Chances are that stunning sandy beaches are not among the first images you conjure up when Texas is mentioned. Yet the Texas seaboard is huge, at almost 370 miles the fourth-longest of any state in the contiguous USA, and best of all, it is one almost continual inviting band of sand from tip to tail.
The coast here is characterised by barrier islands: long thin strips of land that are not islands at all, being intermittently joined to the mainland, but with a cut-off feel that they often possess an island-like feel. As with other things in Texas, there is space and variety enough for everyone to find their own piece of beach paradise. Families will find neat clean beaches with great facilities whilst solitude-lovers can encounter deserted strands without too much effort.
Best for wildlife spotting: Sea Rim State Park
A theme develops as you become acquainted with the very best beaches in Texas: many are tucked up close to its borders. Hard fast against the frontier with Louisiana, Sea Rim State Park is an over 4000-acre wetland with a 5.2-mile bend of sandy beach tacked on. In the main, this is one for the wildlife-watchers, who love the rich birdlife, as well as creatures such as the ghost crab, river otter and alligator here.
The Gambusia Nature Trail boardwalk enables great sightings. Kayakers also relish the network of waterways back from the shore for paddling. Basic camping is available for a fee just back from the beach, attracting those who like emptiness to enjoy the broad, un-crowded sweep of butterscotch sands for a little longer. That’s the limit of the facilities though: beyond that, BYO.
Best for a beach party: East Beach, Galveston
If you are coming to Galveston to party in the summer then you may well end up at this, by far the most animated of Galveston Island beaches. East Beach holds this sprightly status because it is the only one where alcohol is permitted, with signs proudly proclaiming the fact and vendors selling the stuff.
Frequent live music events, not to mention an annual sandcastle building competition, also happen here. But the sheer size of the hard-packed sandy swathe is impressive in its own right, aside from the full gamut of amenities that make this one of the best-equipped beaches around. At the easternmost tip of the island, the views of Galveston Bay spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico, where sand meets sea and sky in a beautiful blur of gold and blue, are fantastic.
Best for crabbing: Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula
Best for: crabbing
The Bolivar Peninsula, a 27-mile-long hook of land outlined in sand, shields Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. It is a place where you could rock up at almost any spot along for some beach time but the seven-mile stretch called Crystal Beach forms an especially fetching focal point. It is an un-manicured and wild-feeling buff-coloured sandy expanse backed by a thin crest of dunes, where hermit crabs and migratory bird species outnumber beach-goers. It is incredible that, so close to busy Galveston, such an empty beach could exist.
The peninsula is only connected to the big port by ferry and land access is via a 35-mile-long road from Winnie, making this the domain of a few locals from the spread-out shore-side houses, plus those who like solitariness – and crabbing, of course.
Best for fishing: San José Island
Mustang Island lies between Corpus Christi Bay and the open ocean, and from Port Aransas at the northern corner you can take a spin by ferry across the ship channel to another of the state’s peaceful sand-rimmed barrier islands. Never any more than two miles across, San José Island nevertheless extends to 21 miles in length and, with the next island up being the still wilder Matagorda Island, becomes less busy the further north you explore.
It receives a smattering of visitors, most of whom are here for beach-combing or for some of Texas’ finest fishing, but sports so much strand that you need not wander far to find your own special spot. Look for birds such as black-bellied whistling ducks, try landing a speckled trout or flounder or browse the sands for an enchanting variety of shells.
Best for beach camping: Padre Island National Seashore
Here is another of Texas’ ‘biggest in the world’ boasts: the Padre Island National Seashore is the planet’s largest undeveloped barrier island. Not to be confused with the utterly contrasting South Padre Island, a big, boisterous spring break destination just to the south, this is a gangly teased-out piece of road-less, car-less, unpeopled paradise along which 65 miles of white sand and shell beaches await.
Grassy dunes, tidal flats and one of only six hypersaline lagoons on Earth, Laguna Madre, complete a vigorously protected ecosystem frequented by the best of the Texas coast’s fauna, including 360 bird species, coyotes and a show-stopping line-up of sea turtles such as the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley. Access, from Corpus Christi via Hwy 358 and John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway, is at the northern end. Camping (with permit) is permitted in five areas.
Best for families: Rockport Beach
Do not let the name mislead you: there is nothing rocky or port-like about the charming beach at Rockport, enjoying a reputation as one of the cleanest sandy coastlines in the state. It was the first scoop of sand in Texas to achieve Blue Wave Beach designation (the USA equivalent of Blue Flag Beach status), and the immaculate yellow crescent of bay and gently shelving shallow water make it perhaps the best beach in Texas for families, and popular with all those that want to have a relaxed sunbathe or splash-around.
Facilities, from shady picnic areas to playgrounds, are very good. At 31 miles northeast of Corpus Christi, Rockport the city makes a vibrant beach backdrop: it is an artsy, cultured place replete with museums, galleries and seafood restaurants.
Best for solitary walks: Boca Chica Beach
Welcome to the very end of the road. Framing the 10,000-acre+ wilderness of scrub, lagoons and estuary that is Boca Chica State Park, Boca Chica Beach is an away-from-it-all slice of sand and dunes brushing the Rio Grande river mouth. Surreally, the SpaceX Launch Facility, a rocket production and testing facility, lies close by, but adventurers will still be over the moon arriving at this sandy nothingness.
Apart from border city Brownsville from where the 23-mile road out here begins, this is the most southerly point in Texas and utterly undeveloped once you pass SpaceX and hit the coast. The Kemp’s ridley turtle ventures ashore to nest in spring and summer and the water lapping the shore is a clear, serene blue-green. Perhaps the best beach in Texas is the very last one before Mexico.
Best for wild camping: Matagorda Island
To take a break from absolutely everything – roads, vehicles and all other signs of civilisation save for a battered old lighthouse at the northern end – Matagorda Island should be where you make for. It is deservedly fabled amongst fanatics of the great outdoors: you must charter your own boat in Port O’ Connor to get across and take everything you need, including drinking water and camping equipment if you wish to stay over. But the effort is so worthwhile. This is a pristine, unspoilt seaside paradise, flanked by the least crowded beaches in Texas.
The wildlife billing includes bald eagles, whooping cranes, alligators, coyotes and white-tailed deer, and without the presence of many other humans you will likely get much closer to such creatures than elsewhere. And the soft, silvery stretches of sand run right down the island’s 38-mile length. Get information, including permits for camping, at the park office in Bay City.
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