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The Carleen Bright Arboretum Is Back and Beautiful

“The Jewel of Woodway” is open again after renovations, attracting butterflies and plenty of local residents.

Just fifteen minutes down the road, the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway, TX, is named after Baylor alumna and community leader Carleen Bright. It may be the perfect place to spend a day away from campus or if you need a break. Whether strolling through the botanical gardens, visiting the new splash pad, or looking for butterflies at the certified Monarch Waystation, there is something for everyone at the arboretum.

Established in 1997, the Carleen Bright Arboretum sits on a 16-acre plot in the middle of Woodway, which is about a 16-minute drive southwest of Baylor. It is known for its Whitehall center, which was opened in 1999 as a replica of the Baptist church that served the community before the city of Woodway was established. Arboretum Superintendent Jack Stanley says that as the city has grown over the last few decades, “the Arboretum has been the jewel of the city.” The city has five additional parks, but Stanley says the Arboretum is unique because of its varied and different elements, as well as its close proximity to Lake Waco and the center of town.

The Arboretum was closed three years ago due to an $18-million-dollar project to replace the city’s sewage lines. During that time, the city took that opportunity to commission a new master plan for the Carleen Bright Arboretum in collaboration with CARBO Landscape Architecture and to undergo a $700,000+ renovation of the Arboretum’s facilities. The project included replacing 200 trees that were removed due to the sewage development project with 320 new trees­ (200 of which were donated by the Texas A&M Forest Service). They also raised the tree line throughout the park. According to Stanley, this was done “for the safety of the patrons, the kids, and everybody out here, and to open up the beauty of the space.”

Other improvements include a children’s area complete with a playground structure, which was installed this summer. Stanley says this is great for parents who want to spend a day in the arboretum because it gives their kids a particular area they can play in without “disturbing the garden box area, which caters to a different kind of person.” There is also a new meditation garden, an expanded cactus garden, and many other offerings. The Carleen Bright Arboretum reopened in November of 2022, with a grand reopening held earlier this year, in April.

As this was the first summer since the Arboretum’s reopening, the schedule was packed. The Arboretum brought back some of its popular former events, such as the monthly Acoustic Night: an evening of live music, stories, and songs. It also introduced new ones, including a monthly Woodway Farmer’s Market, hosting local vendors and food trucks. Stanley says the Arboretum’s events team is constantly looking for event ideas to bring to visitors, and new offerings are in the works for this fall.

Even when there are no special events going on, there is still a lot to see at the Arboretum. The Carleen Bright Arboretum is home to two McLennan County Master Gardener demonstration gardens and an award-winning cactus garden, as well as herb and rose gardens. The rose garden is used as a test plot for Texas A&M’s Texas Plant Diagnostic Disease Laboratory. Researchers are mainly focused on the common rose rosette disease, also known as witch’s broom, which causes deformed growth and red pigmentation on the plants’ leaves and shoots. Common in the region, rose rosette disease also makes the plants more susceptible to freezes.

The gardens also show the stark differences between the natural landscape and the curated environment of the Arboretum. The Arboretum’s gardens are arranged in a series of circles. The irrigation system, which was completely rebuilt during the renovation, covers the central gardens, but not the outer circle. The outer circle is meant to demonstrate what the land would have looked like 100 years ago when there was no regulated water. Stanley says, “We wanted people to not only get the green, pretty stuff but, also, they could look to the right and say, ‘There was nothing here; this is what folks were looking at back then.’” He says this created the natural look the Arboretum wanted.

For anyone concerned about this year’s record-breaking high temperatures, the Arboretum has numerous ways for visitors to ward off the heat. Not only is most of the Arboretum shaded by trees, but the new splash pad is up and running for most of the day. The splash pad does not recirculate water, which means it does not heat up throughout the day. The runoff from the splash pad flows into a manmade creek, which feeds back into Lake Waco in order to create a sustainable cycle of water use. The splash pad area also includes several picnic tables shaded by umbrellas where folks can relax.

The Arboretum is also a popular location for weddings and other events. The natural beauty of the landscape makes a memorable backdrop, and the Arboretum’s Pavilion Event Center boasts a 5,000-square-foot grand hall, which can hold more than 300 guests. Events like the annual Mother & Daughter Brunch, held each May, draw visitors to the Event Center throughout the year.

Dedicated in 2018, the Massey Meditation Grove is another area of the Arboretum designed to help visitors unplug, unwind, and reconnect, as well as commune with nature.

The Arboretum is free to the public. It is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the new splash pad open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Photos courtesy of Carleen Bright Arboretum

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