January 17th, 2011 | Published in Travel
The Wild Coast
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Headed for the beach this summer? Escape the crowds at these five out-of-the-way places where the coast is always clear.
The long, languid coastline of Texas takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Finding that wild coast can be done with just a little bit of effort. You can discover hidden places as remote as far West Texas, but tempered by the constant calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of boom boxes. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places–the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach–are there for anyone who wants to indulge the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend
SEA RIM STATE PARK
| The Scoop: Sea Rim
Getting there. From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then Texas Highway 73 east to Port Arthur. Follow the signs to Sabine Pass and Texas Highway 87. From Galveston take the Bolivar ferry to Highway 87, turn left at High Island on Texas Highway 124 to Winnie, and follow directions above. The distance to Sea Rim on both routes is around one hundred miles. Park info: Entry fee $2 per person for everyone 13 and older. No beach lifeguard. Amenities The park headquarters (409-971-2559) has rest rooms, showers, and picnic tables; ice and bug spray for sale; and beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, as well as a small interpretive display. Camping: Twenty spaces are available for RVs in a paved campground east of the headquarters, with electricity, running water, and a dump station, $10 per night, ten tent sites are located in an adjacent area with running water, grills, picnic tables, and a rinse shower, $7. Weekend reservations should be made at least three weeks in advance. Primitive camping is available on four raised wooden platforms in the marsh, accessible only by boat, with attached privy, $5 per night. Beach camping is allowed. Activities, Airboat tours: $13.50 adults, $8.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Canoe rentals: $15 full day, $10 half day. Side trip: Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park. The strategic importance of the pass, now surrounded by oil platforms and heavy industries, is underscored by the presence of concrete bunkers built during World War Il. The Civil War battle is reenacted every September.
“People who’ve lived around here for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and for launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdy bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
At Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinating themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were so close that I had to remind myself of the sign that addressed my erroneous impression: “This park is not a zoo. The animals here are wild.”
For The Birds
| The Scoop: High Island
Getting there: From Houston, take 1-10 east to Winnie, then turn right on Texas Highway 124; it’s 18 miles to High Island. From Galveston, take the Bolivar ferry to Texas Highway 187, then continue 28 miles to High Island. Activities: Birdwatching. There are two primary in-town sanctuaries, including Smith Oaks, around one hundred acres next to Birder’s Haven (admission $5 a day or $20 a year). Other popular spots are the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, near the Bolivar ferry landing, each less than half an hour away. Side trips: George E. Kahla’s Fresh Junk (pronounced KAYluh), on the west side of Highway 124 in High Island. This is my choice for the most imaginative Junk shop on the Texas coast. The free ferry from Bolivar to Galveston provides a twenty-minute ride across Galveston Bay to Galveston.
Everywhere you look in the little Birder’s Haven shop tucked away on Winnie Street in High Island, you see birds: T-shirts on the wall with warblers and buntings silk-screened on the front, bird maps, bird books about the upper Texas Coast, cassettes of bird calls, bird videos, bird gimme caps, “I Brake for Birds” bumper stickers, and all sorts of avian accessories, from jewelry to binocular straps.
High Island is for the birds. The small town of fewer than five hundred residents, named for an unusual coastal hill (which turned out to be an oil-rich salt dome), has become one of the great birdwatching centers of North America. This is largely because of its strategic place in the annual trans-Gulf migration of birds moving north in the spring. When a cold front blows in from the north, birds fall out of the sky into trees. In 1991 Jon and Glendaweena Llast, two avid birdwatchers from Dallas, opened a one-stop bed-and-breakfast, birders’ shop, and gateway to Smith Oaks, a sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon Society. Although Jon and Glendaweena are both dead now, owner Kenneth Ferguson operates the store and Birder’s Haven B&B in the house across the courtyard. Testifying to High Island’s world renown was a group from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who occupied the sitting area underneath the spreading shade of thirty-foot oaks, cottonwoods, and fig trees. Feeders hung from the branches, which seemed to be a Grand Central Station of the avian world. Gurgling fountains served as birdbaths. “Last year we went to Arizona and wound up here,” one woman told me. “This year we’d planned a trip to Florida, but here we are.”
Leaving The World Behind
MATAGORDA ISLAND STATE PARK AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA
| The Scoop: Matagorda
Getting there: The Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry departs from Port 0’Conner. From the south, take Texas Highway 35 to Green Lake, then torn right onto Texas Highway 85 to Seadrift and continue to Port O’Connor. From the north or west, pick up Highway 185 in Victoria and proceed as before. Port 0’Conner is approximately 50 miles from Victoria. Park info: For ferry service information call 361-983-221 5. Camping: Two campgrounds-Army Hole near the beat dock and the Beach Campground two miles away. The latter has two covered picnic tables. Fees: None. Reservations: Not needed. Fires: Permitted only in designated fire rings or in the tidal zone of the beach where there is no vegetation. Activities: Hiking, biking, fishing, and birdwatching are the main activities here. The visitors center display includes three aquarium tanks with silversides, hermit crabs, sand minnows, and Atlantic drills, and a collection of flotsam and jetsam that washed onto the beach, including driftwood from Braze and a whale vertebra the size of a truck tire. Side trip: The ruins of Indianola–one of Texas major nineteenth-century ports, wiped out by two hurricanes. From Seadrift, go north on Texas Highway 238 toward Port Lavaca, then east on Texas Highway 316 to Indianola.
The mainland gradually disappeared in the humid haze as the ferry headed south on the eleven-mile trip across Espiritu Santo Bay toward Matagorda Island. First the 110-foot cast-iron lighthouse came into view, then several outbuildings on the bay side of the island near the ferry landing, remnants of an abandoned Air Force base. After a trip of almost an hour, we arrived at the 38-mile-long barrier island, which was inaccessible except by private boat until ferry service began in 1995. Today Matagorda remains as close to a wilderness as you can get on the Texas coast–a 58,000-acre park and preserve that is off-limits to private motor vehicles. Only bicycles and park vehicles (including two open-bed shuttle trucks and an old school bus that carry visitors around the island) are allowed on the roads left behind by the Air Force.
“People call this place pristine,” Runny Gallagher, a former park superintendent, told me during a tour of the park, which is surrounded by a much larger national wildlife refuge. “This is nowhere close to pristine. Cattle ranching went on here for more than one hundred and fifty years, and the Air Force tried to bomb it back into the ocean.”
Gallagher suddenly stopped the truck. “Horny toad!” he shouted. It was a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy. I picked it up, and a childhood memory told me to turn it over on its back and tickle its belly. Sure enough, its eyes closed. A few hundred yards up the road we stopped at an elevated observation platform that provided a view of a marsh, where red-winged blackbirds chittered and chattered and a couple of black-headed coots loitered in the tall grass. An eastern meadowlark and two cedar waxwings glided by, and a whistling tree duck emerged from the water. For such an isolated spot, Matagorda has a rich history. La Salle, Cabeza de Vaca, and Jean Lafitte all passed this way. The antebellum lighthouse, now shuttered and lightless but majestic nonetheless, was originally located two and a half miles northeast of its present site, then moved in 1878. It marks the entrance to Matagorda Bay at Cavallo Pass.
Gallagher zipped past the old airbase runway, where the cracks between the slabs of concrete were filling in with native grasses, Mexican hat in bloom, and prickly pear. The runway has become a nesting area for the endangered least tern, just as the poles that once carried electricity to the island have been claimed by great blue herons. Mother Nature is slowly taking back the island. We got out of the truck again at the beach, which was wide and white. Gallagher examined a dug-up area around ghost crab holes, which he blamed on feral hogs. “They root the devil out of everything,” he snarled. The hogs are the scourge of the island, an invader whose presence threatens the balance of a fragile ecosystem that shelters 325 species of birds, 20 of them protected or endangered species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, and a herd of around nine hundred white-tailed deer. More bird species have been recorded here than anywhere in Texas.
Currents bring the trash here–most of it dumped from ships and offshore platforms–and little can be done about it. The twice-a-year cleanups organized by the General Land Office keep the situation somewhat under control. “We don’t rake the beach or clean it,” Gallagher said. “Leaving it alone protects the salt cap on the sand, prevents wind erosion, and lets the beach grow.” But he still tries to do his part. “You know about the message in the bottle?” he asked me. “When I find one of them, I write a letter hack to say, "You’re polluting my beach.”
The Longest Drive
PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE
| The Scoop:
Padre Island National Seashore
Getting there: Padre Island National Seashore is 30 miles from downtown Corpus Christi via Texas Highway 358 and Park Road 22 and 36 miles from Port Aransas via Texas Highway 361 to the park road. Park info: A seven-day pass is $10 per auto or $5 per individual hiker or bicyclist. Seniors may obtain a lifetime pass for $10. Disabled visitors are admitted free. Camping: Malaquite Beach has 50 sites for tent and RV camping, first come, first served. Primitive camping is permitted on the beach and at two locations on the Laguna Madre: Bird Island Basin, just east of the entrance gate, and Yarborough Pass, at milepost 15. Most campers are limited to 14 consecutive days, but at Malaquite campgrounds, campers can stay 30 days. Activities: Malaquite Beach is Texas’ best. Umbrellas and Boogie Boards are for rent. The Grasslands Nature Trail is a three-quarter-mile self-guided walk through dunes and grasses. The trailhead is just south of the entrance gate to the park. Bird Island Basin is a popular site for windsurfing. Launch fee: $5. No rentals. The visitors center has exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and history of Padre Island.
The road from Corpus Christi to Padre Island National Seashore foretold what lay ahead: First the convenience stores disappeared from the roadside landscape, followed by subdivisions, motels, shell shops, and condos, leaving only telephone poles to mar the view. Then even the poles and the shoulders of the pavement vanished, leaving only a narrow ribbon of asphalt to split the dunes and tidal flats on the longest barrier island in the world. And we hadn’t even gotten to the park visitors center yet. It was the perfect introduction to driving to the Mansfield Cut, a 120-mile round-trip on the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the United States.
I had rented a Jeep Cherokee, summoned my buddy Red, and risen with the sun. The chalkboard at the entry gate to the park warned that beach driving conditions were poor. But the other statistics that are important to the down-island traveler–wind, weather, water temperature, beach debris, and presence of jellyfish–were agreeable for a full days adventure. A mile after the visitors center, the pavement veered straight toward the beach. By a few minutes after eight we were rolling along the firm sand. Perhaps fifty vans and pickups were parked along the first five miles, most of them rigged for overnight camping. The next milepost warned that motor traffic for the next 55 miles was restricted to vehicles with four-wheel drive. Another sign raised the speed limit from 15 miles per hour to 25.
Around twenty miles into the four-wheel-drive zone, we passed what would be the last of the vehicles parked on the beach. We were alone except for the occasional all-terrain vehicle driven by a ranger or a volunteer looking out for the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose nesting season had just begun.
Driving anywhere on this beach required nimble steering, quick reflexes, and constant vigilance–exactly what makes it one of the great driving experiences in Texas.
The Tip of Texas
| The Scoop: Boca Chica
Getting there: Boca Chica beach is 22, miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4. Park info: No entry fee. No lifeguard. No showers, no phone, no rest rooms or privies. No staying behind the beach. Activities: The beach is one of the best in the state, as nice as South Padre except for more trash. Side trip: Boca Chica is a side trip.
Easter weekend at South Padre: No Vacancy signs, long lines in the restaurants and stores, long lines on he road, the beach packed with people. Easter weekend on Boca Chica, a peninsula just across Brazos Santiago Pass from the towers of South Padre: around 75 cars cruising up and down the beach, with perhaps 10 more vehicles clustered at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Boca Chica is a narrow finger of land between the Rio Grande and South Bay, the bottom of the Laguna Madre. When it reaches the sea, the peninsula makes a sharp left turn to form an eight-mile-long beach. Behind it is a harsh landscape that, compared with the marshes of Sea Rim, is almost a desert–a yucca-spiked prairie studded with tall grasses, mangrove, mesquite, and big thickets of prickly pear. The drive out is a boulevard of broken dreams: a roadside marker commemorating the last battle of the Civil War, a scattering of homes in a ailed subdivision (Kopernik Shores, marketed to Polish immigrants from Chicago), the crumbling gates of mother development that never got under way, and the most recent failure, Playa Del Rio, envisioned as a mega-resort of hotels and golf courses when it was announced in 1986. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of Boca Chica, as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to South Padre, the beach at Boca Chica is practically untamed. There are no shelters, no services, nothing but beach and sea and a few cars. I took my two sons there on a day trip from South Padre. It’s only a few hundred yards as the crow flies, but to get there you have to drive eighteen miles hack to Brownsville, then toward Boca Chica on a shoulderless road. We turned right at the beach and followed it three miles to an impassable point where a lighthouse was positioned across an inlet. The lighthouse marked Playa Bagdad, the beach of Matamoros. The small inlet was the once-mighty Rio Grande, now less than 75 yards wide, a gentle stream running clear and cool enough to attract swimmers from both sides. The Spanish name Boca Chica was perfect; it means “little mouth.”
We found a spot at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest car. The beach was almost a hundred yards wide and bordered by a continuous row of dunes. The older boy went straight in with a Boogie Board in hand, while the younger boy squawked and hollered with pure joy, splashing around in the surf. I showed him how to body surf, diving with a breaking wave, arms extended forward, legs kicking. He picked it up right away.
For me, the respite from the crowds offered a chance to reconnect. I watched the younger one’s fascination with a dead man-of-war that had washed up on the beach and observed the older one studying the waves intently, waiting for just the rights sets and perhaps the perfect swell in the hope of making the most of what it is, at best, a three-second thrill. After drying off, I wandered back into the dunes, hoping to scale one of the hills that looked taller and sturdier than those on South Padre. I was immediately besieged by a swarm of hungry deerflies, an experience that gave me a better understanding of the Karankawas, the fierce coastal tribe that smeared stinky alligator grease and dirt on their bodies to cultivate a foul and offensive body odor. Now I knew why.
Meanwhile, the older boy had retreated to the water’s edge. “He’s not a kid anymore,” I thought to myself, as he busied himself in the sand, constructing a moat for a handful of tiny coquinas he’d dug out of the mud–only to have an errant wave sneak up and wash the whole thing away. I recognized his cry of disappointment as a mock one. He knew as well as I did that the ocean always takes back what it has given. At the beach you’re never too old to play in the sand.