Sheldon Lake State Park & Environmental Learning Center is a 2,800-acre outdoor education and recreation facility located in northeast Harris County. The park is split into two units: Sheldon Lake, which you can access from Pineland Road, and the State Park, which you can access from Garrett Road. The reservoir levees encompass 1,200 acres, of which 800 are permanently inundated and 400 are marsh and swampland.
Sheldon Reservoir, located on Carpenter's Bayou, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou, was constructed in 1942 by the federal government to provide water for war industries along the Houston Ship Channel. Texas Parks and Wildlife acquired the reservoir in 1952 and designated it as the Sheldon Wildlife Management Area; it was opened in 1955. Sheldon Lake was designated a state park in 1984.
Formerly in a rural area, Sheldon Lake has survived a tremendous influx of urbanization over the past 50 years as Houston has grown. Sheldon Lake is now a green and blue oasis for wildlife and people on the edge of Texas' largest city.
The Prairie - Then and Now
The land of Sheldon Lake State Park & Environmental Learning Center has changed many times over the last six decades.
Sheldon Lake’s original prairie was part of the Round Prairie and was bisected by Carpenters Bayou. Towering bald cypress shaded the bayou, which had sandy clear water and averaged about two feet deep and 100 feet wide. You can still see part of the original bayou channel, marked by cypress trees, from the John Jacob Observation Tower.
The prairie flooded in 1943 after construction of the Sheldon Reservoir dam. The reservoir provided fresh water for World War II industry along the ship channel. The eastern half of the lake was drained in the 1950s for construction of the Houston West Canal. The canal brought drinking water to the city from Lake Houston. Agriculture returned to this area, and crops including rice, soybeans, corn or sorghum grew here, with some land left fallow each year for wintering waterfowl and wildlife.
Restoration of the tall grass prairie started in 2003. Aerial photographs of the Sheldon Lake site from 1930 guided much of the work to recreate the original high and low features. By looking at the black and gray patterns in the photos, planners could match the highs and lows of the land to current digital aerial imagery, and create a template for the restoration.
While the land has changed many times, eventually this historic habitat will thrive again. The landscape will never truly look like what those first settlers saw when they crossed Carpenters Bayou or Round Prairie. But visitors will be able to enjoy the coastal tall grass prairie, with its plant diversity and the wildlife it supports.