When non-Texans hear the words “Padre Island,” they may picture hundreds of half-clothed spring-breakers guzzling beer on the beach—but that’s South Padre Island. Located on North Padre Island, Padre Island National Seashore is a relatively peaceful oasis, teeming with wildlife and natural beauty, that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Laguna Madre. And, blessedly, there are no bars, clubs, or souvenir shops in sight.
The longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore offers an incredibly diverse variety of flora and fauna. The park is home to more than 70 miles of beaches, prairies, and grassy dunes, and there’s no shortage of outdoor activities to keep you busy here. Visitors can scuba dive, swim, camp along primitive stretches of sand, kayak or windsurf the Laguna Madre, and hike or bike along the water’s edge. The area is excellent for birdwatching, and it’s also the most important nesting beach in the U.S. for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Time your visit just right, and you could bear witness to these ancient beasts swimming ashore to lay their eggs on the sand.
Read on to find out more about what to do, where to stay, and how to get to Padre Island National Seashore, as well as tips on how to plan the best possible visit.
The History of Padre Island National Seashore
The most special thing about Padre Island National Seashore is how unspoiled and isolated it still is. And it’s pretty much always been this way—the National Seashore has worked to preserve Padre Island in its natural state for almost its entire existence. The first permanent settlement on the island was established by Padre Nicolas Balli, a local Spanish priest, in 1804. Prior to this, the only known visitors were nomadic hunter-gatherer Native Americans and Spanish troops—including the survivors of three shipwrecks that occurred on the island’s shore in 1554. In 1938, Senator Ralph Yarborough introduced a bill into Congress to establish a National Seashore on Padre Island, and the bill was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
What to See and Do
- Go swimming. Visitors can swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf, but do note that there are no lifeguards on duty. Never swim alone and always use extreme caution when swimming; currents can be strong.
- Catch a sea turtle release. Since 1978, the park has been a participant in the effort to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. During the summer, staff members release sea turtle hatchlings from nests laid in the park and along the coast, and visitors can sometimes catch these if the timing is right. Most hatchling releases occur from mid-June through August. (Because the park can’t predict when a sea turtle will hatch, check their Current Nesting Season page and the Sea Turtle Program Facebook page for up-to-date info on releases.)
- Go birdwatching. Padre Island is an important destination for migratory birds, and as such, it’s an exceptional place for birdwatching. There have been more than 380 species of birds sighted at the park, which represents nearly half of all the documented bird species in North America. Call the Malaquite Visitor Center (361-949-8068) to schedule a tour with a volunteer birding guide.
- Go fishing. To fish anywhere in the park, you must have a valid Texas fishing license and a saltwater stamp, both of which you can acquire outside of the park at a local tackle shop or gas station. Visitors may fish along the entire length of the Gulf, in the Laguna Madre, and at Bird Island Basin and Yarborough Pass.
- Go for a beach hike or bike ride. Is there anything better than a leisurely hike or bike ride along the ocean’s edge? Bring your bicycle and ride it along South Beach, where you’ll likely have most of the shores to yourself (depending on how far down you go). Or go beachcombing along the seashore—there are always treasures to be found here.
- Play in the Lagoon. One of just a few hypersaline lagoons in the world, the Laguna Madre offers great kayaking and canoeing opportunities. You can take your own kayak or canoe, or rent one from the park’s concessionaire.
- Go off-roading on the beach. If you have a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle, exploring the island’s most remote areas by car is a uniquely thrilling experience. To get to the part of the park where you can drive on the beach, continue on Park Road 22 (the main paved road) until the pavement ends. This is where South Beach begins—from this point, there are 60 miles of open beach waiting to be explored. (Note that driving behind the dunes is STRICTLY prohibited; there are delicate ecosystems here.)
How to Visit
A big part of the magic of the National Seashore is its remote location. It’s about 25 miles southeast of Corpus Christi—you’ll head east through Corpus along Highway 358. Then, once you cross the JFK Causeway onto Padre Island, Highway 358 changes to Park Road 22. From here, you’ll continue about 10 miles south on Park Road 22 to reach the entrance.
The physical address for Malaquite Visitor Center is 20420 Park Road 22, Corpus Christi, TX 78418. But do note that GPS technology can sometimes be unreliable if you’re plugging this address into your phone. It can be helpful to consult a map beforehand. And keep in mind that, once you reach Park Road 22, you’re on the right track. This is the road that dead-ends into the park, so just keep going until you reach the end and the entrance station.
The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Hours for the entrance station (where the required entrance pass is sold) vary from day to day. If the entrance station isn’t open when you arrive, you can proceed into the park and then pay the entrance fee as you leave. If you’re camping, you can go back to the entrance station the next morning to get an entrance pass. Alternately, you can purchase passes online before your visit.
Where to Stay
There are two campgrounds and three primitive camping areas at Padre Island National Seashore, all of which require permits and are open year-round on a first-come, first-serve basis (no reservations are accepted). The two campgrounds are Malaquite and Bird Island Basin, and the primitive camping areas are South Beach, North Beach, and Yarborough Pass. (For more info on the different camping areas, see the National Park Service website.) The park does not accommodate RV hookups.
Tips for Visiting
- The National Seashore is special because of how wild and untamed it is—do your part to keep it that way by leaving no trace. Pack all your trash out and don’t feed or disturb the wildlife in any way. And on that note, be sure to learn more about the local flora and fauna before you go.
- Check the park calendar before you plan your visit for ranger program schedules and more.
- Note that no food, firewood, or fishing licenses are sold in the park, and the park doesn’t have a gas station. The nearest amenities are roughly 10 miles away. Come prepared.
- The weather can be unpredictable at Padre Island. In general, summers are long and hot and winters are short and mild. However, things can change quickly from sunny and warm to rainy and windy—especially in winter, when strong, sudden cold fronts are common. Plan accordingly. You can see current conditions on the Malaquite Beach webcam.