Barrier Islands Hopping

These islands are like the Florida Keys…but with more hee-haw

When most folks think of Texas in the summertime, visions of barbecue, Lone Star-shaped swimming pools, and the Alamo—but how about dolphins, rocket launches, and sandcastles the size of actual castles? The state’s barrier islands might surprise you.

What the keys are to Florida, the barrier islands are to Texas: a 234-mile string of islands that hug the Gulf of Mexico coast made primarily of sand built up over thousands of years from tidal movements. They range in size from four miles in length to the largest barrier island on Earth. There are seven main islands in total and each one has a distinct personality from the touristy trappings of Galveston to the utter solitude of San Jose.

Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter your summer fun, Texas’ barrier islands deliver. Want some R&R on a remote beach populated almost exclusively by seagulls? You got it. Want to go kayaking in a national park? That’s a distinct possibility. Want to eat foot-long corn dogs and “mermaid soup”? You can and you should—and rest assured no dogs or mermaids were harmed in the making of either of those delicacies. Here’s your guide to the Texas barrier islands.

Aston Villa, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston

The northernmost barrier island and by far the most popular with more than 7 million annual visitors, Galveston’s reputation as a summertime beach destination for Houstonians can largely be chalked up to its proximity. Although it has somewhat of a hokey reputation thanks to its Pleasure Pier boardwalk, eccentric mini golf courses, 50 colorful Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle statues around the island, and pyramid-shaped aquarium (Moody Gardens) giving it sort of an Atlantic City of the south look, Galveston has a lot going for it. As evidenced by those previously stated attractions, the 27-mile island is far and away Texas’ quirkiest barrier island teeming with historic architecture, and larger-than-life nautical lore. After all, a city with lofty nicknames like Playground of the South and Ellis Island of the West is bound to at least be intriguing.

Seawolf Park, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hard-to-miss attraction, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a mammoth boardwalk lined with carnival games and enough rides to fill a theme park including the Iron Shark Rollercoaster and the Pirate’s Plunge flume ride.

Related article: Texas Road Trips Sampler

For something a bit more subdued, The Grand 1894 Opera House is an ornate institution, home to popular productions like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The theater harkens to the island’s earliest days when Galveston first emerged as a primary shipping and immigration port in the 1800s.

The Strand, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is The Strand, Galveston’s historic, bayside district filled with Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. You’ll also find the tall ship Elissa, an 1877 vessel that now serves as a floating museum of maritime history.

Further south on the island, Jamaica Beach offers a quieter reprieve from the touristy clamor for those looking to soak up the sun.

Jamaica Beach RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follet’s Island

Driving south from Jamaica Beach—and the antithesis of Galveston in terms of hustle and bustle—Follet’s Island is a smaller, 13-mile island that’s largely untouched and undeveloped except for some remote beach houses.

The entire island is one big beach, most of which is quiet and wide-open, providing ample opportunity for swimming, beach camping, fishing, and kayaking. Seeing as the beach is largely undeveloped and open, it’s entirely free to visit and horseback riding is also allowed on the beach.

Birding on the island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Matagorda Island

If you thought Follet’s Island was quiet, just wait until you see what’s next. Further south, Matagorda Island is the most remote barrier island, a 38-mile stretch of solitude only accessible by boat. A far cry from the thrill rides of Galveston, Matagorda is largely comprised of the Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge and State Natural Area.

Private boat, a means of transportation between the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who have a private boat or can charter one the car-free island is a beachy escape for campers willing to forgo the niceties of electricity and running water. This is an undeveloped place preserved for bird watching, saltwater fishing, and hunting. The 20,000 acres of land are open to deer and waterfowl just as long as you keep in mind that the whooping cranes which occasionally flock to the area are endangered and protected.

Related article: Visit SIX Iconic Texas Landmarks on One Road Trip

At night, thanks to its remoteness and lack of light pollution, stargazing is a popular pastime too.

A ferry connects the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Jose Island

Equally, as undeveloped as Matagorda yet easier to access, San Jose Island is the next barrier island down the line. It’s immediately north of populated Port Aransas on Mustang Island where a ferry takes visitors back and forth offering 21 miles of undeveloped beachfront, excellent fishing, and endless beach combing for seashells. Cars are also prohibited in San Jose which is entirely protected as a wildlife sanctuary. Due to the island’s history as a former ranch, wild cattle roam the island and it’s not uncommon to see their offspring on the beach.

Peace and solitude on the islands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As quiet and untouched as the island seems today, it’s rich with Texas history. This was the first site to fly the American flag on Texas soil when a lieutenant swam ashore from the USS Alabama and planted it in the sand in 1845. A short-lived town on the island called Aransas was razed by Union forces in the Civil War. In 1935, wealthy oil magnate Sid Richardson established a miles-long ranch and estate where he once wined and dined with the likes of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The estate is long gone but riches may or may not remain—legend has it the island contains actual buried treasure from pirate Jean Lafitte.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mustang Island

While San Jose offers remote solitude and potential pirate riches, the island on the other side of Aransas Pass is a haven of seafood restaurants, margaritas, beachside festivals, and Easter egg-colored cottages. Mustang Island is a mecca for families, wintering snowbirds, and spring breakers alike, especially in the city of Port Aransas which comprises much of the 18-mile island.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pirate Jean Lafitte used to frequent the island, arguably making him the original snowbird or spring breaker (take your choice). And while you likely won’t find buried treasure here, you’re sure to find treasures of other kinds including award-winning sand sculptures, adrenaline-pumping jet ski jaunts, and all the shrimp and redfish you can eat.

Related article: Texas Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way across Texas

For a town with a year-round population of about 3,000, Port Aransas is surprisingly happening and delightfully quirky. For instance, Texas SandFest is an annual springtime attraction (April 15-16, 2023) that features carnival-style snacks, live music, and epic sand sculptures right on the beach. It’s an ideal place to scarf foot-long corn dogs and funnel cakes while marveling at giant sand castles.

Port Aransas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 Just about every place on the island offers top-tier fish and seafood, perhaps best exemplified by Isabella’s. The beachy-chic restaurant sits in a classy community called Cinnamon Shore (named for the fact that Port Aransas’ beaches look like they’re swirled with cinnamon). There you can pair espresso martinis with cheesy baked oysters, pancetta-wrapped shrimp, and something called Mermaid Soup: a curried medley of lobster-coconut broth and shrimp—and mercifully, no mermaids.

To fully immerse yourself in the action-packed island, though, you need to get out on the water, and by that we mean go on a guided jet ski romp. Gettin’ Salty Watersports takes visitors out into the bay and to a couple seashell-strewn islands with lots of thrilling dolphin sightings along the way.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island

The next island is not only the largest in Texas but also the largest barrier island in the world. Clocking in at 113 miles, Padre Island is bookended by Corpus Christi and Padre Island National Seashore on the north and beach bars and theme park ride on the south. Naturally, an island larger than the state of Delaware is bound to have a wide array of attractions and Padre Island is the kind of something-for-everyone that runs the gamut from urban outings to all-natural tranquility and nature preserves.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Divvied into North Padre Island and South Padre Island, separated by the Port Mansfield Channel, the top half starts with Corpus Christi, the most populated area in the region. From the Selena Museum and the Texas State Aquarium to beachside breweries and guided tours aboard the USS Lexington, there’s no shortage of sights to enjoy.

North Padre is also home to a national park site, Padre Island National Seashore, the longest stretch of an undeveloped barrier island in the world and proof that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan isn’t always a cliche. The 66-mile park protects sea turtles and hundreds of bird species and it’s an ideal haven for fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, and RV camping on the sand.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the southern side of the channel, South Padre is known equally as a family-friendly getaway and a spring break staple. It’s swarming with beach bars (including Clayton’s, the largest beach bar in Texas, live music, carnival rides, an enormous water park (Beach Park at Isla Blanca), and Gravity Park, an adventure and amusement park with some seriously intense attractions including the Tallest Reverse-Bungee in the World (The Rocket).

Padre Island World Birding Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slender thread of land between the shallow Laguna Madre and the rolling Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island anchors the World Birding Center with nature adventures in every season.

Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats along with thickets of native shrubs and trees are irresistible to migrating birds.

Related article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

Of course, with this much mileage of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to choose from, too, like Isla Blanca Park and South Padre Bayside Beach.

Black skimmer along the Gulf © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brazos Island

The last barrier island is also the teeniest. Brazos Island is a diminutive four-mile island, home to 217 undeveloped acres of seaside wilderness. Located just north of the mouth of the Rio Grande, it’s a peaceful retreat for swimming, fishing, bird watching, hopeful dolphin-spotting, and camping.

Aside from that, the main draw here nowadays is Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch facility which set up shop on the Boca Chita peninsula.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

The forces of nature and their impact on the Texas landscape and sky combine to offer an element of drama that would whet the imagination of artists from any medium.

—Wyman Meinzer

Discover the National Forests during Great Outdoors Month

America’s National Forest system stretches over 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting to be discovered

During this Great Outdoors Month, try to imagine you inherited millions of acres of forest and grasslands teeming with wild animals, brilliant wildflowers, deep blue lakes, rushing rivers, unspoiled beaches, and majestic mountains and all within a few hours’ drive. You would suddenly feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

Lassen National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You are. With nearly 200 million acres of forest and grasslands, the USDA Forest Service lands are available for all to use. And these forest lands are open for all to recreate 365 days of the year—unless a natural disaster or maintenance issues force a closure. So, get outdoors and enjoy those natural landscapes this summer—or anytime, for that matter.

Sequoia National Forest, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The national forests and grasslands are 193 million acres of vast, scenic beauty waiting for you to discover. Visitors who choose to recreate on these public lands find more than 150,000 miles of trails, 10,000 developed recreation sites, 57,000 miles of streams, 122 alpine ski areas, 338,000 heritage sites, and specially designated sites that include 9,100 miles of byways, 22 recreation areas, 11 scenic areas, 439 wilderness areas, 122 wild and scenic rivers, nine monuments, and one preserve. And remember, it’s all yours to discover.

Related: Elevate Your Hiking with Mindfulness

Coronado National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The available activities are as big as your imagination and the national forests. Camping, hiking, biking, birding, boating, fishing, rock climbing, and swimming are good starting points. For instance, in California, just outside of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles County, lies the 700,000-acre Angeles National Forest. For the 10 million-plus people who live in the LA area, this forest is a treasure trove of fun, challenging, and exciting outdoor activities, and, yes, it’s big enough for all to share.

Sabino Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if you think the national forests are only for trees, think again. Just north of Tucson in the southern portion of Arizona’s ponderosa pine-dotted Coronado National Forest, you’ll find an easy-to-access recreation area called Sabino Canyon. In this vibrant desert landscape, you’ll see towering saguaro cacti—some as impressive as the great conifers of the forests. Visitors walk, jog, hike, do wildlife viewing, photography, and so much more.

The Coronado National Forest spans sixteen scattered mountain ranges or “sky islands” rising dramatically from the desert floor supporting plant communities as biologically diverse as those encountered on a trip from Mexico to Canada.

Madera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Madera Canyon is a popular destination for wildlife watchers and nature lovers who come to see the more than 240 species of birds (including more than a dozen species of hummingbirds) that live in its nurturing environment.

Related: The 10 Most Breathtaking National Forests in America

Fishlake National Forest, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling northeast are the great Colorado Rocky Mountains where 14,000-foot high peaks are not uncommon. Seriously, there are 53 of them! Just outside the city of Colorado Springs is Pikes Peaks. It is one of the most well-known of the great 14,000-footers. Keep in mind that the most experienced hikers consider climbing Pikes Peak a challenge so just walking around the foothills isn’t a bad idea for the less seasoned hikers among us.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After you cross the Continental Divide, the mountains begin to melt away—a process that has taken millions of years—as you enter the Great Plains. Here sweeping grasslands like those on Colorado’s nearby Comanche National Grasslands and South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Badlands National Park invite visitors to hike pleasant trails and see the wildflowers and tall grasses that once stretched from Colorado to the Mississippi River.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming consist of 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains approximately 110 miles long and 70 miles wide. The name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black.” Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie appear black.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amid the splendid scenery of the Black Hills, National Forest is 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 32 picnic areas, two scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, over 13,426 acres of wilderness, and 353 miles of trails, and much more. Every location in the Black Hills is a special place but there are hidden gems around every corner.  

Related: On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Once you cross the Mississippi River, the mountains begin to rise again but these mountains, far older than the Rockies, are literally part of the oldest lands on earth. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains were once right up there in height with Mount Everest.

White Mountains National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now the tallest mountains in the eastern United States rarely break 6,000 feet but the views they offer are spectacular. Check out the George Washington and Jefferson Forest straddling Virginia and West Virginia overlooking the serene Shenandoah Valley, the bare granite summits of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, or the breathtaking mountain views of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of just two national forests in New England, the White Mountain National Forest is a year-round adventure destination. Crowned by the highest peaks in the region—the Presidential Range—the national forest includes the largest alpine zone in the Eastern U.S. For hikers, more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails wind through hardwood and conifer forests offering access to secluded waterfalls, glassy ponds, and granite peaks.

Nantahala National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Nantahala National Forest lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. The largest of North Carolina’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald to 1,200 feet along the Hiwassee River. The Forest is divided into three Districts, Cheoah in Robbinsville, Tusquitee in Murphy, and the Nantahala in Franklin. All district names come from the Cherokee language. “Nantahala” is a Cherokee word meaning “land of the noonday sun,” a fitting name for the Nantahala Gorge where the sun only reaches the valley floor at midday.

Read Next: The Reason for Which You Wake up in the Morning

With so much public land available from coast to coast, no matter where you are you can find opportunities to recreate in the Great Outdoors!  

Worth Pondering…

I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.

—Willa Cather

On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Spending time in nature is the best way to refuel your body and your mind

The Great Outdoors became a top travel destination in 2020 for obvious reasons: endless social distance, campgrounds within driving distance, and dramatic settings for an existential crisis. Zoom ahead to summer 2022 and the world has reopened—so has camping fallen out of favor?

Turns out, instead of returning their REI equipment, many rookies are still adding camping reservations to their travel plans.

According to Campspot, a platform for reserving campsites, there are 49 percent more bookings for this summer compared to last year and a six times jump in new campers.

33 percent more people are shopping on Amazon for camping tents this year compared to 2019 and demand for other outdoor gear (lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves) has also risen by double digits, per data analytics company Pattern.

Reunion Lake RV Resort, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glamping’s also holding onto its pandemic popularity: Getaway, which rents tiny, posh cabins you may have seen on Instagram had its most guests ever in Q1 2022.

Between inflation, the stock market, supply-chain issues, and recession fears, people have a strong desire to find ways to disconnect from the stress and spend time in nature to help them reconnect with themselves and their family and friends.

Relaxing nature activities will rejuvenate your mind, from the simple to the life-changing.

The back roads of Kentucky’s Blue Grass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the scenery

Movies beaming with CGI (computer-generated imagery) dazzle our imaginations but the most mind-blowing spectacles are not found on a screen. When was the last time you watched the sunrise or ventured to the nearest hilltop to watch it set? Or plied the back roads?

A back road in South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The back, back roads of South Carolina, for example, will present you with a gift basket of surprises. Looming magnolia trees and Spanish moss! Tiny, rural communities populated with folks who more than likely will be happy to spend the afternoon beguiling you with the stories of their lives. Makeshift farm stands and BBQ pits that you can sniff out a mile away. Ramshackle houses and dilapidated plantations evoking chapters from another world!

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is a beautiful Virginia byway that goes straight through Shenandoah National Park and the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, but if you hit the road early enough to catch a misty sunrise, you might be able to beat some of the crowds. At just over 100 miles long, it makes for a great half-day drive.

Walking a trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wander the wilderness

Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Cruising urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking a local trail or feeling the sandy beach between your toes. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind, either—your goal isn’t to hike a particular number of miles but to aimlessly immerse yourself in the natural world around you. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting Central Texas. From the top of the steep Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain. For more entertainment, Fredericksburg, a charming German-Texan small town, is only a 20-minutes drive away.

Bird watching in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meditate on the music

Not the music playing in your headphones. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees, and the scurrying of animals through the canopy. It’s a lot more relaxing than the honking horns and text message alerts you’re all too used to and it offers the opportunity to practice some meditative mindfulness in your tranquil surroundings.

Pack a picnic

Load a basket with your favorite healthy goodies and have lunch among the flora and fauna. A picnic is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends and family without the distractions of the modern-day world. And nature makes socializing with others easier so it’s the perfect place to build stronger relationships with those you love.

Fishing at Lynx Lake in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fish

Fishing puts you outside, near a body of water, and it rewards patience. All of those are good things. Even if you don’t catch (and release) anything, you’ll both forge a treasured, lifelong memory. With a little luck, you reel in a perch that will grow into a marlin after multiple retellings of the story at family events.

Bird watching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look, up in the sky

Thousands of people who watch birds as a hobby are on to something: There’s a special thrill when you can recognize a bird by sight or by its sound. Odds are, a nearby Audubon location offers free birding walks that are open to the public. Or, turn to the internet for free resources to help you identify the birds in your area. Either way, bird watching gives you the perfect excuse to relax in nature with your head in the clouds. That’s a great way to fend off stress.

Camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sleep beneath the stars

Now you’re getting serious. Why not disconnect entirely for several days or more and make nature your home? Camping lets you get further away than a simple day trip allows. Or, if roughing it isn’t your style, consider glamping where you can maintain some of the creature comforts you love, but still be away from it all.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.

If you take your phone, use it for that cool star-gazing app (or emergencies, of course) but not for scrolling social media 24/7. Forget the Fear of Missing Out and try the Joy of Missing Out instead. #JOMO!

World’s Largest Roadrunner at La Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s that giant roadrunner doing there? Read about the weird world of giant roadside attractions

Listen up: This is the only summer playlist you’ll need

Looking for a memorable road trip: Choose a location and route that aligns with your passions

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More trip ideas: These are the best things to do this summer

And finally: Here’s what to expect at national parks this summer

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

The Ultimate Guide to Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world

Are you ready for a day (or two or three) at the beach? Why not spend it at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, a park with “the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.”

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons in the world. The park protects 70 miles of coastline. It is a safe nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and a haven for over 380 bird species. It also has a rich history including the Spanish shipwrecks of 1554.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to its 70 miles of protected coastline, other important ecosystems abound including rare coastal prairie, a complex and dynamic dune system, and tidal flats teeming with life. The National Seashore and surrounding waters provide important habitat for marine and terrestrial plants and animals including a number of rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Padre Island National Seashore and South Padre Island are two different places located over 100 miles apart. Sometimes Padre Island National Seashore is confused with South Padre Island but the two are very different destinations. Padre Island National Seashore is a National Park Service (NPS) site located just outside of Corpus Christi. South Padre Island is a resort community located near Brownsville with numerous hotels, clubs, and souvenir shops. The two destinations are at opposite ends of the long, barrier island named Padre Island and are about 100 miles apart.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning on putting the park address into a smart phone app or GPS? It most likely will NOT bring you to the park. For unknown reasons, many of those applications place the park’s physical address miles away from its actual location.

Plan your trip: A Slice of Paradise: Padre Island National Seashore

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fortunately, getting to the park is easy once you know that the road coming to the park—Park Road 22—actually dead ends into the National Seashore. The park entrance station is a booth that is located literally in the middle of the road. Once you’re on Park Road 22, just keep going until you reach the end and the park entrance station. Bring a paper map or use the above directions to locate the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park entrance fees and passes can be purchased online before your visit or purchased in person at the entrance station upon your arrival. Your options include a 1-day pass ($10.00 per vehicle), a 7-day pass ($25.00 per vehicle), and a 1-year pass ($45.00 per vehicle). Those with federal interagency passes enter free.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical weather conditions. Weather on Padre Island varies widely and can change from sunny and warm to thunderstorms and heavy winds very quickly. Padre Island has long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Most rain falls near the beginning and end of hurricane and tropical storm season which lasts from June through October.

Daytime temperature in spring averages in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Summer daytime temperatures are usually in the mid-90s with very humid conditions. Lows are usually in the 70s. Afternoon and evening sea breezes help to moderate temperatures. In the fall, daytime temperature average in the 70s-80s with lows in the 50s-60s. Winter high temperatures are usually between 50 degrees and 70 degrees but can occasionally drop into the upper 30s. Sudden, strong cold fronts can move through bringing gale force winds and dropping temperatures quickly.

Average rainfall for the southern portion of the park is 26 inches and 29 inches for the northern area of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a drive along the seashore. Many people come to the National Seashore to experience the beauty of nature in isolation. One way to do this is to travel down-island into the park’s most remote areas which are only accessible with a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. Don’t try it with a regular car if you intend to drive further than 5 miles.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to the portion of the park where you can drive on the beach and down to the remote parts of the island, continue on the main park paved road (Park Road 22) past Malaquite Visitor Center until the pavement ends (South Beach). From that point, the park has 60 miles of beach open to driving. South Beach (and driving) ends at the Port Mansfield Channel, a man-made waterway cut through the island.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is not possible to drive all the way down to South Padre Island due to this waterway. You must turn around at that point and drive 60 miles back north to reach the park paved road.

Plan your trip: Padre Island National Seashore: World’s Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island

Remember that Texas beaches are public highways and all traffic laws apply including seat belt regulations. All vehicles on Padre Island National Seashore must be street legal and licensed.

Bird Island Basin Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go camping. Padre Island National Seashore has two campgrounds and three areas for primitive camping. They are open year-round and are first-come, first-served. Campers must have a camping permit. There are no RV hook-ups on Padre Island but a dump station and a water filling station are available for all campers staying in the National Seashore.

Malaquite Campground, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucked in the dunes with a view of the Gulf of Mexico and a short distance north of the visitor center, Malaquite Campground features 48 semi-primitive designated sites. Located near the boat ramp on the waters of the Laguna Madre, Bird Island Basin Campground offers an opportunity for windsurfing, kayaking, boating, birding, and fishing. Both RV and tent camping sites are available but it is dry camping only.

Sea Breeze RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’d rather stay in a full-service RV park, Corpus Christi, 10 miles away from the park entrance, has several choices. We stayed across the bay in Portland at Seabreeze RV Resort and would return in a heartbeat.

Since sunrises are spectacular along the seashore, plan to take a morning walk along the beach and bring your camera with you to capture the moment. During your early-morning walk, you might spot the elusive (and very fast) ghost crab peeking at you from its burrow.

Stick around after dark on a clear night for a little stargazing. Take a flashlight with you to spot ghost crabs as they move away from their burrows to seek a midnight snack.

Do some beachcombing. Have you ever gone to the beach with bucket in hand hoping to find treasures along the seashore? If so, then you have been beachcombing. Many of the currents that flow through the Gulf of Mexico bring endless curiosities onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. These items include seashells, beached jellyfish, sea beans (drift seeds), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activities. The best time is immediately following a storm. You are allowed to keep a five-gallon bucket of treasures you might find but if an animal is still in its shell be sure to put it back where you found it.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fly a kite. Padre Island National Seashore has plenty of wind to fly a kite. The seashore has in the past hosted a kite festival in February filling the sky with all sorts of colorful kites including some intricate and creative Chinese kites. Be sure to check with the park before heading there with your kite. 

Plan your trip: Oceans of Fun: Port Aransas and Mustang Island

Go swimming. Swimming at the National Seashore can be a lot of fun! You can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico. However, remember that safety is important and there are no lifeguards on duty. Use caution when swimming and never swim alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fishing. Fishing has been one of the biggest attractions to Padre Island, long before its designation as a National Seashore. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf of Mexico beach in the Laguna Madre and at Yarborough Pass and Bird Island Basin. Two currents, one from the north and one from the south converge at Big Shell beach near the middle of the park.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These currents bring an abundance of nutrients which, in turn, attract plenty of fish. To fish anywhere within the park requires a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp which are only sold outside of the park at any local gas station or tackle shop.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go boating. Bird Island Basin offers a boat ramp to provide access to the excellent boating and fishing waters of the Laguna Madre. It’s one of the world’s best windsurfing sites and you can fish and birdwatch there, too. You can get a daily pass to Bird Island Basin at the Entrance Station for $5.00 or an annual pass for $30.00. Be aware that jet skis, kite surfing, and air boats are prohibited at the national seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hatching releases. During the summer Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings are released from nests that were laid in the park and along parts of the Texas coast. Hatchling releases typically occur from mid-June through August. Most releases that are open to the public take place at 6:45 a.m. on Malaquite Beach in front of the Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore. For information about public hatching releases, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163. Because park rangers cannot predict exactly when a sea turtle nest will hatch, not all hatchling releases are public and hatchling releases do not occur daily or on a regular schedule.

American avocet and Black-necked stilt, Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go bird watching. With more bird species that any other city in the U.S., Corpus Christi has won the competition for being the “Birdiest City in America” for the past 10 years in a row. Needless to say, Padre Island National Seashore, located on 130,000 acres of undeveloped land is an exceptional place for bird watching.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated along the Central Flyway, Padre Island is a globally important area for over 380 migratory, overwintering, and resident bird species (nearly half of all bird species documented in North America). You’ll catch sight of brown pelicans, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, hawks, ducks, teals, and crested caracaras and not just along the beach but inland as well. The best time to bird Padre Island National Seashore is either during early spring or during fall and winter when thousands of birds either migrate through the park or spend the winter there.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interpretive programs. Attend a ranger program to learn about the seashore, the birds, and the things that wash up on the beach. Informal 30-45 minute Deck Talks on various aspects of the island’s natural and cultural history are held Thursdays to Sundays at 1 pm at the Malaquite Visitor Center.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be a Junior Ranger. Padre Island National Seashore is just one national park that gives you a chance to earn an official Junior Ranger badge. Ask a ranger for a Junior Ranger booklet when you stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center. The Underwater Explorer Junior Ranger Program is available as well. For all those who are young or young-at-heart, come out and earn your badge. All ages are welcome to participate in the Junior Ranger program at Padre Island National Seashore.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Relax on the beach, build a sand castle, and play in the sand. Just remember the Leave No Trace principles. If you dig any holes or trenches while playing in the sand, cover them back up so they don’t create a hazard for vehicles, people, and animals.

Remember to check the park’s website for any alerts and closures due to construction or weather-related damage. Check the site also for other things to know before you head out to the park and whether or not pets are allowed.

Read Next: Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

Worth Pondering…

I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star

To steer her by.

—John Masefield

World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 14, 2022), here is a look at the nine eco-regions and birding trails in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and Lower Rio Grande Valley. The list could go on and on.

With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. 

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks.

Ibis rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers like belted kingfishers on steroids, great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and green jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue and gray tones.

Related Article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Far West Texas: Encompassing an area from El Paso to Midland-Odessa and down to the Rio Grande’s border with Mexico, the Far West Texas interactive map helps visitors discover a blend of natural and cultural resources such as historic structures, forts, and ancient pictographs as well as a chance to trek through the rugged outdoors. Watch for Montezuma quail, curved-bill thrasher, greater roadrunner, and ladder-backed woodpecker.

Recommended birding site: Big Bend National Park

Curv-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless opportunities for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, and people who enjoy rugged landscapes.

Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods and willows. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds of the Chisos include acorn woodpecker, cordilleran flycatcher, Mexican jay, and painted redstart. More likely in lower elevations are such species as scaled quail, greater roadrunner, elf owl, vermilion flycatcher, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, pyrrhuloxia, and varied bunting.

Egret rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Texas Coast: The Upper Texas Coast region takes you close to the Louisiana border to Beaumont and Houston then along the coast from the birding hotspots of High Island and Bolivar Peninsula continuing down to Galveston and the Brazosport Area. Visit heron rookeries and be wowed by the number of egrets, herons, and Roseate Spoonbills visible from viewing platforms. You may even get a glimpse of an alligator (from a safe distance, of course!).

Recommended birding site: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the must-visit sites of Texas, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes black-bellied whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, wood stork (post-breeding visitor), neotropic cormorant, least bittern, roseate spoonbill, clapper rail, purple gallinule, and black-necked stilt. 

Related Article: What Is Birding?

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Central Texas Coast: Explore well-known birding sites and hidden gems throughout the Coastal Bend from Kingsville and Corpus Christi up to Goliad and continuing through the coastal communities of Port Aransas, Rockport-Fulton, and on to Bay City. Observe vibrant migratory birds during spring and fall migration as well as over-wintering whooping cranes, all while enjoying year-round birding opportunities and events.

Recommended birding site: Brazos Bend State Park

Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods ensure a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look on park lakes and wetlands for black-bellied whistling duck, pied-billed grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and roseate spoonbill and Purple Gallinule. Some of the breeding birds here are least bittern, Mississippi kite, black-necked stilt, yellow-billed cuckoo, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Texas Coast: Spend some time getting to know the diverse landscapes of the Valley from Brownsville and South Padre Island to Weslace, McAllen, all the way up to Rio Grande City and inland to Raymondville and more. See some of the south Texas specialties such as the green jay, great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, and plain chachalaca in addition to the occasional Mexican rarity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Recommended birding site: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including plain chachalaca, white-tipped dove, common pauraque, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, green jay, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and Altamira oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species.

Related Article: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas West: Covering an area from San Angelo and Sonora east to Junction and then over to Fredericksburg and Uvalde and down to Del Rio, this region offers the well-known central Texas while learning about cave formations.

Recommended birding site: Lost Maples State Natural Area

The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers and it holds great rewards for birders. Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for the bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds here include wild turkey, greater roadrunner, ruby-throated hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, Hutton’s vireo, western scrub jay, black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana water thrush, Rufous-crowned sparrow, painted bunting, Scott’s oriole, and lesser goldfinch.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas East: This region runs from Brownwood near the Panhandle down through Marble Falls and Johnson City before heading east to Austin and Bastrop and south to San Marcos and San Antonio. Tour native nature centers, private ranches, and state parks or go right into the heart of Austin, the state capitol to see the largest urban population of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. Head down to the South Texas brush country near Laredo for a more rugged terrain.

Recommended birding site: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.

Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, American white pelican, and many species of wading birds.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among nesting, birds are greater roadrunner, black-chinned hummingbird, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, crested caracara, scissor-tailed flycatcher, cave swallow, verdin, long-billed thrasher, painted bunting, orchard oriole, and Bullock’s oriole.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panhandle Plains: Enjoy the expansive views available in the northern part of the state including Amarillo, Lubbock, and south to Abilene. Here, get a glimpse of scenic canyons, mesas, and river corridors and keep an eye out for coyote, pronghorn antelope, sandhill cranes, black-tailed prairie dogs, meadow larks, burrowing owls and more in the wide open spaces of Texas.

Recommended birding site: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands and some such as cinnamon teal and redhead remain to nest. Some of the nesting birds here are wild turkey, Mississippi kite, greater roadrunner, burrowing owl, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, Say’s phoebe, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Chihuahuan raven, rock wren, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Burrowing owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods West: Extending from Wichita Falls in the north, down through the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, and into Waco and Temple before continuing to College Station. View some of the few remaining Blackland Prairies and experience the native habitat that once covered most of north Texas. Watch for grazing bison, caracaras, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and more. Also, reconnect with urban nature at a variety of Dallas and Fort Worth parks, zoos and nature centers.

Recommended birding site: Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter. A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands. Nesting birds at Hagerman include wood duck, Northern bobwhite, wild turkey, pied-billed grebe, tricolored Heron, common gallinule, black-necked stilt, least tern, greater roadrunner, red-headed woodpecker, loggerhead shrike, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods East: Travel through a region that goes from Paris to Texarkana and down through Tyler, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Huntsville. Spend time in east Texas to explore the Big Thicket and hardwood forest for a variety of raptors, warblers, woodpeckers, and other woodland species. Or, take time to fish one of the many lakes, rivers and streams and maybe spot an eagle soaring above.

Recommended birding site: Lake Tawakoni

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American white pelican, and bald eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic cormorant is seen year round, and crested caracara is found regularly. Nesting birds include Cooper’s hawk, blue grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary Warbler, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays