Hidden Treasures of the Park

Memorial Park is almost twice the size of Central Park. But it feels smaller because two-thirds of the park is covered in dense woods. And most of the trails aren't marked or mapped.

Houstonians use the park much like they do the city. Just as there are people who live in Montrose and never venture outside the Loop, there are parkgoers who run on the exer-trail and never make it to the polo grounds.

Here are a few things you might not have seen or known were in the park:

The Swimming Pool

6402 Arnot. Just off Memorial Loop, before the golf course and tennis courts.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the pool is swamped. It's filled with women doing water aerobics, men twirling babies and kids swimming and splashing. Edged with green tiles, the huge pool is an elongated hexagon. It has a water-park-style half-tube slide, with running water and a lifeguard or two in the watchtower. The pool has several benches and covered picnic tables where people can leave sunscreen and snacks without their melting too much. All it really lacks is lounge chairs.

It costs $1 to swim laps. But to just splash around, it's free. Mostly it serves as a community pool for people who live in the neighborhood.

The Fitness Center

6402 Arnot. Just off Memorial Loop, before the golf course and tennis courts, and next to the pool.

Beside the front door is a butterfly garden. A dozen orange butterflies flit around the black-eyed Susans. The blue-tiled gym is about as good as an average hotel fitness room. There are two treadmills, two elliptical machines and three StairMasters lined against the wall. Other than that, there's just a bunch of weights.

It costs 75 cents to take a shower. Renting a towel is another 50 cents.

The Presidential Grove of Native American Trees

The stream and wildflowers here are probably the prettiest sights on the exer-trail. Sponsored by Texaco, the National Tree Trust and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the grove is dedicated to George and Barbara Bush.

The Place to Look at a Llama

The llama is not actually in the park or belonging to the park. From the picnic loop, follow the purple trail straight back to the bayou. There are two white picket fences that have "No Bikers Allowed" stenciled in black letters. Duck around the one on the left. Walk slowly. Walk very slowly, because soon there's a badly eroded cliff with no guardrail. On the other side of the bayou is a River Oaks mansion. The manicured lawn looks more like Central Park's most lush, movie-perfect area than any place inside the park proper. There, grazing on the grass is a llama. It has long brown hair and manages to not look like it's melting. Some people have even seen two llamas. Rumor has it there's a donkey, too. The best time for llama viewing seems to be around 4 or 5 p.m.

Memorial Park Hunters

The stable located on the polo grounds offers riding lessons to the public. Unlike Hermann Park Stables, it does not have school ponies. People have to either board their own horse there or lease one for $650 per month. And there's a waiting list, says Patty Roberts, the stable manager. Students ride on the polo pony training trails that are always kept clear and nice and are wide enough to accommodate four ponies side by side. "You don't have to worry about falling in a pothole," Roberts says. "When it's muddy, we smooth it out."

The Horse Tunnels Under the Road

When Memorial Drive and Woodway were constructed, three tunnels were built beneath the road so that horseback riders could cross the street safely. The tunnels were paid for in the 1950s by Winifred Jones, wife of John Tilford Jones Jr., a nephew of the famous Jesse Jones and himself a former publisher of the Houston Chronicle.

The tunnels were paved with a mixture of crushed oyster shells and concrete. Patches remain. The paths leading to the trails have not been kept clear. Some people have seen the tunnels filled with brush; others have spotted "unsavory people" sleeping in them. Horseback rider Patricia Trice says the tunnels aren't safe anymore because they have to dismount and lead the horse through because the path is falling apart. Plus, she says, there are rocks and glass in the tunnels.

Houston Police Department's Mounted Patrol

Mounted officers patrol the park from 4 a.m. till 11 p.m., says HPD Lieutenant Donald Curry. Officers stop thieves from stealing wallets left in cars or the cars themselves. Officers used to begin patrolling at 7 a.m., but Curry says a couple of years ago, there was an early-morning rapist. So HPD bumped up the shift.

There are many instances of "lewd conduct," Curry says. People sit in cars naked or nearly naked and expose themselves. The most notorious area for naughty acts, he says, is by the train tracks in the southwest corner of the park. He says it's a well-known place where "a lot of gay men go to meet each other." Officers "try to persuade folks to go other places so that families are not surprised by something they did not intend to see."

HPD stables 41 horses at the park. Technically, the stables are across the freeway from Memorial Park in Weiss Park, but many people consider Weiss to be part of the park proper. The stables used to house the volunteer Harris County Mounted Posse. HPD took over the posse's lifelong lease. They're scheduled to be removed from the park and stabled about three miles east of downtown. -- Wendy Grossman


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