As the sun descended slowly, a fusion of pink, yellow and blue silently settled itself over the waves, the dunes and everything on the coast of Texas. This fleeting hue, combined with the cool sand between my toes and the relaxed sound of the waves meeting the shore created an immense sense of peace I hadn’t realized I needed.
At first, the thought of leaving the world behind for a camping trip on the beach roused only anxiousness instead of excitement. I hadn’t taken a camping trip that extended past a long weekend in over a year, always in fear of being unable to check my emails or answer messages, so this idea of seclusion and solitude (the cell service at Padre Island National Seashore is spotty to nonexistent) was both alarming and enticing — and I found that my anxiety began to drain from my body with each wave that crashed upon the shore.
The Padre Island National Seashore has 60 miles of beach that stretches along the South Beach section of the island. This stretch in particular is open to primitive camping so long as you have four-wheel drive and can make it without getting stuck in the unpredictable sand (this didn’t stop the high school kids with two-wheel drive we helped get unstuck around mile 8) and don’t mind being a good 30 minutes or more from a shower or toilet.
At first, I thought we would need to make the trek all the way down to mile 30 to find a secluded spot, but by mile 7, the “spots” were about a mile long. We decided to stop around mile 10 so we would be close enough to Yarborough Pass at mile 15, which gives access to the laguna. Once set up and with a whole mile of beach all to ourselves, it quickly became one of my favorite Texas camping trips.
With our trip being in early March, the waves were still rough from the storms out at sea. However, following in the wake of the storms came intense, high and low tides that allowed us to discover all sorts of treasures that washed up like coconuts, halves of giant sand dollars and a variety of beached finds.
Along with the many beached discoveries, another interesting sight included a small boat that had washed up and been tacked down. Dustin Baker, a park ranger and acting public information officer of Padre Island National Seashore, says the boat had been in distress and abandoned before running aground on the South Beach.
Throughout the whole experience, my favorite part of the stay was bird watching. Never had I seen so many different species on one beach. From large brown pelicans and great blue herons, which sat proudly amongst the energetic laughing gulls, to the small wave chasers that weaved in and out of the flocks of Caspian terns that lined the shore — every day brought a new bird to spot.
Armed with only a small pair of binoculars, I sat on my beach chair and watched the bird politics unravel on the beach for hours on end. Before planning a stay, I recommend researching the most common of the 380 bird species that frequent the area at the seashore’s website to help identify who’s who on the beach and at the various birding stations set up throughout the park.
The South Beach dunes aren’t just there to create a dramatic stage for the sunsets. Originally created from years of winds piling up sand, they now form a gracious ridge that separates the beach from the marshy grasslands where all kinds of animals and vegetation make their homes.
The park offers some great paths for walking through the diverse landscape, but even from the beach where we were set up, you can stand up on top of the foredunes (careful not to disrupt the diverse grasses) and look out over the flat grassland that stretches out behind it. From here, I saw lizards scurrying about, ghost crabs emerging from their burrows and even a coyote that snuck out from the dunes one early morning to see what was going on at a neighboring camp.
What to Know
Fishing: While I didn’t try my hand at fishing this trip, I did spend time watching a lot of giant fish and stingrays get plucked from the surf. If you love fishing and want to experience a diverse set of options, whether from shore or boat, this has to be one of the best spots along the Texas coast.
If you go during the nesting season, spring and summer, be on the lookout for mama turtles nesting their eggs. If you come across one, call 1-866-TURTLE5 or flag a passing patroller immediately, and use something you find to mark the spot of the nest once she leaves to protect it from passing cars. Do not plunge anything into the sand to mark the spot as this could injure the eggs buried there. This way, the dedicated team can move the eggs to a safe facility until they’re ready to hatch.
Camping: If you don’t have four-wheel drive or just want a toilet and a rinse shower, there are plenty of other camping locations inside the park that allow just as great of experiences as the South Beach. No reservations are taken as it is all first come, first serve, but you will need to be prepared to pay the entrance fees and purchase a camping permit which is available at kiosks when you arrive.
Sand: One obvious challenge with camping on a beach is that the sand (quite literally) gets everywhere. To avoid sand in your sleeping bag and food, designate an area for shoes and other sandy items to keep them out of the tent or camper. Try bringing a dollar store door mat or other tarp-like item for stomping out and brushing off as much sand as possible.
Supplies: Make sure to bring everything you need and make sure your vehicle is gassed up. The Malaquite Visitor Center does not sell firewood, food, water or fishing licenses, so you’ll want to make sure you aren’t in need of anything before you arrive. The only thing sold at the visitor center is ice, and the closest spot for supplies from the park entrance is about 12 miles.