Padre Island National Seashore offers a natural beach escape in southeastern Texas.
On a warm October morning, broad vistas of tall, waving grass and puffy clouds were strung across a bright blue sky beyond pebbled asphalt. The Malaquite Visitor Center for Padre Island National Seashore came into view. Low palms accentuated white buildings connected by wood decks and pergolas that were worn by the elements.
Children watched an artist work on a massive painting depicting a ghost crab. Inside the visitor center, guests browsed books and souvenirs or viewed shells and skeleton fragments. Beyond the center lay the Gulf of Mexico. Gulls were everywhere and pelicans flew in formation as I waded in lukewarm water. Small jellyfish, occasional tiny shells, and large seaweed clumps decorated the beach.
DISCOVERING PADRE ISLAND
Long before this natural paradise became a national seashore, four nations – beginning with Spain – had claimed the island. In 1804, Father Nicholas Balli received a grant from Spain to start his cattle ranch on the island. After the dissolution of the Balli estate, the island passed through many hands. By the 1870s, giant ranches were encroaching on smaller landowners, including Patrick Dunn, who moved his cattle operation on the island. By the 1940s, the Dunn Ranch comprised most of the island's northern half. Today, visitors can see one of the last remnants of the Dunn Ranch, the Novillo line camp. Ranch hands who were working to drive the cattle to market used these camps.
The U.S. government purchased the Dunn Ranch, and in 1962, President John F. Kennedy designated the land Padre Island National Seashore.
This 70-mile-long barrier island's unusual ecology features sea grass indigenous to the northeast and sea oats found in Florida. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must for exploring 60 miles of the beach. The tallest wind-driven dune is 50 feet tall. Water near the shore reaches more than three fathoms – about 18 feet – deep.
One of the park's most intriguing areas is the Laguna Madre at the eastern side of Padre Island. This hypersaline lagoon with sea grass beds is one of only six such lagoons in the world. The grass shields sea creatures and offers a plethora of nutrients for migrating birds. Bird-watching enthusiasts may find reddish egrets, white-faced ibis, tri-colored herons, and American white pelicans. Anglers fish for red drum and spotted sea trout in the lagoon.
Padre Island National Seashore's popular Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Program focuses on five endangered sea turtle species, including the most endangered species, the Kemp's ridley turtle. The area once hosted up to 200 nests in peak season, but that number dropped after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
“We dig up the eggs and put them in a turtle corral and there are now more nests in all of Texas,” says Patrick Gamman, chief of interpretation and education and public information officer for the national seashore.
Up to 25 baby sea turtle releases occur annually. Visitors and staff go to the beach together at 6 a.m.; however, participants must not wear white shirts, take flash photographs, or touch the turtles. The sea turtle program takes place from late June to early August.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
The timing of your visit provides a variety of experiences. Hidden Treasures ranger programs, from late spring through Labor Day, allow visitors to help capture and release small fish and burrowing creatures near the water's edge.
Summer afternoon “deck talks” held in the shaded pavilion inform guests about what they may find on the beach that day. By July, jellyfish and stingrays are prolific. The rainy season is August through October. The best bird-watching window is between November and late March.
WHERE TO EAT AND SLEEP
The park has five tent camping areas, including Malaquite Campground on the beach.
North Padre Island in and around Corpus Christi has many options for travelers who seek restaurants and hotels.
For those traveling with furry members of their family, Hyatt Place Corpus Christi (AAA Three Diamonds) welcomes pets. Most nationally branded hotels, plus a few boutique properties, also are in Corpus Christi.
Whether you plan to make a day of it or spend a few days there, Padre Island National Seashore offers serene surroundings to observe and enjoy the island's natural beauty.
Lisa Waterman Gray is a contributor from Overland Park, Kan.
May/June 2016 Issue
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