The Wild Texas Coast

While doing signings of Texas Coast this past month, several folks have asked where to go to find the wild parts of the coast that look like Laurence's pictures and haven't been industrialized or condoized.
Here's some places within easy reach: Airboat tour of McFaddin Wildlife Refugue, a thrill ride through the marshes and wetlands that is unrivaled for watching one of the largest populations of American alligator anywhere and sublime shorebird, marsh fowl and other wildlife viewing on the upper coast, despite the noise and speed. Accessed from Sea Rim State Park on Highway 87 ten miles west of Sabine Pass just down the coast from Port Arthur. Currently closed due to Hurricane Rita but open in late May. (409) 971-2559

Birding on High Island. You don't have to know your birds to dig the scenery in Smith Woods and Boy Scout Woods nature sanctuary, and Heron Island, in particular, all properties owned by Houston Audubon in and around the town of High Island. Highway 124 (713) 932-1639

Matagorda Island, formerly a state park and now a wildlife management area, is 38 miles of of unspoiled barrier island and an interior that is fun to explore on foot or by bicycle especially in winter and early spring, as long as it's not hunting season. Otherwise, your solitude is likely to be punctuated by gun shots. There's lots of history on the island going back to the Karankawa Indians and the Civil War and stretches as a cattle ranch and air force bombing range. Peregrine falcon, Whooping cranes, and horned toads are some of the resident wildlife and redfish, sea trout, and pompano are some of the sought-after species by surf fishermen. Matagorda is the only accessible barrier island in Texas without vehicular traffic and great, isolated camping in the winter. The trick is getting there. The ferry operated by Texas Parks & Wildlife burned, so you have to sail your own boat or kayak the seven miles from Port O'Connor across Espiritu Santo Bay, or hire a charter in Port O'. Here are some of the private folks who will haul you over, and pick up you when you're ready to come back, for around $130 for two--Bob Stevens (361) 983-4649, Ron Arlett (361) 983-2627, Bob Hill (361) 983-4325, Keith Gregory (361) 785-2079. If you can swing that, you'll likely have the place all to yourself. The WMA adjois a national wildlife refuge on the southern part of the island. Campers and other visitors to the WMA need a Texas Parks & Wildlife hunting license ($48) or a limited-use permit, which is $10 whereever hunting licenses are sold, such as Academy Sports. Island info is (979) 244-6804.

Aransas Wildlife Refuge. This 115.000 wetlands complex is the winter home of the Whooping Cranes, the biggest bird in North America and Texas' most celebrated endangered species. Paved loop to viewing areas and trails. Watch your step because gators are doing well here too. Second highest species count of any national refuge. For directions go to http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/ or call (361) 286-3559. To see the Whoopers from the water, catch one of several tour boats from Rockport which are running most mornings between now and late March. Info for the M/V Wharf Cat, one of the larger boats, is at www.texaswhoopers.com. Texas Birding Central runs tours with smaller craft. Info at http://www.texasbirdingcentral.com/

Padre Island National Seashore. The longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the WORLD, and not just Texas. Sixty miles of beach to drive. Just don't get stuck. No services, no nada after the visitor center at Malaquite Beach. Great shelling, surf fishing, surfing, swimming, camping, birdwatching, and turtle patrolling--this is key nesting grounds for the endangered Kemp's ridley turtle whose females come ashore between March and August to lay eggs which are now relocated and incubated before young'un are released in the wild after birth. And do try to ignore the gas and oil drilling trucks that occasionally pass by. They are the result negotiations demands state of Texas made before this island was designated a national seashore in the 1960s. $5 a person or $20 for an annual pass. Seashore info at http://www.nps.gov/pais/

The Colley's of South Padre. My favorite visitor activity on SPI has been spending a long day with Colley's Fin2Feathers Photo Tours and Dolphin Tours. Capt George and Scarlet know the hot spots on land for exceptional birding--they have hosted former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn--and on the water for exceptional marine life viewing. They call up dolphins by name and find them when the big tour boats can't, and love explaining what you're looking at. They're my kind of naturalists. Find 'em at www.fin2feather.com

The Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge across the Laguna Madre from South Padre Island promises splendid wildlife watching from the car along a semipaved 15 mile one-way loop or on a trail or viewing platform, particularly around sunrise or sunset. The largest protected habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the 45,000 acre refuge that is part wetlands, part prairie, and part thorn forest thrives with roseate spoonbill, alligator, Green jays, Texas tortoise, and even ocelot. $10 annual permit. The details are at http://www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/laguna.html

Boca Chica. As far south as it gets on the Texas coast. Boca looks like a barrier island with the same white sand as South Padre Island to the north just across Brazos Santiago Pass. But Boca Chica is tied to the mainland, although it's far more isolated than Padre, too wild, too dry, too much a desert and too much a river delta to have ever been tamed, though humans have been trying to do just that since the Mexican War. That said, the flyfishing for reds in the shallows of South Bay is storied and the fine powder beaches are the most isolated stretch of oceanfront on the Texas coast that you can drive right up to and go surfing, fishing (tarpon and snook are no strangers here), swimming, or lollygagging. From Brownsville, go east on State Highway 4, Boca Chica Boulevard and drive til you can't. No facilities, services, gas, water, or help once you pass the Border Patrol checkpoint.

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