neighborhood.
All trails are dog-friendly, provided they are on leashes.
Pro Tip: Download bike trail maps here for the nature preserves. The site also shows trails within The Woodlands and a public art loop.
8. Go Birdwatching
Spring Creek Nature Trail is popular for birdwatching. Be on the lookout for owls and eagles. Within the township, blue herons, egrets, cardinals, Egyptian geese, and Muscovy ducks are spotted commonly.
You’ll see turtles in or near almost every lake and pond. And once in a while, you’ll see a nutria by the water. The Woodlands is home to coyotes, fox, deer, and wild boar, although they are elusive.
Pro Tip: If you’re an angler, you can fish for catfish and bass in the lakes and ponds in The Woodlands.
9. If You’ve Worked Up An Appetite
Market Street has its share of restaurants including Schilleci’s New Orleans Kitchen that repeatedly captures the “Best Restaurant of The Woodlands” title.
The Republic Grille in Panther Creek Village in The Woodlands consistently serves fresh, delicious salads and main courses and is a great option for lunch.
For waterfront dining, check out Truluck’s on Restaurant Row at Hughes Landing. They specialize in seafood, but also have steak and vegetarian options. You’ll have a view of the sunset and Lake Woodlands from this restaurant. Please note Truluck’s has a dress code – no flip flops, workout or beach clothes, no short shorts, and no tank tops.
For Japanese food, head to The Blue Fish also at Hughes Landing.
Pro Tip: Check out The Woodlands restaurant guide here. You can narrow down your choices by cuisine, outdoor dining, full bar, etc.
10. Spend The Night
If you plan on making a weekend of your visit to The Woodlands, there are a number of hotels within the township, including The Woodlands Waterway Marriott. It’s a short walk to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion for concert goers.
If you’re after a relaxing, “pamper-me” hotel, The Woodlands Resort and Spa has what you’re looking for. In addition to a spa with a full menu of services, you can relax by the pool or float in the Lazy River, use the resort’s wooded trails, or play golf at one of two courses – The Oaks and Panther Trail.
Pro Tip: Visit the township’s website for a comprehensive accommodation guide.