The 1.8-mile The Woodlands Waterway provides recreation and transportation through Town Center in The Woodlands, acting as both a backdrop and a conduit for the heart of the community, but it began its life as a simple drainage ditch in 1972.

"At the time, the idea was—in lieu of a drainage ditch, why don't we use this to enhance the Town Center and create a linear park that would connect the different uses and amenities on the waterway, and also serve as a public transit?" said Jim Carman, president of the Houston region for The Woodlands' developer Howard Hughes.

The concept, part of planner Robert Heineman's famous "napkin sketch" for Town Center—which Carman said was actually drawn on a notecard—lingered until 1999 when construction began on the project that would transform from an idea for a linear park to one with twists and turns reflecting the overall look of The Woodlands.

"Those that walk or ride along it get a continuously changing view," Carman said, describing the effect of moving along the sinuous waterway stretching from Lake Woodlands to The Woodlands Mall.

The backstory

Work on The Woodlands Waterway has been actively underway for 25 years as new amenities have opened along its path. This includes several public green spaces, such as Town Green Park, which are also home to many of the township's public art installations as well as its trolley service. In 2022, a new mural, "Flowers," was added to Waterway Square.
  • 1999: Construction begins
  • 2002: The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel & Convention Center opens
  • 2003: Waterway Lofts opens
  • 2004: The waterway is extended to The Woodlands Mall
  • 2006: Town Green Park opens
  • 2009: Waterway Square opens
  • 2009: Riva Row boathouse opens
  • 2017: The waterway is extended to Hughes Landing
  • 2018: Work is completed
  • 2021: Pedestrian bridge named for Robert Heineman opens
  • 2023: Waterway is transferred to The Woodlands Township
Among the other features along The Woodlands Waterway is the Town Center Trolley service, which Chris Nunes, the township's chief operating officer, said will see new vehicles coming in in 2025 and 2026 to replace older trolleys. Renovations are also underway on trolley stops along the waterway, he said.

Water vehicles and recreation have also changed over the years, he said. The original water cruisers were phased out in 2018 after sustaining damage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but other new amenities, such as water bikes, were added in 2021. The township also offers kayak and swan boat rentals.

What they're saying

“The Woodlands Waterway is a key differentiator for The Woodlands as a destination and corporate headquarters compared to other regions in Greater Houston and beyond,” said Brad Bailey, chair of Visit The Woodlands and a member of The Woodlands Township board of directors. “It’s a great selling point that attracts convention and corporate meetings, leisure travel retail and hospitality establishments, corporate headquarters, and businesses, all of which contribute tremendously to the overall economic vitality of The Woodlands."

"The Woodlands Waterway has been developed as a premier amenity that allows The Woodlands to highlight its dedication to public spaces that create unique experiences, foster a sense of community and improve the quality of life," said Ann Snyder, chair of The Woodlands Township's board of directors.

What's next

The Woodlands Waterway is already home to a number of annual events in The Woodlands, such as the annual April arts festival, the Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas finish line and holiday festivals for July Fourth as well as the Lighting of the Doves at the end of the year.

Now under the township's ownership, it will also see an enhanced holiday light display beginning this year, Nunes said.

A new mural will be unveiled Oct. 17 along The Woodlands Waterway as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for The Woodlands planned by the township and Howard Hughes, and the waterway will be the site of many of that week's festivities.

Angela Bonilla contributed to this report.