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10 Best Beaches

Whether you want to birdwatch, fish, camp or simply escape from civilization, we've got the beach for you.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Imagine this: the sand's soft and squishy beneath your bare feet as you wade along the deserted stretch of gulf beach. Frothy waves splash around your ankles, leaving the shore splotched with glistening blobs of bubbles. As the tide recedes, dozens of colorful coquina mollusks — left grounded by the water on their glossy sides — quickly tunnel back into the sand and vanish. A short distance away, a lone western sandpiper scurries along the water's edge, pausing here and there to jab its long bill at a bug or maybe a worm.

Not exciting enough? You'd rather ride the breakers on a boogie board or land a monster tarpon in the surf? Go swimming with the kids or watch sea turtles in their native habitat? No problem. With 367 miles of gulf shoreline and 3,300 miles of bay beaches, Texas offers more than enough opportunities to enjoy all sorts of seaside sports and activities ... or simply to bask in isolation. In all, some 60 recreational beaches — managed by cities, counties, and state and federal agencies — dot the Texas Gulf Coast.

As a disclaimer, we won't claim to be the authority on what makes each beach special and unique. That's a personal preference. However, after much deliberation, we've compiled a list of favorites, a daunting task when you consider the scores of shores we had to leave out.

And on that note, here we go ...

1. Family Fun

Magnolia Beach, Calhoun County

Come vacation time, Monica and Les Pritchett of Plano load up their two little girls and head for Magnolia Beach, a quaint resort community located south of Port Lavaca. So do Kathy and Ed Reese (also from Plano) along with their three teenage sons. So what's the big attraction? Actually, not much, other than the beach and a few friendly villagers. Tourists? Hardly any. Fast food? None! "You have to find your own fun here," Monica says. "We love to look for coral, go crabbing and roast hot dogs."

As for the Reese family, they visit every July 4th. "We love to watch the fireworks go off all around the beach at night," Kathy says. During the day, while everyone else swims and plays, she prefers to walk along the beach, which fronts Lavaca Bay. "Around sunrise and sunset, that's where you'll find me, too, sitting in my lawn chair on the beach," Kathy adds.

(Port Lavaca Chamber of Commerce, 361-552-2959, www.plchamber.com. Admission: free.)

2. Beachcombing

San Jose Island, Aransas County

Coast to coast in North America, gulf beaches rank among the best for shelling. Why? More than 400 species of shells inhabit the Gulf of Mexico. In Texas, serious beachcombers frequent San Jose ("St. Joe") Island, a privately owned, primitive isle, accessible only by boat. (The Jetty Boat at Fisherman's Wharf in Port Aransas ferries back and forth there daily.) For her morning excursions, shell seeker Dean Harris of Angleton packs a small wagon with snacks, bottled water, large buckets and plastic bags. "I ride the first boat out there," she says. "If the tide's out, I usually find starfish and sand dollars on the beach. I've also found Scotch bonnets and olives."

On her outings to the island, Cathy Betley, a Houston collector, has picked up simnias, giant Atlantic cockles, jingle shells, baby's ears and the prized Mitchell's wendletrap. "You can go at your own pace there," says Betley, who takes assorted sizes of zip-lock bags, a spoon for digging and small capped bottles to hold tiny shells. "And just because you're behind someone who knows what they're looking for doesn't mean you won't find anything. 'Cause you will on St. Joe!"

(Jetty Boat, 800-605-5448, 361-749-5448, www.jettyboat.net. Boat tickets: $10 adults, $5 children.)

3. Surfing & Boogie Boarding

Port Aransas Beach, Nueces County

Wind and waves — surf riders find plenty of both at Port Aransas Beach. Just ask surfer Paul Balcom about choice spots there, and he'll point you toward the Horace Caldwell Pier. "Piers and jetties create little rip currents," explains Balcom, a local middle-school teacher who surfs with his teenage daughter, Kalani. "That makes it easier to paddle out, and the best waves break next to the pier." (Most places ban surfers from getting too close to fishing piers. Not here. However, veteran surfers still keep a safe distance to avoid getting tangled in fishing lines.) Boogie boarder Michael Kovacs — the city manager for Port Aransas — also prefers the waves near the pier. "The surf can be huge there," he confirms.

More pluses: A concession on the pier offers snacks, drinks and restrooms. Parking's just a short walk away, too.

(Port Aransas Parks and Recreation Department, 361-749-4158, www.cityofportaransas.org/Port_Aransas_Beach.cfm. Free parking available.)

4. Surf Fishing

Padre Island National Seashore, Kleberg/Kenedy/Willacy counties

Hankering to wet a line? Gather up the saltwater gear and head for Padre Island National Seashore, a popular destination for surf fishing. The 130,434-acre getaway encompasses the world's longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island. "The gulf-side beach is the dead center of the Coastal Bend," says Billy Sandifer, a pro fishing guide (and avid naturalist) based in Corpus Christi. "It's where the currents converge, dig out deep holes and rifts, and draw fish from both directions."

What you'll land depends on the time of year. "Fish migrate," Sandifer explains. "Typically, folks will catch pompano and redfish in colder months, shark and tarpon in the summer, and whiting nearly year-round."

So where are the best places to wade and cast? "Look for something different going on, like birds diving or water boiling," Sandifer advises. "That's what trophy fishermen do — they let the sea tell them where to fish." (Heads up: Four-wheel-drive's a must past the five-mile marker on the beach. And watch out for stingrays! Move slowly and shuffle your feet as you wade.)

(Padre Island National Seashore, 361-949-8068, www.nps.gov/pais. Entry fee: $10 per vehicle [good for seven days]. Billy Sandifer, 361-937-8446, www.billysandifer.com)

5. Birding

Matagorda Bay Nature Park, Matagorda County

Birds don't pay attention to maps, but they certainly prefer Matagorda County. Want proof? Check out the Christmas Bird Count, conducted by the National Audubon Society. Year after year, this area ranks either first or second for the most species recorded nationwide. (In 2007, volunteers here counted 235 species!)

Linda Serrill, a longtime birder who hosts bird walks at the Matagorda Bay Nature Park, frequents the beach, dunes and wetlands, where she spots hawks, roseate spoonbills, Virginia rails, piping plovers and more. Birds also hang out in droves at the Colorado River channel. "The migratory birds here are spectacular," she says. The 1,600-acre park — owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority — offers a half-mile pedestrian beach, trails, birding programs, a wildlife viewing pavilion, RV campgrounds and sheltered picnic sites.

(800-776-5272 ext. 4740, www.lcra.org/parks/developed_parks/matagorda.html. Free access to park and beach; fees for campsites and driving on beach.)

6. Solitude

Matagorda Island Wildlife Management Area, Calhoun County

Don't expect to find many human footprints on the beach of this undeveloped barrier island. Few folks go because access is by private or chartered boat only. "Matagorda Island's the safest place I've found to take my young family camping, mainly because it's so remote," says Brent Propst of Houston. "It's so untouched and pristine, too."

Wildlife abounds on the 38-mile-long island: white-tailed deer, coyotes, feral hogs, turkeys and countless birds. "Two whooping cranes flew right over my father and I while we were fishing there last fall," Propst says. The island's remote location sets the stage for incredible stargazing at night from the beach. "We can see all the planets, satellites and sometimes the shuttle," he says. "Shooting stars, too."

(979-244-6804, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/matagordaisland)

7. Swimming

Rockport Beach, Aransas County

When Stanley and Toni Post retired in the '90s, they didn't deliberate long on where to move: Rockport. "We wanted a place that would be fun for grandchildren," he says. "Over the years, we've traveled to lots of places, and, in our opinion, there's no better beach than Rockport Beach." Family-friendly and super clean, the one-mile-long shoreline shoulders Aransas Bay, not the gulf. That means youngsters can frolic in the water, safe from big waves, strong undertows and swift currents.

Forget about dirty water and trash, too. In fact, this public beach is so well maintained that the Clean Beaches Council has certified it as a Blue Wave Beach since 2000. Bonus amenities: "Pirate-ship" playscapes, covered picnic cabanas and public restrooms with showers.

(City of Rockport, 361-729-2213, ext. 134, www.cityofrockport.com. Parking: $4 per vehicle.)

8. Wildlife Viewing

South Padre Island, Cameron County

Awesome! That they are, those massive sea turtles and friendly bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the salty waters along Texas' southernmost beach. Jeff George, curator at Sea Turtle Inc., can't help but get warm fuzzies whenever he sees a group of endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) feeding along the granite jetties at nearby Isla Blanca Park. "Our efforts are paying off here," he says, referring to the center's rescue-and-rehab work. At the jetties, catch sight of these gentle giants early mornings and evenings. (Caution: climbing the rocks can be arduous.) An informative turtle show at the center starts at 10 a.m. daily (closed Mondays).

At the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center, hold a live starfish and other small marine animals, get eye to eye with an octopus, and learn about bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Daily nature programs start at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Then climb aboard a catamaran houseboat and motor into Laguna Madre Bay for some dolphin watching. Without fail, these playful sea mammals love to show off. "We never feed, touch or swim with the dolphins," says guide George Colley. During excursions, you'll get acquainted with coastal ecosystems as well as birds.

(Sea Turtles Inc., 956-761-4511, www.seaturtleinc.com. Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center, 956-943-6626, www.spinaturecenter.com. Fins to Feathers eco-tours, 956-761-7178, www.fin2feather.com.)

9. Camping

Mustang Island State Park, Nueces County

Pitch a tent or plug in the pop-up. Larry Farris has done both at this 4,000-acre coastal haven, located south of Port Aransas. As a Scoutmaster, the Buda resident especially likes to schedule summer campouts for his troop at the state park, which offers five miles of open beach. "It's a good place to take kids to camp, and there's always a nice breeze blowing," he says. "We like to take the boys deep-sea fishing and surf fishing, too." Campers may pitch a tent on the beach or in the RV campground. Portable toilets, rinsing showers and potable water are a short walk away. RV sites come loaded with water, electricity, shaded picnic tables and barbecue grills.

(361-749-5246, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mustangisland. Entrance fees: $4, 13 and older. Camping fees additional.)

10. Picnicking

Galveston Island State Park, Galveston County

Crusty bread, cold cuts and a chunk of cheese make fine fixins for a picnic on the beach. So says Mort Voller, a Galveston resident who enjoys treating his family and friends to shoreline dining at nearby Galveston Island State Park. "We can drive right up and unload our things at the picnic table," he says. "Plus the shelter keeps the sun off." In the 1970s, Voller and his wife took their sons to the beach for picnics; now they share the favorite spot with grandchildren. "It's a very inexpensive way to have an enjoyable time in the outdoors," he says. "When we go, we also treasure hunt on the beach, look for shells and examine sargassum weed that we find."

Bonus: Plan a Saturday picnic, and arrive in time for a morning program on the beach. "Exploring Sea Life" introduces participants to critters and plants that inhabit the shoreline. Dress to get wet; you'll seine in the water and dig in the sand, guided by an experienced beachcomber. Starts at 10 a.m.

(409-737-1222, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/galveston. Entrance fees: $5 per person, 13 and older.)

Texas Beach Watch Program

Planning a beach trip this summer? Be safe and check out current bacteria counts at your destination before you get there.

May through September, the Texas Beach Watch Program collects weekly samples from 163 sites up and down the Texas coast. (From October through April, samples are taken every other week.) Results are posted online and may be accessed through an interactive map. Bacteria levels ranked at "low" indicate safe conditions. Swimming is discouraged, however, whenever "medium" and "high" levels are found.

Texas General Land Office, Texas Beach Watch

Beach wheelchairs

Padre Island National Seashore offers free use of wheelchairs specially designed for the beach. Users must leave a driver's license or personal wheelchair at the visitors' center until the park's chair is returned. All wheelchairs must be returned by the end of the business day.

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