A Day at the Beach
Coastal state parks offer myriad ways to enjoy the Texas shores.
By Rob McCorkle
The advent of summer triggers an innate response in many Texans to head to the nearest sun-kissed beach. Texas is blessed with inviting state parks hugging a shoreline that stretches along more than 300 miles of the Gulf Coast. Choose from a handful of seaside destinations sporting their own personalities — from the southernmost Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site on the lower coast to secluded Sea Rim State Park tucked away on the upper coast near the Texas-Louisiana border.
Sea Rim State Park
If solitude and a Texas beach in its unfettered state call to you, seek out Sea Rim State Park, just a 23-mile seagull flight from the bright lights of south Port Arthur’s refinery complex.
Sea Rim, named for a portion of the Gulf shoreline where the surf meets marsh grasses, is rising again from the sand after being bruised and battered over the past decade by a series of storms. Hurricane Ike (2008) destroyed park facilities that had just been rebuilt from Hurricane Rita (2005), strewing debris, battering buildings and causing beach erosion that resulted in closure of the park for several years. Reopened in 2009 for limited use, the park, which has 4,100 acres of marshland and 5.2 miles of beachfront, has made another comeback. Hunters, crabbers, anglers, birders and kayakers favor the marsh side of the park north of Texas Highway 87, while beach-goers seek out picnic tables, sun, surf and shells on the beach side. The beach, a portion of which is closed to motorized vehicles, offers tent camping, surf fishing (no fishing license required) and new horseback riding opportunities (winter months only).
A $2 million master development plan has begun to bear fruit at Sea Rim, with a new dune boardwalk and adjacent campground with restrooms, as well as a rental cabin overlooking the marshland, recently opened to visitors. A maze of marsh trails for paddlers and a three-quarter-mile boardwalk — the Gambusia Trail, built two feet above the marshes fronting the beach — offer adventure and wildlife viewing for the trail’s namesake fish, as well as alligators, turtles and various amphibians.
Sea Rim State Park one day will be sporting new sand fencing, interpretive signage and replanted dune vegetation as part of a large coastal dune restoration project, thanks to funds proposed for early restoration in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case. The restoration will prevent saltwater intrusion into the coastal marshes and provide numerous benefits to the park’s complex web of wildlife that includes mottled ducks, marsh hawks, coyotes and seabirds. (409) 971-2559; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/searim
Galveston Island State Park
Just six months after a tempestuous hurricane named Ike blasted into Galveston Island on Sept. 13, 2008, dedicated volunteers from near and far had cleaned up much of Galveston Island State Park, reopening its bay side to visitors. It would be months more before the 2,013-acre park’s obliterated beach facilities and tons of debris would be cleared from the beach side and reopened to campers and beachcombers.
Flash forward to winter 2014. A cold front has blown through, calming the waves and setting the horizon ablaze with a lipstick sunset. An elderly couple strolls hand-in-hand at the surf’s edge. Laughing gulls and a lone great blue heron, stalking the shallows for a meal, round out this tranquil Galveston Island montage. All is well now on Texas’ most famous barrier island.
Galveston Island State Park lies roughly 70 miles down the coast from Sea Rim State Park and likewise boasts a dual personality, with a smaller beachfront segment south of FM 3005 and a sprawling bay side north of the highway. Improvements to park infrastructure continue today at this seaside jewel that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to West Galveston Bay.
The visitors center/park store anchors the beach side, where a park campground offers a total of 33 campsites with water and electricity. Restrooms with showers bookend the camping area. From any campsite, it’s a short stroll through the dunes to the beach and sparkling Gulf waters.
The bay side sports a large new restroom in the first of two camping loops, with 10 tent campsites. Twenty full-service campsites sit just down the park road, near a fish-cleaning station and canoe/kayak launch. For an informative overview of the many ways to play by the bay, stop first at the Interpretive Center (just inside the bay-side entrance) to discover the best places to hike, bike, bird-watch and fish.
Paddlers can access more than 10 miles of saltwater marsh and bayou trails in the wildlife-rich wetlands just beyond the prairie. Birders spot roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, blue herons and myriad bird life, while anglers cast for various saltwater fish species.
Don’t have a kayak or canoe? Hikers and bikers can explore nine trails, ranging from the short Duck Lake Trail to the nearly 1-mile-long Prairie Trail. Bring your binoculars and climb the stairs to the two-story observation platform at the intersection of the Clapper Rail and Caracara trails to scan for water birds, seaside sparrows, Mexican eagles (caracara) and migrant species, such as tanagers and flycatchers. (409) 737-1222; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/galveston
Goose Island State Park
Popular with out-of-state visitors during winter months, birders during spring and fall migration and campers year-round, Goose Island State Park encompasses 320 acres on the southernmost tip of the Lamar Peninsula wedged between Aransas and St. Charles bays. A small bridge connects the main portion of the park — one of the oldest in the state park system — to a small sliver of sand that gives the park its name. The ancient barrier island has been shrinking due to erosion caused by Gulf currents and wave action from the surrounding bays. Stepped-up efforts in recent years, including installation of offshore rock breakwater, dredging and marsh restoration projects, have stabilized the island’s shell ridge, oyster beds, seagrass shoals, tidal flats and salt marshes.
Campers can pitch their tents on the bayfront next to 44 new shade shelters, each equipped with a 110-volt outlet, picnic table and barbecue grill. Anglers can wade-fish or cast from a lighted, 1,620-foot pier for a variety of saltwater species, including redfish, black drum, speckled trout and flounder. The park even has a fishing tackle loaner program for visitors; no license is needed to fish at the park.
For those who seek the beauty and seclusion of the park’s upland oak mottes to spend a night or even a couple of weeks, Goose Island State Park offers two campgrounds: one with 25 walk-in tent campsites and one with 57 campsites with full hook-ups to accommodate trailers and small RVs. All campsites have a fire ring, outdoor grill and picnic table. Restrooms are nearby. The park can accommodate up to 75 people in the Group Recreation Hall and a maximum of 64 in the one-acre Group Camping Area.
Birders love to frequent the park, which is located just across St. Charles Bay from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, to try to spy the endangered whooping crane and a dazzling variety of seabirds and songbirds.
A nearby adjunct of the state park holds The Big Tree. With a height of 44 feet, circumference of 35 feet and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms for more than 1,000 years. Two interpretive panels provide details about the arboreal giant and solicit donations to “keep the tree growing.” (361) 729-2858; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gooseisland
Mustang Island State Park
The wild horses that more than a century ago trod the beaches and gave the island its name have long disappeared, along with the Karankawa Indians. However, visitors to this barrier island along the Texas mid-coast today may spy the equines’ four-wheeled namesake cruising the sands of Mustang Island State Park — one of only two Texas state parks that allow beach driving. A quarter-mile stretch of beach near the park’s main entrance prohibits vehicles.
The park’s 4,000 acres encompass an undeveloped stretch of barrier island habitat. Here, along its five-mile coastline, you can still experience a barrier island in a mostly natural state. Seaweed washed up by Gulf waves is left to decompose on its own, providing a home to tiny sea creatures critical to the food chain.
However, the state park contains just enough amenities — a visitors center with a park store, a bathroom with hot showers, beach rinse showers, water, chemical toilets, recycling bins, picnic tables, shade shelters and 48 water-electric campsites — to ensure a safe, convenient and comfortable stay. Sun worshippers, surfers, anglers and beachcombers desiring more solitude can head for miles of open beach parkland, where primitive camping on a first-come, first-served basis is allowed. As an added bonus, anglers inside park boundaries can fish without worrying about a Texas fishing license or saltwater tag.
Like Sea Rim, a highway splits Mustang Island State Park into a beach side and a bay side. On the beach side, two tiers of sand dunes up to 35 feet high stand sentry, separating Gulf waters from island meadows, vegetation-rich tidal flats and freshwater lagoons teeming with wildlife. At dusk and during early morning, foraging ground squirrels, crabs, turtles, armadillos, raccoons, jackrabbits and other coastal critters put on a show. Birders can give their binoculars quite a workout, searching for some of the more than 400 recorded bird species.
Over on the expansive bay side, anglers can try their luck and kayakers can explore the Mustang Island Paddling Trails that snake through lagoons and marshes and along the edge of Corpus Christi Bay. Recent work has made the roads on the bay side more accessible.
Summertime visitors can enjoy a variety of weekend park ranger-led interpretive programs such as bird and beach walks and night sky viewing. It’s little wonder that more than 150,000 people annually visit this sun-splashed state park that is just a short drive from bustling Corpus Christi but seems worlds away. (361) 749-5246; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mustangisland
Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site
For most travelers, a visit to one of the state’s oldest, still-accessible lighthouses in Port Isabel comes as an afterthought as they motor toward the Queen Isabella Causeway connecting the mainland with South Padre Island. But this proud landmark, which has lighted the way to safe harbor for mariners negotiating Brazos Santiago Pass into the Laguna Madre since before the Civil War, should be on every Texan’s bucket list.
The ravages of relentless coastal winds and salty air require periodic upkeep of the 72-foot structure, which was built in 1852 on the former site of Fort Polk, a major base of operation for Gen. Zachary Taylor’s forces during the U.S.-Mexican War in the late 1840s. The most recent renovation completed in 2000 restored the lighthouse to its 1880 appearance. Now, another major repair looms. A $100,000-plus construction project is scheduled to begin in the fall to repair corroded railing on the upper catwalk 50 feet above the ground (currently closed to visitors).
Although visitors for the near term will be denied the ascent of 75 steps to the landing for a bird’s-eye view of the bay, causeway, distant South Padre high-rises and Gulf beyond, they can still check out the compelling historical exhibits in the adjacent visitors center and enjoy a picnic lunch on the manicured grounds. The center, which is a replica of the original Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage, is staffed by local Chamber of Commerce representatives who can direct travelers to must-see sights and seafood restaurants in the charming coastal community and surrounding area.
The Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site, which is owned by Texas Parks and Wildlife but operated by the City of Port Isabel, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (weather permitting). (956) 943-2262; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/portisabellighthouse
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