The Padre Island National Seashore is a barrier island and an unspoiled natural marine habitat. It stretches 70 miles on the Texas coast between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal waterway, which separates the island from Texas’s mainland. There are no roads south of the Malaquite Pavilion at the northern edge of the seashore. To go exploring, you will drive on the sand. That’s the appeal of this unique location -- beach camping and picnicking, driving on the sand, and enjoying the unspoiled beach for as far as you can see. The only way to get onto this island is either over the bridge at Corpus Christi or to take the ferry from Port Aransas and come south on Mustang Island. You’ll cross a bridge at the jetty to get to the south island. It takes something to get to the national seashore but it is so worth the trip.
Many people have heard of the famous Spring Break-a-palooza on Padre Island, where young people gather to party and blow off some steam. That happens near the base of the Corpus Christi bridge north of the Jetty on Mustang Island at JP Luby Beach. Once you drive south onto the National Seashore property, there is a different vibe. It may attract some partiers, but it’s not the no-holds-barred crowd. At the National Seashore, you will find all types of people enjoying the warm Gulf water and the superfine white sand beaches. Expect constant breezes and lots of sunshine. In the summer, temps can easily reach 100 degrees. Winter is far more temperate.
1. National Seashore
You’ll drive 5 miles through grasslands until you reach the Malaquite Pavilion (mile marker 0). Here you’ll find familiar National Park Service activities like ranger talks, guide books about local flora and birds, as well as gifts and souvenirs. There is a long boardwalk that takes you to the beach from the Pavillion. Or you can drive right onto the beach and head south.
In addition to the beach, the National Seashore has a number of projects underway to preserve habitats, including the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. This nationally renowned project has been very successful at restoring the presence of this type of turtle. The staff and volunteers work to preserve the beach’s nesting areas and the hatchlings’ march to the water. During the summer, a popular activity is to go at dawn to watch the researchers release the turtle hatchlings and protect them as they waddle over the sand to reach the water.
2. Drive On The Beach
Visiting the National Seashore requires you to be self-sufficient and have a sand-worthy vehicle if you are going to drive down the shoreline away from the ranger station. There are no gas stations, snack shops, or drinkable water stations once you leave the pavilion. Bring everything you need before you go. You can use a regular 2-wheel drive car for the first 5 miles. After that, you need a 4-wheel drive truck or jeep. The farther down the shore you travel, the less likely you will have any cell service, so be prepared to drive on sand and to get yourself unstuck should you hit a spate of soft sand. Know the tide times. The beach is narrow in some stretches, and you don’t want to be swamped at high tide. Account for needing to turn your vehicle around to head back north. Once the sand gets wet and the water comes up, you won’t be turning around.
Consider hiking down the south beach as far as you like, and it may be the best way to get away from the crowds without getting stuck in the sand. However, you get there, be sure to bring some shade with you as there are no trees to sit under. A beach umbrella is essential.
3. Camping, Hiking, And Boating On The Island
If you want to stay at the Seashore in a less risky environment, there are wonderful camping opportunities. First is the Malaquite campground just beyond the dunes. Tents and RVs are welcome there. There is a dump station and water-fill station along with flush toilets and cold showers. What more could you ask for just 100 yards from the beach? You are allowed to have your RV on the beach or pitch a tent. The area near the pavilion is fairly wide so that you can turn your RV around during low tide or pitch a tent without the worry of water encroachment. You can even have campfires on the beach. Remember to pack out what you packed in and there are no sanitary facilities on the beach. It’s primitive camping. There is a second campground on the west side of the island near the Bird Basin. This is a shallow saltwater area with several islands in the waterway. You can rent windsurfing equipment and kayaks to play in this Intracoastal waterway between the mainland and Padre Island. Bird watching is very popular as birds flock to the flats.
For hikers, there is a paved and accessible trail loop that is .75 miles through the grasslands and dune areas that comprise the bulk of the island. As is the case in many Texas beach areas, watch out for insects (bring your bug spray). In the winter, the rangers do control burns of the grasslands and the area naturally turns brown. In the spring and summer, it is lush green. You will see deer and rabbits along with reptiles and hundreds of species of birds. At night you may hear coyotes. Sea turtles will be evident in all the waterways.
Of course, saltwater fishing is a year-round sport. You can fish on either side of the island and there is a boat launch at the Bird Basin on the west side for boats that can navigate shallow waters. No jet skis are allowed. On the north end of the island is the South Packery Channel Jetty. Take the 3a Access road to the hard-packed beach. You can walk out to the far end of the jetty (like a pier) for fishing or stand on the jetty rocks to cast your line. You’ll be in competition with the numerous birds that troll the waters, and there will be lots of turtles swimming by. It’s a great place to hang out even if you don’t fish. There is plenty of parking next to the jetty on the hard-packed beach. Just watch out for the sometimes indistinguishable soft sand areas. I saw more than one person get stuck while I was there. Fortunately, people seem to be willing to provide assistance or call a tow truck for you.
4. Other Fun Activities
Even the most solitary visitors may want to have some other types of fun while visiting the Seashore. The entrance road to the National Seashore is just over 5 miles long and at the end are all the restaurants and entertainment you can ask for. The most famous place is Bob Hall Pier and Mikel May’s Beachside Bar and Grill. Unfortunately, the hurricane in 2019 damaged both, and they are closed indefinitely. There are other places for great seafood and drinks on the island like the Angry Marlin Restaurant and Cool Water Bar. You can always head across the JFK Causeway into Corpus Christi for a great meal as well. While there, you can tour the USS Lexington docked at Corpus Christi Bay, the Texas State Aquarium, or even the Texas Surf Museum.
If you don’t head to the mainland, go north and visit Mustang Island State Park. You can camp there or explore their hard sand beach. Go farther north to Port Aransas Beach where you can drive and park. Plenty of restaurants and pavilions for refreshments are there. On Padre Island, close to the Jetty, you can visit the Packery Channel Park (west of the Jetty) and the Texas Sealife Center. One of the most unique adventures you can have is to take a horse ride on the beach. Horses on the Beach is at the north end of the island and provides an hour-long horseback ride and accommodates all levels and ages of riders. They even have a fabulous sunset ride on the beach.
The National Seashore at Padre Island is a treasure and a walk back in time before condos and hotels took over the beaches. Seashells dot the tide line, but so do jellyfish, so be cautious. Enjoy this unique location that is unsullied.
Don’t climb in the sand dunes -- there are rattlesnakes. Don’t expect to go 60 miles south on the beach alone or plan to camp overnight too far south unless you are well prepared. Ranger protection will not be available and there is no cell service. The area is isolated and remote. Crimes do occur.