Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - South Padre Island - Paradise on the Gulf
With its white sand beaches and calm turquoise waters, South Padre Island is a true Gulf paradise. Located at the southernmost tip of Texas along the Mexico border, this barrier island offers some of the state's best beaches for swimming, shelling, sunbathing, and water sports.
The most popular stretch of sand is along the eastern coast from Beach Access #1 to Beach Access #5. Backed by beachfront hotels, condos, restaurants, and beach bars like Louie's Backyard and Clayton's, this area draws big crowds during Spring Break and summer. But the beach is so long that finding a peaceful spot is easy enough. Just keep walking north until the crowds thin out. The sand is wonderfully soft and clean, with a gentle slope into the Gulf's gentle waves.
Further north you'll come across more natural stretches of beach, especially once you pass Beach Access #15. Here vehicles are not allowed on the sand, and high-rise development gives way to sand dunes and sea oats. Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore all along the coast to lay their eggs from April to September. Early mornings are the best time to spot these ancient mariners before the daily invasion of beachgoers.
The Laguna Madre on the island's west side offers prime windsurfing and kiteboarding thanks to steady ocean breezes. Rentals and lessons are available from a few local outfitters. The bay's calm, shallow waters also make for excellent kayaking. See the island's beaches and lagoons from a whole new perspective by paddling through the mangrove tunnels and seagrass meadows. Dolphin sightings are common on both the Laguna and Gulf sides.
Birdwatching is another popular activity on South Padre. Over 450 species have been spotted here throughout the year as migratory birds use the island as a rest stopover on their epic journeys. The best birding parks are the World Birding Center sites on the north end of the island. These sanctuaries protect vital habitats like wetlands, maritime forests and coastal prairies. Prime season is spring and fall as thousands of birds fly north and south between their winter and summer homes.
What else is in this post?
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - South Padre Island - Paradise on the Gulf
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Mustangs Roam Free on Padre Island National Seashore
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Quintessential Beach Town Vibes in Galveston
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Surfing and Sea Turtles on Matagorda Peninsula
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Shelling and Sunbathing on Mustang Island
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Small Town Charm in Rockport & Fulton
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Laidback Living on Bolivar Peninsula
- Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Padre Island National Seashore - Miles of Secluded Shoreline
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Mustangs Roam Free on Padre Island National Seashore
Just north of South Padre Island lies the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world - the Padre Island National Seashore. Extending 113 miles from end to end, this protected shoreline has remained nearly untouched since Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda first mapped the Texas coast in 1519.
One of the most magical parts of Padre Island is glimpsing the wild mustangs that roam free along the dunes and grasslands. Descendants of domesticated horses brought by Spanish settlers centuries ago, an estimated 300-400 mustangs inhabit the northern part of the park today. spotting these elusive bands is a special treat for those lucky enough to encounter them.
The mustangs live in tightly knit family groups of 3-15 members, led by an alpha mare. Each herd sticks to a specific home range of 2-4 square miles along the island, staying mostly around the watering holes and ponds that provide a vital source of fresh water. Though they've adapted well to the challenging barrier island environment, their diet of sea oats, cordgrass and saltbrush provides limited nourishment.
Visitors driving along the beach may suddenly spy a family of mustangs grazing peacefully atop the dunes as the ocean breeze ripples through their manes. Others gallop wildly across the open plains, reveling in their freedom. But don't expect to get close - the mustangs are notoriously shy and will take off at the first sign of humans approaching by foot.
Your best chance of seeing the mustangs is taking a beach driving tour in a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Expert guides like Wild Horse Tours know the best zones for sightings based on the herds' seasonal patterns. Late afternoon is an ideal time as the horses start congregating near the dunes after a long day of inland grazing.
Early mornings are also promising for spotting bands heading out from watering holes to forage. Don't try accessing the beach yourself though - a permit is required for beach driving within the National Seashore, and specialized equipment and knowledge of tides and terrain is a must. Leave it to the professionals for your safety and the mustangs'.
The wild horses of Padre Island are a natural wonder not found anywhere else outside the park. Treat any sighting as the rare gift that it is. But be respectful by keeping your distance and never attempting to approach the herds. Let them roam undisturbed and free to live out their lives as their ancestors have for centuries.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Quintessential Beach Town Vibes in Galveston
With its stunning Victorian architecture, laidback seaside character, and endless stretches of sand, Galveston exudes classic beach town appeal unlike anywhere else in Texas. Located about 50 miles southeast of Houston on Galveston Island, this historic coastal city transports visitors back to the charms of an earlier era.
Wandering through the Strand National Historic Landmark District, you’ll discover over 100 beautifully restored 19th century buildings that now house shops, restaurants and attractions. Architectural styles like Victorian, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate reflect Galveston’s former glory as one of the largest ports in the country and Texas' first major city.
The 1892 Grand 1894 Opera House still hosts Broadway musicals, concerts, plays, and even the occasional opera or ballet. Or catch a movie at the state’s oldest continually operating theater, the Strand Theatre built in 1915. For interactive fun, Moody Gardens is a must with its ginormous rainforest pyramid, aquarium pyramid, ice sculpture shows, 4D special FX theaters, giant Ferris wheel and seasonal Festival of Lights.
Of course it’s the beaches that give Galveston its coastal flavor. Stretching 30 miles along the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island State Park offers access to pristine uncrowded shores on the west end. On the more developed northeast side, Stewart Beach draws the biggest crowds with its concessions, chair rentals, live music and amenities.
In between, places like East Beach, Seawall Beach Urban Park, and the aptly named Beach Pocket Parks provide access to the water with a neighborhood vibe. The beach is wide enough even on busy summer weekends to stake out a peaceful spot. Build an epic sandcastle, catch some waves or go on a seashell hunt along the beautifully walkable shore.
The 10-mile Seawall Blvd runs behind the beaches, perfect for a lazy bike ride or sunset stroll. Stop at one of the cute beach shops for an ice cream cone, salt water taffy or souvenirs. Every April, Galveston celebrates its island spirit with a month of parades, live concerts, 5K fun runs and other festivities for Mardi Gras! Galveston style.
When you’ve had your fill of salt and sun, head to the charming historic districts sprinkled through the island. Between downtown and midtown, you’ll find over 4,000 historically designated buildings. For a taste of local history, take a haunted ghost tour or harbor boat cruise. Or hop aboard the Galveston Island Trolley for a narrated tour of major attractions and districts.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Surfing and Sea Turtles on Matagorda Peninsula
With its remote location and abundance of open space, Matagorda Peninsula offers an idyllic beach escape for surfing, fishing, birding and observing sea turtles in their natural habitat. Located along the upper Texas coast about 100 miles southwest of Houston, this skinny barrier peninsula separates the Gulf of Mexico from Matagorda Bay and the Colorado River delta.
Matagorda Peninsula remains largely undeveloped compared to many other Texas beach towns, with just a handful of residential communities and no major hotels or resorts. For surfers, that means plenty of open water and uncrowded waves, especially once you get a few miles away from the public beach access points. Premier surfing spots include Sargent Beach near the mouth of Caney Creek and Matagorda Beachfront RV Park on the east end of the peninsula.
The biggest waves come during late summer and fall when swells churned up by distant storms roll in. But surfable sets can happen any time of year when the wind and tide conditions are just right. Rent a board or take lessons from Matagorda Surf Shop & School in Sargent to catch your first barrel ride. They also offer kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals and tours for cruising the bay when the waves lie flat.
From April through July, Kemp’s ridley and loggerhead sea turtles drag themselves out of the waves to lay their eggs along Matagorda Peninsula’s sandy shores. Guided turtle walks allow you to witness the amazing spectacle of nesting up close without disturbing the turtles. Just keep your distance and avoid using flash photography or artificial light.
Sea Center Texas runs small group turtle tours in partnership with biologists. Or watch solo from designated viewing areas set up by volunteers along Matagorda Beach. Join an early morning patrol to spot mothers hauling their 100+ pound bodies out of the surf, or a late patrol to glimpse tiny hatchlings emerging. Seeing these ancient, gentle creatures complete their primal nesting journey is an unforgettable experience.
Matagorda Bay and the Colorado River delta on the peninsula’s west side offer world-class fishing and birding. Wade through the shallows or launch a kayak from Sargent Beach to cast a line for speckled trout, redfish and flounder. Or embark on a guided fishing expedition from local marinas to target big game like tarpon. Over 300 bird species inhabit the wetlands and rookeries here. Grab some binoculars for prime shorebird and waterfowl spotting along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail routes crisscrossing the peninsula.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Shelling and Sunbathing on Mustang Island
With miles of spacious, uncrowded beaches and an abundance of gorgeous seashells washing ashore, Mustang Island offers primo opportunities for shelling and sunbathing along the central Texas coast. Located north of Padre Island and south of Matagorda Peninsula, this 18-mile barrier island paradise boasts fine white sand and gentle surf along its Gulf-facing beaches.
Plentiful public access points make getting your toes in the sand a breeze. But it’s the northernmost stretches of beach that really shine for long, peaceful walks hunting for mollusk treasures with hardly another footprint in sight. I’ve combed these pristine shores many times over the years and always come away with a pocketful of dazzling shells. Sundials, whelks, coquinas, angel wings, scallops, olives, fighting conchs, lightning whelks – the variety seems endless!
Early morning after high tide is prime shelling time when the pickings are freshly washed in. I love watching the sunrise light up the beach while scanning for mother of pearl sheens glinting amongst the seaweed and debris left behind by the retreating waves. It’s like a treasure hunt uncovering each little jewel half-buried in the wet sand. A bit of advice – take along a mesh bag to rinse off sand while keeping your finds intact.
The most coveted prize is undoubtedly the rare, left-handed red-lipped junonia shell that occasionally washes ashore. Finding one intact feels like discovering a priceless work of natural art. Other colorful standouts I’ve spotted include banded tulips, chestnut turbans, and Atlantic giant cockles nearly the size of my hand! Even plain old clam and oyster shells reveal a subtle rainbow of hues in the sunlight.
Of course, the best part of beachcombing here is the tranquility of having entire stretches of sand almost all to yourself. The shoreline just north of Bob Hall Pier offers convenient parking and facilities while avoiding the crowds clustered around town. For true seclusion, make your way up past mile marker 15 and walk as far as your feet can take you.
When you need a break from shell hunting, sprawl out on the silky fine sand and catch some rays. But be sure to come prepared with a beach umbrella for breezy days. For refreshments, the Beach Bar at Bob Hall Pier serves up frozen cocktails and local seafood with an incomparable ocean view. I recommend their shrimp po’ boy paired with a Landshark beer while watching the waves roll in.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Small Town Charm in Rockport & Fulton
Tucked away on the southern end of the Texas Gulf Coast, Rockport and Fulton offer laidback small town beach vibes reminiscent of an earlier era. Together, these two communities anchored at the mouth of Copano Bay give visitors a taste of authentic coastal living at its finest.
Life here revolves around fishing, shrimping, crabbing and oystering, just as it has for generations. The bayfront harbors brim with colorful fishing boats that head out daily to harvest the ocean’s bounty. Fresh-caught seafood stars on the menus of local eateries like Charlotte Plummer’s Seafare Restaurant and Bar or Seafood and Spaghetti Works. Order up delicacies like grilled redfish tacos, shrimp gumbo or crabcake sandwiches and you know they came right off a boat that morning.
At Goose Island State Park, you can cast a line from shore or a kayak to reel in your own speckled trout, sheepshead or flounder. Rent gear from Roy’s Bait & Tackle, a true local fixture since 1967. Or embark on a bay or offshore fishing charter to target big game like tarpon, kingfish and ling. Captain Tommy Countz has been guiding anglers to trophy catches for over 20 years on his boat Nauti-Cat Charters.
Rockport and Fulton are both havens for wildlife watching and birding. Whooping cranes winter on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge’s salt marshes and oak woodlands just north of town. Join an interpretive tram tour or kayak along the wetlands guided by the Crane Trust for a rare chance to admire these elegant, endangered birds. The lush gardens at the Fulton Mansion State Historic Site attract some 200 species of birds along their seasonal migration routes.
Of course, you can’t visit without experiencing Rockport and Fulton’s quaint historic downtowns lined with art galleries, boutiques and cafes. Every July the Texas Maritime Museum celebrates the towns’ maritime heritage and local flavors with its Taste of the Coast festival. Indulge in cuisine prepared by top area chefs while enjoying live music and browsing arts & crafts vendors.
For small town fun any time of year, don’t miss Rockport’s monthly Moonlight Madness evenings. Shops stay open late for after-hours shopping while local bands serenade visitors chilling out on the sidewalks. Street food vendors whip up snacks like fish tacos and $1 oysters on the half shell. And kids delight in old-fashioned lawn games like sack races, egg tosses and hula hoop contests.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Laidback Living on Bolivar Peninsula
Just northeast of Galveston, the narrow Bolivar Peninsula offers 27 miles of blissfully undeveloped beaches with a wonderfully laidback vibe. Beach cabins and vacation rentals scattered along the dunes accommodate those seeking an off-the-grid getaway. Life here moves at an unhurried pace, centered around fishing, swimming, beachcombing and watching extraordinary sunrises over the Gulf.
I’ve spent many a week on Bolivar Peninsula, reveling in the tranquility of days spent beachside reading a book without a soul around. The shoreline along the peninsula’s southern stretch remains remarkably pristine and secluded. Most beachgoers flock to the public access areas like Crystal Beach or Gilchrist Beach. But I find that just a mile walk north leads to swaths of sand totally empty except for shorebirds and ghost crabs skittering around.
Early risers can experience the Zen-like serenity of witnessing the glowing embers of dawn spreading across the horizon. The colorful cottages lining the dune ridge make for great sunrise photography opportunities too. Cap it off with a thermos of hot coffee while listening to the soothing susurrus of waves rolling ashore.
On lazy afternoons when the heat becomes oppressive, I like to hang out on the covered pier at Stingaree Restaurant & Marina. Kick back with a Landshark Lager and plate of fried shrimp or fish tacos. You’ll meet plenty of charismatic local fisherman and longtime visiting “peninsulites” too. The big draw is watching brown pelicans, cormorants and gulls hoping for handouts while boats unload the daily catch at the marina.
Late summer brings peak shelling season after storms churn up treasures from the Gulf’s depths. Early risers greatly increase their odds of discovering rare beauties like Scotch bonnets, sand dollars, or even a precious junonia or two. I once spotted a huge lightning whelk with its orange aperture fully intact – an exceptionally rare find. Just be sure to stick to beachcombing only; harvesting live shells is strictly prohibited.
The peninsula’s west side offers prime paddling through the marshy wetlands of Galveston Bay. Launch kayaks from Fort Travis Seashore Park to navigate through winding channels teeming with fish, crabs and shorebirds. Dolphins commonly join paddlers and guide boats through the bay’s glassy waters.
Chasing Waves and Sunsets: Guide to the Top Texas Beaches - Padre Island National Seashore - Miles of Secluded Shoreline
Stretching over 60 miles along the southern Texas coast, Padre Island National Seashore protects the longest remaining expanse of undeveloped barrier island in the world. And I do mean undeveloped - there are no towns, buildings, or homes anywhere within its 130,000 acres. Just miles and miles of pristine shoreline as far as you can see in either direction. For beach lovers seeking absolute tranquility surrounded by nature and ocean, it simply doesn't get more idyllic than this national treasure.
During my travels crisscrossing the country and globe, I'm always seeking out wild, untamed landscapes far from the crowds and commercialization that plague so many destinations nowadays. Once you've witnessed an utterly remote beach, you can never look at even a semi-popular shoreline the same way again. The first time I set foot on Padre Island National Seashore, I was awe-struck by its stillness and solitude. The only sounds were the wind, waves and cries of seabirds. Other than a few shorebirds it was just me wandering solo down miles of deserted sand. Bliss!
Of course, the lengthy drive down the island and tricky beach access points help keep Padre's visitation relatively low. Only the heartiest adventurers make it out to the pristine northern zones. But that's precisely the appeal - earning your unforgettable reward of having vast stretches of tropical paradise all to yourself through the effort of getting there. I'll never forget watching a radiant pink and orange sunrise over the rippling dunes, without a single other footprint in sight but my own.
Others who've fallen under Padre's spell describe similar transcendent experiences. Miranda still raves about the family of Kemp's Ridley sea turtles she encountered nesting alone one night up past Mile 30. Or John's story of stumbling upon a rare flock of red knots feasting at Malaquite Beach before continuing their 9,000 mile migration. Even just the simple acts of swimming, shelling, reading or napping take on new meaning in such a primal landscape.