Many people winter in Texas, becoming temporary residents of the Lone Star State for a few months out of the year. There are many reasons that people head south during the colder months, but the main reason is that the weather in Texas is delightfully warm.
Winter Texans enjoy activities that keep them active, and during my time in this part of the country during the winter, I’ve learned that there is a lot to do. You can stay as busy or as lazy as you want to be. Here are some of my favorite places to explore in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.
1. World Birding Center
The World Birding Center is one of the top nature centers in the world. Its nine unique birding sites are located along a 120-mile historic river road and are home to more than 400 species of birds. This place is a bird lover's dream come true! The educational walks, wilderness walks, hands-on experiences, and opportunities to connect with other birding enthusiasts make a visit here an experience of a lifetime. You could easily spend one full day or more exploring these nine birding sites.
On a recent visit to the center’s Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, I met a visitor from Australia who was watching the birds with my family and me. She and her husband had a passion for birding and had traveled to Texas specifically to view the birds.
Pack your binoculars, camera, bottled water, and bug spray, and be ready for a fun day of birding. With two major flyway zones (the Central and Mississippi) located in South Texas, you will see many bird species migrating throughout the year. November through April is the best time for birding in the area, since the temperatures are mild and the birding opportunities are incredible.
2. South Padre Island
Another fantastic winter experience in Texas is deep-sea fishing on South Padre Island. Enjoy the beautiful offshore waters, which are deep blue and make up one of the best fishing spots in the Gulf of Mexico. Flounder, redfish, red snapper, and mahi-mahi are commonly caught here. This is a bucket-list fishing destination, and visitors are proud to show off the fish that they reel in.
Before you board your boat, make sure you have sunscreen, sunglasses, food and drink, and a fishing license. I also suggest that you inquire about the weather the day before your trip. Your guide can give you sound advice on how to dress.
3. Valley Nature Center
The Valley Nature Center is located near Weslaco in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. Stroll the trails and relax a little on one of the benches that you’ll come upon. Explore the visitor center before you hit the trails to learn more about the area’s native species. You can expect to find butterflies, lizards, turtles, and plenty of birds. This is another great place to connect with nature in the Rio Grande Valley.
There is a small entrance fee, and the trails are relatively flat, making them handicap accessible. Depending on the time of day you visit and the animals that are out and about, you could spend a couple of hours to an entire day here.
4. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is home to the elusive ocelot, a small, spotted cat with a long tail. Many visitors confuse this wild cat with a bobcat. Southern Texas is the only place you will find the ocelot, since it has lost much of its natural habitat elsewhere around the country. On your visit to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, you may see one, so be on the lookout.
There are more than 14 miles of hiking trails at the refuge, and each trail offers tremendous views of the birds in the area. Butterflies are also commonly spotted. The Chachalaca Trail and tour loop are both handicap accessible. Bring bug spray, sunglasses, sunscreen, bottled water, and a hat before hitting any of the hiking trails. If you forgot your binoculars at home, you can borrow a pair at the visitor center. There is ample signage along the trails, which makes the refuge easy to navigate.
The visitor center has a nice indoor area that offers great views of the birds outdoors. Those who cannot walk long distances will find plenty to amuse themselves here. On a recent visit, my father and I hiked to the observation tower and the canopy walk. My mother stayed back at the visitor center and enjoyed herself immensely.
There is a small fee to enter the refuge, but on the first Sunday of every month, admission is free.
5. Gladys Porter Zoo
The Gladys Porter Zoo is located in Brownsville. The zoo is 31 acres, and I have always described it as a little zoo that plays big. You’ll see tree kangaroos, kookaburras, giraffes, ostriches, gorillas, and sharks. There's something for everyone at this zoo that prides itself on conservation and its incredible breeding program. Keep your eye out for birds -- you will see many different species.
The zoo is handicap accessible, and wheelchairs are available for rent at the gift shop. Many of the animal exhibits are outdoors, and it can be sweltering in the summer. When visiting in the winter, however, you’ll want to dress in layers. The day may start off chilly, but it will likely become warmer later on.
Pro Tip: If you are a zoo enthusiast, you may want to invest in a membership. I have found that zoo memberships encourage me to visit zoos more frequently, and I have always gotten my money's worth.
6. Port Isabel Lighthouse
Climb the 75 steps to the top of the Port Isabel Lighthouse for a fantastic view of Port Isabel and the Gulf of Mexico with South Padre in the background. This is one of only 16 lighthouses that have been constructed along the Texas coast, and it is the only one that remains open to the public. The keeper's cottage and visitor center are also on the grounds and open to the public. The Port Isabel Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 30, 1976.
There is a small fee to make the trek to the top, and tickets can be purchased on-site. There is no fee to visit the cottage. Wear closed-toed shoes to avoid tripping on the stairs.
7. Sea Turtle, Inc.
Sea Turtle, Inc. is a turtle hospital on South Padre Island. Their mission is to rehabilitate injured sea turtles and release them back into their natural habitat. Many winter Texans find the turtles fascinating and enjoy learning more about them. If you are passionate about helping animals in need, you will fall in love with this turtle center.
It's located in the heart of South Padre Island and is open all year long. There is a small entrance fee, and memberships are available. Informative “Turtle Talks” are available throughout the day, usually every hour or so.
What To Know Before You Go
Your winter in Texas can be as busy or as laid-back as you choose. Nature enthusiasts will fall in love with this area of Texas, and history buffs will embrace the culture rather quickly. There's something to do around every corner. Winter Texans keep busy with dances, musical shows, and the occasional potluck. All of the visitor centers in the Rio Grande Valley have helpful staff who can offer tips and advice on current events and happenings in the area. You can also pick up coupon books and visitor guides that showcase the attractions in the area.
With so many incredible experiences, you will find something new to embrace every single day. Whatever you choose to do, you will find yourself planning a return visit before you head home. The winter Texan culture will lure you in, and you most likely will not want to leave.
Pro Tip: During your time in this part of Texas, you will have the opportunity to indulge in some delicious food. The Rio Grande Valley borders Mexico, and the area is rich in traditional Mexican food. Nana’s Taqueria is my family’s favorite. If you are not familiar with Whataburger, I guarantee that you will know all about their burgers and breakfasts before you leave Texas. If you want to meet others who are traveling south like you are, head to any Whataburger for breakfast, and I can guarantee that you will find a new group of friends.