Sheldon Lake State Park
Texas has 54 state parks. That’s an impressive number, though I must admit to wishing there were more. Unless you’re exceptionally fortunate, most of us have to do quite a bit of driving to reach one of the parks. In the Houston area, Sheldon Lake State Park is likely to be the closest option. The lake is actually a man-made reservoir built by the federal government in 1943 as part of the war effort. The reservoir provided fresh water for shipbuilding in the Houston Ship Channel.
Sheldon Lake State Park is unusual as far as state parks go. It’s much smaller than most, there’s no entrance fee, the 28 ponds in the park have the distinction of once having been used as fish hatcheries, and it has an 82 ft observation tower that looks out over Sheldon Lake.
Although the park has an abundance of ponds, only two of them are available for the public to enjoy fishing; the remainder are utilized as wildlife habitat.
As we approach the park entrance on Garrett Road, a view of the Sheldon Reservoir opens up. First impressions would indicate it’s more of a swamp than a lake. Cypress trees dot the watery landscape and water plants cover much of the surface. This type of scenery never fails to provide the sense that there’s a hidden world out there. Not for the first time, I think that we really need a boat of some kind if we want to understand this East Texas environment.
The park road has us following a curved path through the restored prairie, which I hope promises the discovery of wildflowers I haven’t come across before. Considering its small size, this park encourages exploration of several different types of habitat.
After parking, we make our way to the closest pond. It’s been a couple of weeks since Hurricane Harvey arrived and it seems clear the water plants must have been submerged for longer than they can tolerate. The shimmering dragon fly wings flitting through the brown vegetation would suggest that they’re managing the changes just fine.
As we aim for the path through the retention ponds, and the tunnel created by the overhanging trees, we’re fortunate to discover a Broad-Banded Water Snake. I always take it as a good sign when we encounter wildlife within minutes of arriving.
Not surprisingly, the mosquitoes have discovered their ideal habitat in this somewhat dark and shaded area. As much as I’m tempted to take a closer look at all the ponds, and the wildlife likely to be hiding within the tree lined banks, I’m quickly convinced by the buzzing around my ears to commit to a continuous pace on our way to the observation tower. I do manage to quickly snap some photos of a couple of yellow-crowned night-herons.
When we reach the open prairie landscape, the impressively tall observation tower is directly ahead of us. My companions quickly take to the stairs while I use my camera gear as a convenient excuse to take the solar powered elevator to the top. The top level of the tower includes a large observation deck that allows for incredible views of the surroundings. From up here you can see downtown Houston as well as the San Jacinto Monument. I make use of my zoom lens for not only pictures but also as a substitute for binoculars. A pair of powerful binoculars would be another wise investment!
After a long and enjoyable stay at the tower, we head back down with the intent of traversing the prairie. Locating a dirt road, we follow it until we reach the boardwalk. The other members of our expeditionary team may feel the need to pick up the pace a little on this simmering day but now that we’re free of the mosquitoes, I feel less of an urge to hurry.
My attention is directed to a dragonfly that lands next to me. It seems to have a strong grip on another dragonfly. The whole thing looks a bit suspect, but I can’t really make out what’s happening. It’s not until I see the pictures on the computer, a few hours later, that I realize that our dragonfly friend is a cannibal. Not quite able to believe what I’m seeing, I do some research and find that this is normal dragonfly behavior. In this case, it seems I have an unfounded tendency to romanticize nature at times.
A few flower and insect photo sessions later, we arrive at the wildlife viewing platform. On the park map, this shows up as a pond. The reality is that it’s so covered in plants, we can’t even see the water. If it was a cooler day, we would have followed the boardwalk to the other side of the covered pond, but that will have to wait for another visit.
We swing by the fishing pond again on our way back to the car and are lucky enough to see a medium sized alligator right next to the dock. Very exciting, at least until he begins to make hissing sounds, which I can only interpret to mean that he’s not happy about our visit. We make sure to compliment his good looks, but I doubt it’s made him more friendly.