Trip to the Tip of Texas
Destination: Lower Laguna Madre
Travel time from:
Austin – 6.25 hours
Brownsville – 0.5 hours
Dallas – 9.5 hours
Houston – 6.5 hours
San Antonio – 5 hours
Lubbock – 11.75 hours
El Paso – 14 hours
Bird sightings and marine life make a Lower Laguna Madre trek memorable.
By Danno Wise
Nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the east and Mexico to the south, the Lower Laguna Madre is a place unlike any other in Texas. The “Tip of Texas” is home to natural beauty, history, modern development and rich cultural heritage. Port Isabel, South Padre Island and coastal Cameron County offer too much to see and do in three days.
The only real challenge to visiting the Lower Laguna Madre area is getting there. Separated from the rest of Texas by vast tracts of ranchland, the trek requires some driving. Visitors have the option of driving the whole way or flying into Harlingen or Brownsville and driving the remaining leg of the journey. Either way, what awaits at the end of Texas Highway 100 is well worth the effort.
The first day is for unwinding and adjusting to the slower pace of life in the Texas tropics. After a late breakfast at the Grapevine Cafe, a local favorite, we head to South Padre’s iconic beach. Since it is so far south, South Padre’s beach features white sand and clear-green beachfront water. Take a stroll, collect seashells, watch dolphins frolic in the surf, walk out on jetties, go boogie-boarding, view sea turtle nests or just lie down and read a book. Since South Padre is such a narrow island, every condo and hotel is within walking distance of the beach.
After a filling lunch at Blackbeard’s, an island institution since the 1970s, head north on Padre Boulevard to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. With more than 4,800 feet of boardwalk that skirts the shallow estuary and tidal flats, the nature center offers a great way to walk off lunch and enjoy wildlife at the same time. The center also features seven bird blinds, a five-story viewing tower, a nature gift shop and an auditorium showing a short film about the flora and fauna of South Padre Island. The SPI Birding and Nature Center, one of the World Birding Center’s network of nine birding sites in the Rio Grande Valley, offers visitors 50 acres for viewing dozens of bird species, including roseate spoonbills, peregrine falcons, ospreys and ruddy turnstones.
As you’re leaving the center, swing next door to the South Padre Island Convention Center to view the Whaling Wall. One of a series of 100 murals throughout the world painted by renowned wildlife artist Wyland, the Whaling Wall covers the eastern wall of the convention center and depicts orcas in the Gulf of Mexico.
After snapping a few photos of the Whaling Wall, head a couple of blocks south on Padre Boulevard and stop in at Sea Turtle Inc. Founded in 1977 by legendary “sea turtle lady” Ila Loetscher to aid in the recovery of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, Sea Turtle Inc. now assists in the rescue and rehabilitation of all species of sea turtles and offers educational programs at its turtle rehabilitation facility.
Once you’ve taken in one of the 30-minute Turtle Talks, cruise down to the Sea Ranch Marina at the southern end of the island. There you’ll find moored the Laguna Skimmer of the Fins to Feathers tours. Hop aboard for a private dolphin-watching and birding tour with Captains George and Scarlet Colley. Make sure you get back in time to head to the mid-island area for dinner at Scampi’s, where the evening sunsets over the Laguna Madre are absolutely breathtaking. After sunset, visitors are treated to an amazing fireworks display over the Laguna Madre every Friday night in the summer months.
The second day is for exploring the mainland side of the Laguna Madre area. Start by picking up a monster breakfast taco at Manuel’s in Port Isabel, then head out of town on Texas Highway 100 to Los Fresnos. There, take a left on Paredes Line Road (County Road 1847) and drive down to the Palo Alto Battlefield, which is the site of the first battle in the U.S.-Mexican War. The Battle of Palo Alto took place on May 8, 1846. Today, the battlefield looks much the same as it did then. A half-mile trail leads visitors to an overlook with a panoramic view of the battle site, designated a national historic site in 1978. The visitor center and museum features several artifacts from the battle and a short film about the U.S.-Mexican War.
Head east on FM 511, then take a left and head north on Texas Highway 48, which will take you back into Port Isabel. On the way, make sure to stop by the Bahia Grande, which abuts the highway south of Port Isabel. A naturally occurring wetland of about 10,000 surface acres, the Bahia Grande was dry for decades after its connection to the Laguna Madre was severed by the creation of the Brownsville Ship Channel and the adjacent highway. The reflooding of the Bahia Grande in 2005 was hailed as the largest estuary reclamation project in North America. Just off the highway, visitors can view the Bahia’s mangrove-ringed waters and the abundant birds that live near the small parking area.
Back in Port Isabel, grab a quick seafood lunch at White Sands, then head off to the Museums of Port Isabel. This trio of sites includes the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, the Port Isabel Historical Museum and the Port Isabel Lighthouse. The Port Isabel Historical Museum showcases the area’s history from Native American times to modern day, while the Treasures of the Gulf Museum features the three Spanish shipwrecks that occurred in the near-shore waters of the Gulf of Mexico in 1554. The Port Isabel Lighthouse is a piece of history in itself, constructed in 1852. All three locations are adjacent; viewing all three is as easy as walking across the street. The Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center occupies a replica of the original keeper’s cottage on the lighthouse grounds.
Before sitting down for dinner at Pirate’s Landing, overlooking the Laguna Madre, spend some time touring the shops around the Lighthouse Square. And, don’t forget to visit the Sea Life Center, which showcases a variety of marine life from the bay. If time allows, take a cruise on the Black Dragon, a replica pirate ship that departs from Pirate’s Fishing Pier. And, if it happens to be Friday, stroll back to the lighthouse lawn after dinner and watch a movie projected against a lighthouse wall.
Your trip’s not over yet. As you drive through Port Isabel, stop by Isabel’s Cafe for an authentic Mexican breakfast. Following Texas Highway 100 out of town, take a right on FM 510 in Laguna Vista and head to Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, home to a dizzying array of bird species (413 have been documented) and 11 federally listed endangered species, including the elusive ocelot.
Laguna Atascosa features six hiking trails that range from one-eighth of a mile to 4.2 miles. If you prefer to stay in your vehicle, there are two driving trails. Lakeside Drive is a 1.5-mile road that takes visitors to the refuge’s namesake lake. Bayside Drive is a 15-mile loop that winds its way through the refuge and offers scenic vistas as it follows the Lower Laguna’s western shoreline.
Whether it’s chachalacas next to the visitor center, gators sunning at Alligator Pond or an osprey swooping down to grab a mullet from the bay, there’s always something to remember from a trip to Laguna Atascosa.
Further exploration of coastal Cameron County reveals a treasure trove of attractions — state parks, Gladys Porter Zoo, Arroyo City, Boca Chica Beach and the Rio Grande. Other activities featured in this area include golfing, fishing, windsurfing and parasailing.
It’s clear that three days really isn’t enough time to enjoy all the Lower Laguna Madre area has to offer. But, that’s all the more reason to return — often.
- Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, 956-748-3607, www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=21553
- Museums of Port Isabel, 956-943-7602, www.portisabelmuseums.com
- Palo Alto Battlefield, 956-541-2785, www.nps.gov/paal
- Sea Life Center, 956-299-1957
- Sea Turtle Inc., 956-761-4511, www.seaturtleinc.org
- SPI Birding and Nature Center, 956-243-8179, www.spibirding.com
- Blackbeard’s, 956-761-2962, www.blackbeardsspi.com
- Grapevine Cafe, 956-761-8463
- Isabel’s Cafe, 956-943-5082
- Manuel’s, 956-943-1655
- Pirate’s Landing, 956-943-3663, www.pirateslandingrestaurant.com
- Scampi’s, 956-761-1755
- White Sands Restaurant, 956-943-2414, www.the-white-sands.com
- Black Dragon Cruises, 956-943-6283, www.blackdragoncruises.com
- Fins to Feathers Tours, 956-299-0629, www.fin2feather.com