Corpus Christi & North Padre Island
Maybe your family has never seen the Gulf of Mexico or played on its beaches?
A visit to the Corpus Christi and the Gulf Coast islands area is a worthy day trip for your entire tribe. It takes you through Texas cattle country and one of America’s most resplendent birding territories while you enjoy gorgeous sandy beaches and unparalleled water activities and adventures.
(From Salado Creek Villas head west on N I-410 Loop toward Starcrest Dr., go left, then left again at the Loop. Take the ramp on the left onto I-410 E. (1.4 mi). Take Exit 27 to merge onto I-35S/I-410 S and I-410-Loop S toward San Antonio (13.9 mi) Follow to Exit 41 to merge onto I-37 S/Corpus Christi) (133 miles, 2 hours). Watch for Exit #1D/Port Ave. Merge onto Antelope St.—1-37 Access Rd. and follow to Leopard St., turn left.) There is so much potentially to see and do on this trip, a game plan envisioned in advance would be wise. Be sure to travel with gear anticipating changing weather conditions, a camera, binoculars, sunscreen, hats and cover-ups. Comfortable shoes are in order too. This area is very laid back and unpretentious.
Right out of the shoot, between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, is a remarkable Texas town straight from the pages of a Larry McMurtry novel - Pleasanton, Texas. You may want to figure a stop here into your schedule, buckaroos.
In 1861 a dozen families lived here. A log cabin served as the Pleasanton courthouse. Within 50 years the town was more than established—it produced two newspapers, had black smiths and lawyers. Yes. Lawyers! Between 1912-1914 Pleasanton became connected to San Antonio and Corpus Christ thanks to Missouri Pacific Railroad. It soon became a gathering place for cowboys driving cattle to Kansas; the town was literally embraced by working cowboys. And now “retired” cowboys do the same. Pleasanton’s claim to fame is its reputation as the “birthplace of cowboys.” Every August the “Cowboy Homecoming”—an annual whoop-it-up—is staged in Pleasanton. This is a sight to behold. Some call it a Cowboy Mardi Gras, others a county fair. Festivities include a carnival, parade, fiddler contests, and chili cook-offs that pay homage to the American Cowboy and traditions.
Country Western music fans will already know Pleasanton as the birthplace of Country star, George Harvey Strait. Yep, he was born May 18, 1952 in Poteet hospital, his infant home is still standing on Goodwin St, near the corner of Bryant St—in Pleasanton proper. But George was not to grow up “in the city.” His father took over a 2000-acre ranch in nearby Pearsall and George became a bone fide cowpoke. He still lives in the area today with his son Bubba. Pleasanton is also a great hunting area—white-tailed deer are considered some of Texas’ healthiest, as are the dove and quail in the winter season.
There’s two other stopping points in Pleasanton of note. The first is Atascosa River Park—a Tivoli-like “river stroll” park that some say inspired San Antonio’s Riverwalk—featuring giant Oak and Pecan trees and a playground designed especially for young children. (Off U.S. 281 in town.) The second is the Longhorn Museum— legitimizing the area’s cowboy heritage lore, this down-home museum is replete with genuine covered wagons, stagecoaches, barbed wire displays, brands, spurs, lariats, saddles, guns, and more! The Pleasanton Depot was moved from downtown to a site near the museum; it’s full of stories and early railroad-days artifacts. (830-569-6313. 1959 Hwy. 97 E. Pleasanton. Open Tu-Sat, 8-5pm).
Considered one of Texas’ top vacation destinations, and discovered years ago by the “spring break” crowd Corpus Christi is steeped in interesting history, brimming with unspoiled natural ecosystems and as friendly a place in Texas as you’ll find. You may want to plan your visit around one of the area’s many festivals and events?
Visit McGee Beach (on Shoreline Boulevard, Corpus Christi Bay) has a nice shoreline and safe calm waters to allow for plenty of fun playtime, even for the toddlers. Sights and sounds emerge from the bay setting—sailboats and shrimp boats unloading their daily catch, people, swimmers and locals permeate your being. The bay’s protected position behind the gulf’s barrier islands make it the ultimate destination for wind surfing, since it’s known internationally as America’s windiest city. In fact, the exhilarating Velocity Games are held in Corpus Christi annually in May, so extreme sports lovers take heed. The kite surfing US OPEN is also a regular event in Corpus.
From Downtown just about anything having to do with water is possible. The Seawall is a signature landmark, accommodating joggers, pedal bikes, pedestrians, strollers and eateries on its winding, wide paths. In fact, Bayfront and Seawall is a good place to launch a fishing excursion or boat tour of the area. From here you can procure fishing guides, rent a pedal cart or pedal boat, go beachcombing, wind surfing, kite sailing, build a sand castle with the kids, snack or simply soak up the sun and people watch or read. Fishermen easily find their spot along one of the T-heads, public piers or jetties and “bait the hook.” (Call 361-884-4369 for info about T-heads, guides and licenses.) Avid anglers should pre-arrange a deep-sea fishing charter in the Bay and/or gulf waters. You will have no trouble locating a guide. Maybe your family loves to kayak, or wants to try it? Corpus Christi Kayak Tours (361-855-3926) provides kayak rentals, tours and instruction—if you have the time and budget.
Perhaps it’s easier for your family to enjoy their sightseeing from a boat? You’re in luck. There is a daily-narrated tour on a 400-passenger paddle wheeler along the downtown Bayfront. It passes the Lexington aircraft carrier, the Texas State Aquarium, and the city’s vibrant seaport. (Captain Clark's Sightseeing Tours: Slip # 49 Peoples St. T-Head. 361-884-8306 or 361-884-1693. Call for times; tours vary seasonally.) Customize a tour with Corpus Christi Sailing Center (361-881-8503; Lawrence Street T-Head) where they offer romantic dinner cruises, gulf adventures or more “whimsical” family excursions—like investigating the sea and stars at night. You are a land lover? No problem. Climb aboard a Motorcoach, if you would rather a knowledgeable bus guide show you around this unique and fascinating town while remaining solidly on “terra firma.”
Typically on Wednesday nights local sailors gather to compete in sail boat races, Naturally, fishing tournaments and Regatta’s are held in the area throughout the year drawing an international audience and big purse prize money. There’s a robust local yacht club that sponsors several. For a list of water sport activity, click here.
Asian Cultures Museum & Educational Center
One block from Whataburger Field and Bayfront Science Park is a tasty, unexpected museum. The Texas State Museum of Asian Cultures & Education Center was established in 1974 (thanks to the efforts of Billie Trimble and The Billie Trimble Chandler Arts Foundation, Inc.) to “promote social development and understanding of Asian cultures and to facilitate the advancement of world trade and peace.” Lofty marching orders—and accomplished in a gratifying way in displays of delicate and ancient Asian art and cultural exhibits. The Museum features changing exhibits and many educational programs, if you have the time and the inclination. One “Japanese collectibles” visitor likened her experience to being “a kid in a candy shop.” (361-882-2641. 1809 N. Chaparral Street (near Brewster St.), Corpus Christi. Open Tu-Sat, 10-5:00pm.)
North Island Attractions
USS Lexington Museum On The Bay- On 29 January 1991, Lexington arrived at Naval Station Ingleside and became a permanent Texas resident. On 17 June she was towed to her final berth on Corpus Christi Beach. Tours of the USS Lexington opened to the public in October 1992. As you can imagine, this is quite a coup for the city of Corpus Christi to have landed the retired USS Lexington, winning the competition between several sites vying for the right to operate this blow-your-mind-away floating museum. The USS Lexington is the longest serving (50 years) and most historically significant U.S. aircraft carrier; one of the museum’s goals is to focus on naval aviation and its important role in national defense. The Blue Ghost, as she is known, is a 910-ft. long 33,000-ton aircraft carrier with 16 decks—and is truly a legend for her supporting role in winning WWII. Approximately 20% of the ship is refurbished; there are five, self-guided tour routes covering 100,000 sq. ft. and eleven decks (complete with audio/video interpretations). You can truly go at your own pace. If you have questions look for guides in yellow shirts—many of them actually served aboard USS Lexington. All routes begin and end on the Hangar Deck—simply follow signs for different routes. Be aware that the stairs are steep ladders, so dress accordingly and wear skid proof shoes. All areas are air conditioned except for the carrier deck. The Hanger Deck features a Mega Theater, Ship Store and Mess Hall, and this deck is handicapped accessible. (Open seven days a week (not Thanksgiving or Christmas) 9–4:30pm. Handicap/wheelchair accessibility available. Admission/info. 361-888-4873 800-523-9539. Park all day for $3)
Texas State Aquarium
Sharks and sea turtles. Bottlenose dolphins. Otters. Snapper, tarpon, redfish and grouper. Poison dart frogs and boa constrictors. Plus, for the fun of it, a bevy of birds including hawks, owls, falcons and colorful parrots. See this and more at the popular Texas State Aquarium on Corpus Christi Beach. Come watch a live dive, or see dolphin and otter antics…there’s something for everyone to enjoy at this great place. It may be useful to “meet the jellyfish” so you’ll know what to watch for when swimming Texas coastal waters. Families can rest and eat in the food court, and everyone enjoys the Aquarium’s gift shops. If you’re going, check the schedule and arrive to dive and dolphin demos 15 minutes early. This fishy attraction is popular, especially in the summer months, so avoid midday crunch (11-3:00) if possible. The aquarium suggests infants and kids are best in backpacks; strollers slow down navigation considerably. The good news is that the Aquarium is handicapped accessible, so the whole clan can marvel at the wonders of sea and sky on exhibit. (361-881-1200 or 1.800.477.GULF. From downtown Corpus, take Hwy181 North - Harbor Bridge exit. STAY in right-hand lane (from I-37 or Crosstown Expressway) to take 181 North. Cross the bridge and take Corpus Christi Beach exit, then right on Burleson St. to Surfside St. Go right and start watching for blue Aquarium signs. Open daily, 9-5pm. (Not Thanksgiving or Christmas). Self parking $3.50. Military discounts; purchase tickets in advance. Discounts available online.
Padre Island National Seashore —and maybe a cruise around the bay?
If your family likes car trips, why don’t you go out to the barrier islands and/or spend the day driving around Corpus Christi Bay. This will give you a chance to see all sorts of swell ecosystems and beaches up close and personal. Barrier islands seem to have a life and culture all their own, so check them out. If you drive straight around it takes about 2 hours (without traffic delays). It’s only 70 miles or so, but those can be “slow miles” that allow time to detour and devour this remarkable region. You’ll be seeing Mustang Island State Park, Port Aransas, Harbor Island, Aransas Pass, Gregory, and Portland TX before returning to the Corpus Christi metro and North Beach areas.
Visiting the Padre Island National Seashore is a day trip in itself; birders flock, so to speak, to Bird Island Basin to experience legendary sightings. The windsurfing on Laguna Madra is celebrated the world over. Kayak is also popular! There’s a boat ramp to accommodate fishermen. And, of course, there are lots of places to swim and sun bathe. (You can sign up for tours; one licensed guide’s offerings include fishing, birding, shelling, & sightseeing: Padre Island Safaris, 361-937-8446. Depending on weather and wind, visiting and driving the seashore can be perilous, so check conditions in advance before heading out on your own. You can only go so far without a 4-wheel drive vehicle, in fact.) There are some obvious places of interest along the way—but feel free to create journeys and distractions of your own. There’s plenty of shoreline and Texas heritage to explore and some very unique places to eat and play. (From I 37, take exit 1C on the LEFT to merge onto Crosstown Expwy, (TX-286 S) (4 mi) Take exit toward and merge onto TX 358/E—Padre Island/NAS-Ccad. This is called South Padre Island Drive and TX-22E as well so follow signs for TX-22E. Cross the bridge and here you make a decision: LEFT on Commodores Dr. if you want to circle Corpus Christi Bay. RIGHT on Commodores Dr. if you want to go to Padre Island National Seashore. 361- 949-8068 or 361 994-8173
North Padre Island
Except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, any day is a good day to visit the Park. (After crossing the JFK Causeway and the bridge onto Padre Island, continue about 13 miles south on Park Road 22.) The Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Park’s Malaquite Visitor Center has limited hours (daily 8:30am-4:30pm, 6pm in the summer). Browse the Center’s small museum and bookstore; visit the observation decks. Grab a snack and get information about seashore weather conditions. Pick up the safety and orientation materials. The Center is fully wheelchair accessible; in fact they offer beach-worthy wheelchairs at no charge so everyone can explore the surf and sand. Since the area is famous for its sea turtles, watch the video to learn more about this unique breeding spot. Plan your visit so you can attend the interpretive, ranger-led programs:
- Beach Walk – 45-60 minutes, easy and slow-paced walk; topics include the diversity of the Gulf beaches and the area's natural and cultural history. Wear sunscreen and a hat. Every day at 11am.
- Deck Talk – Different topics daily, 30-45 minutes in length, can include natural and cultural history, sea turtles, animals, marine debris, native cultures, etc. Talks take place daily at 1pm.
- Birding Tour – Conducted every day except Sunday at 8am. Learn about Texas birds, the central flyway and the seashore habitats.
Also, you can use the restrooms and showers at the Visitor Center after a day at the beach if you’re so inclined. (20402 Park Road 22, Corpus Christi, TX 78418.)
And to be clear: you’re visiting NORTH Padre Island. It is SOUTH Padre Island that is the infamous Spring Break destination for generations of college students. South Padre Island is another three hours south of Corpus Christi via Hwy 77. Both North and South Padre are part of the designated National Seashore (For information on South Padre Island call 1-800-343-2368).
Padre Island was almost totally wilderness until the 19th and 20tst century when ranchers started using the islands for grazing, when oil and natural gas reserves were tapped and the tourist industry discovered the islands incredible natural beauty and outdoor adventure possibilities. The first settlement dates to 1804 and, as would be expected by the name, was orchestrated by a Spanish priest, Padre Nicolas Balli. The National Seashore Park was not established until 1970. From WWII to 1960 the northern section of the island was used as a Navy bombing range. The island has an interesting parentage; Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States have all “owned” it. Also known as Island Blanca (after it’s stunning white sands) and Isla de los Malaguitas after the native peoples that frequented its shores, this is a special eco-slice of Gulf coast real estate. The peoples who “most recently” inhabited the coast of South Texas (from 3000 b.c.) were the Coahuiltecans and the Karankawas, who were referred to as Malaquites by the Spanish. These two groups of interrelated nomadic hunter-gatherer bands roamed the coast and inlands indulging hunting, fishing and leisurely pursuits.
Visitors literally step back in time here; the goal of the National Seashore is to preserve Padre Island in its natural state. With 130,454 acres of varied habitats, explorers—then and now—witness a dazzling array of wildlife and plants. This is the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island remaining in the world. Five out of seven of the world’s sea turtles (leatherback, hawksbill, green, loggerhead, and ridley) nest on these beaches.
As part of the Central Flyway, Padre Island is an important area for more than three hundred and fifty bird species, some full time residents and some just traveling through.
Mustang Island State Park
Like Padre Island, the earliest known inhabitants of Mustang Island were Karankawa Indians, known for their fierceness and cannibalism. First the island was named "Wild Horse Island," then "Mustang Island"—after Spaniards introduced wild horses to the island. (1880’s). Padre Nicholas Balli and his family established a ranching tradition on the island that lasted for decades. During the U. S. Mexican War a small fort was built on Mustang Island. During the Civil War the Union Navy blockaded the Texas coastal area but no battles were fought here. Luckily, ranching resumed almost immediately after the war—and a meat packing plant was built and operated on the island until 1880.
The 3,954-acre coastal barrier island and state park is a somewhat “deserted” natural wonderland where you can picnic, fish, swim, hike, sunbathe, surf mountain bike and, of course, go birding. True enthusiasts should plan visits to sync to seasonal migratory patterns when the birding is stupendous. Everyone will marvel at the presence of so many feathered friends actually around all year long. The public gulf beach is 5.5 miles long and there’s 10 miles of bayside shore to explore too. There are restroom facilities, albeit out-dated and needing a face-lift. Check out Texas State Park Store and inquire about surf and weather conditions on your day of arrival. The weather and water can change suddenly in these parts, and so can the dunes. In the summer, hats and sunscreen are a must. (361-749-5246. Highway 361, PO Box 326, Port Aransas TX. From the Visitors Center, retrace your steps and follow signs to Mustang Island State Park)
Who can resist a giant cheeseburger and a restaurant called Moby Dicks? Yes, this is typical of the kind of place you’ll discover in Port Aransas, at the north tip of Mustang Island. Initially called Sand Point in the early 1800’s (to designate the point of commerce and passage that grew as a result of it being located on the natural pass of water that flowed from the bay to the Gulf of Mexico), Port Aransas has a colorful history. A small fort was built here between 1846-1848 during the Mexican War to guard the entrance into the bay; and it was used until after the Civil War. Hard to imagine, but steamships ran regularly between New Orleans and Mustang Island by the 1850’s. In 1853 the old Aransas Pass Lighthouse became the first permanent structure built in the area; it is now known as the Lydia Ann Lighthouse and is in operation today. In 1888 huge granite blocks were brought here from Marble Falls, Texas to construct the “jetties.” Over the years the town was known as Ropesville and then as Tarpon, for obvious reasons. The town’s famous Tarpon Inn was built in 1886 and housed Franklin Roosevelt on his deep-sea fishing trips in the 1930’s. The population had grown to around 250 by 1910 and the locals took to calling the town Port Aransas, which finally stuck. Turtle exports had become big business, as had other salt-water fish exports. (There are an estimated 600 species in the gulf waters!) Just a few structures withstood a storm in 1919 that nearly wiped the town off the map for good. But, luckily, Port Aransas survived and is a unique port city to experience. History buffs can find out more about the area at the museum in the City Hall (W. Avenue A and Cutoff Rd.) or the University of Texas Marine Science Institute Visitors’ Center (on Cotter at the beach.)
So…linger in Port Aransas, the self proclaimed “Fishing Capital of Texas.” The jetties, the area’s famous Horace Caldwell Pier, and 18 miles of beach surf all but guarantee a productive attempt if salt water or bay fishing is your craving. Take a spin around town and along the beach in an open air buggy that’s fun to drive and easy to love. Head to the waterfront to sample Oysters Mexicali, Seafood Gumbo, and a spicy shrimp cocktail at Virginia’s on the Bay (361-749-4088; 815 Trout Street at the Flats)—they even offer an affordable “minnow meal” for the kids. This friendly, open air, wheel-chair accessible restaurant serves up great food and great views complete with dazzling sunsets. There’s also a neat aquarium on site full of colorful tropical fish.
The next part of the journey requires that you take a short ferryboat ride across the water to Harbor Island where you’ll then zip along the Port Aransas Causeway 11 miles to Aransas Pass. The free ferry runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (6 vessels carry 20 cars each, moving about 100 vehicles per hour/each). Plan to park and get out of the car and look around during the journey. You will often see dolphins frolicking in the waters. The kids should find this rather exciting, plus along the way you’ll see, first hand, the historical and industrial infrastructure supporting the vast Texas oil, gas and maritime industries. Off shore drilling is supported by industries in this area that manufacture and deliver platform “equipment” to the big rigs at sea. You will probably see tankers and Navel ships and all sorts of fishing vessels and pleasure boats en route. It’s fascinating! From Aransas Pass you’ll be turning your sights toward “home” and San Antonio. (From Port Aransas head northwest on W. Ave A toward Cut Off Rd, turn right. Drive to Piper Blvd, turn left. You’re at the ferry. Once you’re on Harbor Island (30 minutes) continue straight onto Cemetery Rd/TX-361 for 3 miles, turn right, then drive about 4 miles heading northwest toward Port Aransas Causeway/TX-361 which you’ll take right into Aransas Pass TX, on the mainland.)
The City of Aransas Pass was founded in 1909 by a promotion of a great land lottery. The area gradually morphed into fishing village, especially when the channel was deepened; the first shipment of shrimp was sent up to San Antonio 1912. By this time it was the homeport for about 300 large shrimp trawlers, which netted millions of pounds of shrimp each year. Today it is a rather sleepy retirement community full of some of the nicest folks you’re ever going to meet. If you haven’t already indulged, deep sea fishing boats/guides and sightseeing boat tours are also available here. Aransas Pass boasts crystal clear waters where beautiful sea grass sways in the currents. There are kayak facilities, birding areas and an aquatic center in town. Those that visit the first weekend of June can help the locals celebrate their heritage by attending the Shrimporee Festival. Whoopee! Pass the Cocktail Sauce! (Hint: take a cooler—have your own seafood barbecue back at the resort)
From Aransas Pass the goal is Portland, North Island, Corpus Christi and then San Antonio. It’s a good 2-3 hour drive so plan accordingly. There are two routes to Portland. The one through Ingleside (with, perhaps, a diversion to the little bayside community called, creatively enough, Ingleside on the Bay) keeps you closer to the water and scenic views. (Once you’re off the Ferry, head southeast on W. Goodnight Ave/TX 90 Loop toward S. Rife St. Go almost 2 miles, turn right at S. Commercial St./TX-361, which will lead you through Ingleside and then north to Portland where you’ll merge onto TX-35 S / TX 181 toward Corpus Christi.)
The slightly longer—but faster—route takes you straight to TX 35 S, through Gregory, past the “best Poor Boy sandwiches in Texas” at Mac's Barbecue (361-643-5589; 219 Hwy 35, Gregory TX, 78359) toward Portland TX—where there are noteworthy wetland eco- systems and a local-favorite, 333-acre park called Indian Point Fishing Park with glorious hiking and biking trails and nesting grounds. Nearby Fred Jones Sanctuary, according to one source, acts as a magnet for migratory birds because it features wetlands and protected native vegetation that provides perfect rest areas for their spring and fall flights.
By now you are on your way into the Corpus Christi metro area where you’ll merge onto I-37 toward San Antonio. (So, once you’re off the Ferry at Aransas Pass, head northwest on W. Goodnight Ave/TX-90-Loop; take a slight right at Harrison Blvd. It happens fast. Then do a slight left at TX-35-BR S/ W. Wheeler Ave. where you’ll take the ramp to TX-35 S. (13.5 miles) Continue on TX/35 S /US-181 S through Portland and across the Nueces Bay Causeway and North Island, then across Harbor Bridge and the area where you’ll start looking for signs indicating San Antonio. Take exit for I-37 N, also toward Airport/TX-286. Drive 2 hrs/134 miles northeast to San Antonio. Once in San Antonio, take Exit 133 to merge onto I-410 N (14 miles). Then take Exit 166 for I-410 W/TX-368 Loop S (.5 miles). Merge onto I-410 W). By now things should look familiar. Go 1.5 miles; take Exit 25A toward Starcrest Dr, merge onto NE 1-410-Loop and you’re “home.”)