A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about our stay at The Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas, Texas, a historic inn along the Texas coast. Of course, after driving nearly 400 miles, we weren’t content staying still in one spot. Rather, Port A is a good, central location for exploring the Middle Texas Coast (aka the Texas Coastal Bend). So, we decided to thoroughly explore what the area had to offer.
Port Aransas and Mustang Island
Port Aransas is located at the northern end of Mustang Island, a barrier island a couple of miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico (cue up the John Cougar Mellencamp). I’d mentioned in my last post that the most direct route into town involves a short, free ferry ride from Aransas Pass on the mainland. On our way down, the message board in Aransas Pass indicated not much of a wait for the ferry. So we did that rather than go around the long way via Corpus Christi. If the wait isn’t too long, the auto ferry is a fun way to reach the island. The kids will love it, and you can enjoy the tranquil view across Redfish Bay.
Port Aransas itself is sort of a Key West-lite, the slow pace of life being one of the town’s main draws. On the west side of town, bordering Redfish Bay, is the Port Aransas Nature Preserve. This is a popular local spot for a relaxing nature walk. Several miles of trails cut through a section of native coastal wetland and prairie, making it a great spot for bird watching.
And, of course, if you visit in the evening and the weather is clear, the reward is a fantastic sunset over the wetlands.
Just beware of the bugs. There’s LOTS of them in the spring and summer.
The next day, we spent most of the day enjoying some time on the beach. Our first stop: Mustang Island State Park, one of many stretches of undeveloped beach along the Texas coast. Like most of the coastal barrier islands, Mustang Island features constantly shifting sand dunes along the immediate waterfront. Unfortunately, like much of the Texas coast, the beach itself…well, isn’t very nice. Dirty sand, brown water, and a large amount of trash mars the experience.
On the plus side, the difficulty of building on the dunes, combined with the less-than-stellar beach conditions, make the Texas coastline one of the few coastlines in the country that remains largely undeveloped. You can still get some peace and quiet out here, outside of Galveston, Corpus Christi, and South Padre Island.
Also common: wildlife encounters, particularly coastal birds. They seem rather zen about the human intruders.
When walking, make sure to watch out for the dreaded Portugese Man-O-War. They frequently wash up on the shore. Similar to a jellyfish, you most certainly DON’T want to step on one of these with bare feet. If you do step on one, prepare to feel the burn for a good while.
One other thing to watch out for – cars. State law treats all beaches as public land. This means vehicles can legally drive on almost any stretch of beach. It’s not at all unusual to see cars, especially 4WD vehicles and pickups, driving along the water. Always be aware of your surroundings, especially near beach access points.
Padre Island National Seashore
We then moved along to the nearby Padre Island National Seashore on North Padre Island. North Padre is definitely NOT to be confused with Sound Padre Island, a hundred miles or so farther south. South Padre is a well-known beach resort destination, and a popular spot for Spring Breakers. Except for a few miles on the north end, North Padre is entirely a nature preserve.
In fact, Padre Island National Seashore claims to be the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The far northern end of the park features a nice little nature walk, the Grasslands Nature Trail, through the grass-covered dunes. In spring, wildflowers and bumble bees buzz and fly in abundance in this area. Along with some randomly placed palm trees, visitors enjoy a relaxing walk.
From here, the paved road heads a few miles farther south to the main park visitor center at Malaquite Beach. Malaquite Beach is closed to vehicles, but popular for its proximity to the visitor center facilities. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, you’ll want to drive a little farther south down the beach. In accordance with state law, vehicles may drive down the length of the park, about 60 miles. Any vehicle can traverse the first 5 miles, though it also tends to be pretty congested and busy. If you’re willing to brave beyond milepost 5, though, you’re rewarded with a terrific, unspoiled beach and dunes largely to yourself. The environment resembles the Outer Banks of North Carolina in many ways.
Park maps indicate that the beach beyond Milepost 5 is accessible only by 4WD vehicles. You actually can proceed about another mile or so in a non-4×4. Beyond that, however, the sand gets soft enough that I wouldn’t risk it. Especially after heavy rains, the sand more closely resembles quicksand if you don’t have proper tires. If driving down to the end of the beach interests you, and you don’t own a 4WD vehicle, you can try to rent one in Corpus Christi. The 55 miles of beach takes about 3 hours to drive without stopping along the way. Just don’t tell the agent you plan to drive down the beach, and hit the car wash before returning it…
For lunch we headed back to Corpus to grab a bite before continuing our sightseeing. South Texas, including the Texas Coastal Bend, means ground zero for real Tex-Mex. I pulled into a spot along the highway that appeared to be highy rated, La Palma. And yes, I did enjoy some authentic ooey-gooey-cheesy burrito goodness in its native habitat.
Goose Island State Park and The Big Tree
Our post-lunch itinerary involved quite a haul. 62 miles, to be exact, to Goose Island State Park in the community of Lamar. Lamar itself has an interesting history. It was one of the republic’s, then state’s, most important ports of entry from the late 1830s through much of the Civil War. That is, until the Union army bombarded the town and burned it to the ground on February 11, 1864. Today, Lamar is mostly a ghost town. Of late, it has found itself back on the map for a natural landmark at the state park, the aptly named Big Tree.
The ginormous tree, a coastal live oak, measures more than 35 feet in circumference, 44 feet in height, and 89 feet in its total crown spread. The tree held the title of largest live oak in Texas from 1966 until 2003. In that year, a larger live oak, 100 miles northeast in Brazoria County, claimed the title. It is still regarded as one of the largest in the nation, and is something of an unofficial state symbol. It’s thought to be somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. Perhaps miraculously, the tree even survived the Union bombardment during the Civil War. And of course, it survived numerous major hurricanes. As you can see, though, the tree today gets an assist from pilings used to hold up the lowest branches.
Meanwhile Back in Port A…
Needing to get back to Port A by 5:30 for our dinner reservation at Roosevelt’s, the trip to the tree ended the day’s sightseeing. We originally planned on a little beach time at the town beach before leaving the next day. However, the weather had other plans. A dense fog settled in, making for an eerie, almost Halloween-like scene, but not exactly great beach weather.
We decided to just go ahead and hit the road instead. The fog followed us on-and-off for a little while, adding to the sense of isolation along the largely unpopulated stretch of coast.
The Boom and Bust of Indianola
Fortunately, the weather cleared by the time we reached our destination for the morning, the ghost town of Indianola. Indianola, located on a natural harbor on Matagorda Bay, gained prominence after Texas gained statehood in 1845. The city served as the primary port of entry for German settlers making their way northwest to Central Texas. For the next 30 years, Indianola served as a major port, and grew into one of the largest cities in Texas, with a population of nearly 5,000 people by 1875. The port housed several firsts, including an Army experiment to replace horses and mules with camels in the 1850s, and the world’s first mechanically refrigerated shipment of beef in 1869.
Alas, Mother Nature laid the city’s plans to waste. A hurricane destroyed the city in 1875, though the city quickly rebuilt. But just 11 years later, yet another major hurricane destroyed the town in 1886. This storm sealed the town’s fate, causing its abandonment. In the coming years, though, Indianola still indirectly led to state’s rise as an industrial powerhouse. The state’s main port was relocated to Galveston after the 1886 hurricane – which itself was nearly destroyed by a hurricane in 1900, which led to the rise of the Port of Houston complex, 40 miles inland along Buffalo Bayou. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, almost nothing remains of Indianola, except for a few houses on stilts along what was once a bustling main street.
A few historical markers have been erected throughout the former townsite. As you enter the town from the north is a memorial to the Army’s unique camel experiment. It didn’t work, but I’d have to imagine the sight of hundreds of camels along the beach much have been a sight to behold.
The actual historic townsite no longer exists; after being destroyed by the hurricane, weather and erosion washed the ruins of the town into the bay, and it currently sits about 300 feet offshore. A memorial marker has been set up at the closest point to the former Calhoun County courthouse, featuring a statue of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.
Further down the road in the village is another historical marker, and if you come to the area during wildflower season (usually mid-to-late March), you’ll be in for a real treat – bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups cover the fields, making for a gorgeous, peaceful scene. Unlike the more well-known wildflower fields across North and Central Texas, Indianola doesn’t see many visitors due to its isolation and distance from the state’s major cities, thus you can take photos while frolicking in the flowers without interruption from others.
From here, we began the 400-mile trek back to Dallas, glad we’d taken the weekend to make this trip.