It’s mid July—heart of the tourist season in South Texas—and yet by 7:30 p.m. the Gulf coast of Padre Island National Seashore is nearly empty. A few teenagers ride body boards in the surf. Two fishermen work the shoreline. About a dozen tents are pitched on the beach about a mile away... a camp site operated by the National Park Service.
Sandpipers and terns scurry along the waterline looking for food, while pelicans fly in a tight V formation just feet over the waves. This is a scene that has remained unchanged, except for the shifting sand, along this section of the Texas barrier islands for centuries. Yet, less than 15 miles away is Corpus Christi, eighth largest city in Texas.
With a population of more than 380,000 people, Corpus Christi is a vibrant city: Modern shopping centers; art galleries; ballet; symphony; and playhouse; two major colleges and a minor league baseball team. It is a city where more than 190,000 people are employed... in the oil and gas industry, in manufacturing, in professional and business services, in tourism, but mostly in government jobs—more than 32,000 government employees at last count. It is a city where unemployment is held below 6 percent, the cost of living is 10 percent below the national average, and there is no state income tax.
But the heart of Corpus Christi, and its surrounding communities, is still the sea and land—fishing villages to the north along the Coastal Bend, and ranch land to the south... Fields of cotton and grain crops as far as the eye can see... and cattle.
This is home to the largest working ranch in the United States... the King Ranch. Covering 825,000 acres, the ranch is larger than the state of New Jersey. Established in 1853, Captain Richard King and his ranch hands had to battle marauding Indians and bandits to maintain this land. After his death, his widow Henrietta, donated land for the town site of Kingsville, and helped bring a railroad to the new city... A city and railroad that helped support her enormous King Ranch. Today, tours are still given through portions of the ranch. But now, Navy planes pass overhead, and the Naval Air Station at Kingsville has taken over as the city’s major employer.
In addition to wide open spaces above ranch lands, Navy planes pass over tidal marshes and estuaries, over the inter coastal waterway, and Padre Island to the Gulf of Mexico. The land is rich in wildlife and sea life. Padre Island National Seashore, encompassing more than 130,000 acres, is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world. The island is one of only a handful of places in the world where the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nest.
All along this coastline, the skies are alive with thousands of migratory birds. More than 115,000 acres of land has been set aside at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.
Today, it is the wintering grounds for the world’s largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes; as well as egrets, herons and
But it is salt water game fish that draw most sport fishermen to this coastal region. The bays, estuaries and coastline provide excellent speckled trout and redfish fishing year-round. Red snapper and amberjack are also taken year-round offshore. King mackerel, cobia, and billfish then show up every summer and fall. But with salt water fishing, you never know what is about to strike. And there is always a place to fish in South Texas; whether from a boat, the surf, pier, or wading.
A drive along the coastline of Corpus Christi Bay leaves one understanding why area residents and tourists alike love the sea. The drive can be completed in three hours, but it is best to allow a full day to enjoy the many attractions.
Ocean Drive, a 7-mile scenic waterfront road, begins at NAS Corpus Christi and passes stately homes, parks, and walking paths down to Corpus Christi marina where acres of sleek sailing ships, private yachts, and deep sea fishing boats are moored. Sightseeing boats, water sport rentals, and seafood restaurants abound.
US Highway 181 then passes over Harbor Bridge, the second tallest bridge in Texas, which enables deep-sea freighters to pass into the Port of Corpus Christi... the 5th largest deep-water port in the United States. Just across the bridge are Corpus Christi’s public beaches, the Texas State Aquarium, and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay.
Both the aquarium and aircraft carrier exhibits are open daily. The aquarium features Dolphin Bay, over 250 species of fish, and exhibits on salt and back bay marshes. Minutes away, the 16-deck aircraft carrier Lexington is open for the public to explore vintage aircraft and WWII era exhibits, tour the flight deck, bridge, captain’s quarters and a flight simulator, and see a movie on Navy flight training.
Following further along the north shore of Corpus Christi Bay, you’ll pass through the fishing villages of Portland, Ingleside, and Aransas Pass—considered by many to be the fishing capital of the world. State Road 361 then turns toward the barrier islands and you pass miles of estuaries... islands of salt grasses surrounded by canals of water that rise and ebb with the flow of the tides... a breeding ground for Gulf sea life.
The road ends—temporarily—where your car is loaded aboard a ferry boat for a five minute free trip to Port Aransas. (In peak tourist season, the wait can be up to an hour, so enjoy the view and pack a lunch or snacks for kids). Port Aransas, a small fishing village, is experiencing a building boom, with many new vacation homes, retirement communities, and high rise condominiums under construction.
Now on the north tip of the barrier island, State Road 361 travels south along Mustang Island, named for the wild horses brought there by the Spanish in the 1800s. Today, it is home for Mustang Island State Park, which offers camping, picnicking, fishing, swimming, hiking and mountain biking on five miles of open beach.
One more small bridge, and you’re back on Padre Island. A right turn, cross the causeway bridge, and you have returned to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.
But if the sea is still calling, turn left and travel a few miles to the Padre Island National Seashore. Take your shoes off, and sink your toes into the sand. Listen to the surf, and solitude, as the sun sets over this South Texas outdoor paradise.
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