Where the Lone Star Meets the Sea

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News for Adventurous Travelers, February 1997

Where the Lone Star Meets the Sea

Warm sands, empty dunes, randy cranes, and fishing cowboys--this is the undiscovered South Coast of Texas
By Paul Kvinta

The next time you paddle your kayak through the marshy inlets of the crystal-clear Laguna Madre, or stare down a whooping crane at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, or snag a bivalve on Padre Island, stop for a moment to gaze silently into the Texas sunset and thank the folks who made all this possible: The cowboys. The hunters. The...bomber pilots.

Incongruous as it seems, the more than 200-mile stretch of Texas coast from Matagorda Island to the Mexican border has been relatively well preserved, largely because it was once so dominated by big bombing ranges, bigger private hunting preserves, and the world's biggest cattle ranches. Insulated from developers, the land thus avoided the buildup of petrochemical complexes and other ugly industrial bulkheads that has ruined so many other coastlines.

Today, with most of the hunting preserves and bombing ranges converted to public parks, the area has become a haven for wildlife, beachcombers, birders, boardsailors, and pioneering mountain bikers. Immense schools of speckled trout run in untainted water, trophy-size tarpon laze in the saltwater inlets, white-tailed deer play on otherwise empty beaches, and the tidal flats lure more bird species than anywhere else in North America.

Yet this stretch of shoreline remains essentially a Western frontier. Prickly pear cactus grows to the water's edge. Mountain lions and bobcats lord it over vast ranges of below-sea-level marshland. Diamondback rattlers slither in desultory curves across the dunes. Pickups come equipped with gun racks and country-music station pre-sets. And local "outfitters" provide one type of equipment: live bait. Bring your own tents, mountain bikes, tools, water, food, sunscreen, and cowboy hat.

Matagorda Island State Park
Start your visit at Matagorda Island State Park, which has changed character considerably since 1942, when low-flying B-52s screamed over regularly and dropped massive payloads. These days, if a confused Cessna pilot lands illegally on the overgrown main airstrip, irritated park rangers walk the entire 8,000-foot-long concrete slab searching for broken least tern eggs. The endangered birds love to nest in the cracks in the cement.

The skinny, 38-mile length of Matagorda has become a refuge not just for terns, but for dozens of other bird species-as well as for bird lovers and bicyclists (often the same people). You can rent a single-speed beach cruiser from the visitor center ($5 per day; first-come, first-served) or bring your own on the pedestrian ferry ($10 each way) from Port O'Connor, the only access to this uninhabited island. Call 512-983-2215 for the ferry's schedule and reservations.

From the bayside dock on the north side of the island, pedal toward a stand of salt cedars 300 yards to your left. This small grove-there are few trees on the island-is a magnet for wrens, finches, orioles, and rare white-tail hawks. Later, you can continue across the island's second, interior airstrip and follow the signs to the island's lighthouse, built in 1852. A dirt path will take you past fields of swaying broomweed and pink Gulf Coast muhly grass. Beware diamondback rattlers and alligators as you approach the lighthouse, and ride slowly: The undergrowth is uncut here, and the ground is often rutted by large potholes dug by feral hogs.

To reach the beach, backtrack from the lighthouse, turn left on the shell path, and look for the dunes ahead of you. Since the ferry makes only one round trip a day, the island is never crowded; you'll see at most a handful of sunbathers or beachcombers as you head south for the first mile.

After that, it'll be just you and small gatherings of endangered brown pelicans staring idly to sea. White-tailed deer often congregate in the dunes. Otherwise, all is sand, sky, and relentless sun. Remember to stock up on fluids in Port O'Connor; no water is available on the beach.

To end your ride, look for one of the three marked access trails (at 4.7, 9.5, and 20.8 miles) that lead inland to the island's main paved road. Any of them will take you back to the dock.

If you want a more extended stay, pitch a tent on the beach ($4 per night, 14-day limit; 512-983-2215). Or, for more luxury and a shower, return to the mainland and the nearby town of Seadrift. The Hotel Lafitte is a one-time Victorian railroad hotel built in 1909 (doubles, including breakfast, $60-$80; 512-785-2319).

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Back on the mainland and just south of Matagorda, North America's biggest and loudest bird, the whooping crane, has found its perfect home. Locals, who approvingly call the birds whoopers, love to brag about the cranes' miraculous comeback. Only 18 of the birds existed in the state in 1937, the year President Franklin Roosevelt created the 54,829-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in a last-ditch effort to save the species. Today, about 160 of the gangly, four-foot-tall creatures descend on Aransas each winter from October until April and perform an ungainly mating dance, bowing their heads, sounding loud trumpeting calls, and leaping on skinny legs high into the air. The acrobatics seem to work; the species keeps increasing its numbers.

To see this spectacle by land, coat yourself with mosquito repellent and strike out early along the Heron Flats Trail, starting near the park entrance. The 1.4-mile trail winds through scrub oak and then meanders between tidal marshes and narrow ponds. Step carefully: The refuge is as attractive to snakes, alligators, and snorting javelinas as it is to cranes. The best chances to see the giant birds are near Willow Creek, where at least one pair always winters, or from the rangers' observation tower.

Most of the rest of the refuge is closed to foot traffic, so the best way to see whoopers en masse may be from outside the sanctuary, by sailboat. Three-day bareboat charters from the Corpus Christi International School of Sailing cost from $560 to $660 (512-881-8503). From the Coopers Alley dock in Corpus Christi, you're about three tacks west of the Port Aransas Municipal Marina, where you can dock for the evening for $13 to $20, depending on boat size.

In the morning, sail about four miles north along the Intracoastal Waterway until you reach the narrow passage between the refuge on your left and Bludworth Island on your right. Creep up on whoopers as they munch crabs and raise a racket. You can dock for the night at Municipal Marina in the quaint artist colony of Rockport, Texas's answer to Sausalito.

Nonsailors should check in at Rockport's Blue Heron Inn, a Federal-style house built in 1890 and overlooking Little Bay (doubles, $90; 512-729-7526). At The Boiling Pot, on Fulton Beach Road, you can listen to live blues and sift sand through your toes at an outside table while the waitress dumps the Cajun Combo-boiled crabs, shrimp, sausage, new potatoes, and buttered corn on the cob-right onto your paper-covered table ($13.95).

Padre Island
About 20 miles south and east of Corpus Christi, Padre Island begins-and East African impalas sometimes appear. Refugees from the mainland's immense King Ranch, which has recently begun leading exotic-animal hunts on its grounds, the impalas swim across Laguna Madre, the narrow waterway that separates this 113-mile-long spit from the rest of Texas, and then gambol happily on the hunterless dunes.

Other exotic types also are common on Padre Island. Chief among them are grizzled beachcombers living out of old, converted vans and dusty, long-term campers who stretch out on the sand, faces shaded with tattered straw hats. Padre Island doesn't draw the hordes of college students that throng South Padre Island during spring break. There are no bars here, no wandering ukulele players, no...trees. The island offers neither shade nor potable water, but it does provide generous doses of solitude. With the exception of a passing ranger, you can go for days on Padre without seeing another human. This is Robinson Crusoe territory: Build a driftwood fire a few feet from towering dunes. Wade-fish for meals. Commune with cormorants and coyotes. Let whipping sands scour your pores and your inner demons.

If you're trekking, you'll need plenty of water, bug spray, and a sturdy, sandproof shelter. If you'd rather not rough it, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle in Corpus Christi, cram it with food and drink, and head down the island, sleeping on the beach until supplies run out.

Should solitude begin to pall, consider Padre Island's other great draw: world-class boardsailing, with year-round wind speeds averaging about 25 miles per hour. Boarders seeking smooth cruising put in at Bird Island Basin, a boat launch three and a half miles past the park entrance on the Laguna Madre. An on-site concession rents rigs ($25 for two hours), as does Wind and Wave on the mainland in Corpus Christi ($15 per hour; 512-937-9283).

If you don't mind skylines, head northwest of the island to Oleander Park, in Corpus Christi Bay, where the U.S. Open of Windsurfing traditionally takes place each Memorial Day.

Recuperate at the Tarpon Inn, a turn-of-the-century hotel in the fishing village of Port Aransas, 19 miles north of Padre Island. A large autographed scale from one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's trophy tarpons graces a lobby wall, together with 7,000 other scales from the catches of less famous fishermen (doubles, $70; 512-749-5555). For dinner, Yankee-n-Betty's Flounder Run, at 129 Alister, serves up the best garlic-baked flounder in town ($9.99; 512-749-4869).

Laguna Madre
Back on the mainland, you'll have to drive through King Ranch to reach the rest of the coast. Visit the gift shop for one of the world's largest arrays of leather goods. But for a more authentic beach experience, continue south to the tiny hamlet of Port Mansfield. Here you'll have two primary amusement options: You can watch roving groups of ten- and 12-point bucks devour garden hibiscus and scavenge food-"I hand-feed 'em flour tortillas right out my front door," says fishing guide Howard Steussy-or you can fish. The hypersaline Laguna Madre, unpolluted by development and undiluted by freshwater streams, retains a clarity rivaling the Caribbean and provides fly and lure fishermen with speckled trout, red drum, and flounder. Offshore anglers battle tarpon, marlin, and other fighting fish.

At sunrise, Steussy zips charter groups across the water in a flat-bottomed "scooter," a vessel that hums across the Laguna's shallowest, six-inch depths. Later he might run you over to the Nature Conservancy's Green Island, a rookery for blue herons, spoonbills, ospreys, and egrets. If asked, Steussy will also take you deep into the Laguna's marshy inlets, where thousands of coots and ducks winter, often sprinting across the water in front of your boat (parties of two, $300; four, $375; 210-944-2339).

For lodging, rent a small house along North Shore Drive in Port Mansfield. Each comes with a street view for deer-watching and a 600-foot fishing pier in back for angling all night under the lights (two bedrooms, $85 per night; from Seaside Rentals, 210-944-2635).

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
The southernmost piece of Texas seashore, 160 miles south of Corpus Christi and just across the water from South Padre Island, is also its most colorful, verdant, and bird-rich. In early spring, a migratory "fall out" literally fills the skies above the Laguna Atascosa refuge with green jays and painted buntings. "Tons of birds are coming from the south when a north front stops them dead in their tracks," says Texas ornithologist Jeff Rupert. About the same time, usually in March or early April, the bayside prickly pears burst into gaudy pink and yellow blooms, while the Spanish daggers flower white and the sage turns purple.

The 17-mile paved Bayside Loop, which runs along Redhead Ridge, site of the most spectacular spring bloom, is open to cyclists and hikers. But most of the rest of the 45,000-acre refuge is closed to humans.

Instead, bring a kayak. From refuge headquarters, you can access the Arroyo Colorado River by putting in at Adolph Thomae Jr. Park. After reaching the river's mouth, head north into Laguna Madre. Soon you'll find yourself in the tidal coves of the far-north portion of the refuge. "That area is as inaccessible as any place in North America," Rupert says. "You're guaranteed not to see another soul." You will, however, see snowy plovers, as well as black-necked stilts and possibly, if you scan the inland brush carefully, some of the nation's few remaining wild ocelots.

Rental kayaks are available in Corpus Christi at Wind and Wave ($35 per day, $200 per week; to reserve in advance, call 512-937-9283) and at Windsurf Inc. on South Padre Island ($30 per day; 210-761-1434). After getting your kayak, decamp from hectic South Padre for the relative peace of its mainland neighbor, Port Isabel. The hacienda-style Yacht Club Hotel and Restaurant offers comfortable, quiet rooms (doubles, $39; 210-943-1301) and, for the perfect ending to any trip to the Lone Star State, the finest steaks in all of south Texas.

Paul Kvinta is a Texas native and frequent contributor to Outside.

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