THE LONG, LANGUID COASTLINE OF TEXAS takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. It may lack the immediate drama of a first encounter with California’s Big Sur or the dazzling tropical allure of the Florida Keys. But if you let it work on you long enough, the fine line where Texas meets the sea will stir the soul. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Discovering the Texas coast in its natural state is no easy task, obscured as it is by development, crowds, and trash that washes on the beach from the Gulf of Mexico. The resort destinations, with their swim-up bars, T-shirt shops, and fruity drinks embellished with tiny umbrellas, are bent on diverting our attention from the main reason that we go down to the sea—to engage in that universal experience of basking in the exact spot where sand, sky, and water converge, in search of peace, quiet, and solitude.
Fortunately, finding that wild coast is easier than you think. With a little bit of effort, you can discover hidden places as remote as far west Texas, but tempered by the constant, calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of a boombox. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places-the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach-are there for anyone who wants to indulge in the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend
Sea Rim State Park
“PEOPLE WHO’VE LIVED AROUND HERE for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the assistant superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
“Later in the season they get so used to us they don’t even move,” Magouirk said of the park’s residents, as a curious red-tailed hawk circled overhead. “In a canoe or a kayak, you can see a whole lot more—river otter, mink, muskrat, especially at sunup and sundown. It’s really an exceptional estuary. This is a nursery where much of the life on land and in the sea is born and raised.” A mosquito belonging to one of the sixty known species in Jefferson County reminded me that not all of the life is welcome.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine Pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The dunes are lower and flatter than those you find farther down the coast; there isn’t a lot of loose sand for the wind to blow. This beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdier bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
But at Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinading themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were all so close I had to remind