I grew up in a house two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, in Galveston. Before I could drive, I would walk to the beach, what there was of it. Decades of wave action against the granite rocks at the base of the seawall had carried off much of the sand, leaving a narrow longshore strip that was washed continuously by the tides. I liked to walk out a few feet into the water, where the incoming waves exhausted themselves against the gradient of the shore, and wriggle my feet into the wet sand. It was a game of sorts, the object being to see how far I could sink into the muddy floor of the sea. The deepest I ever got was up to my ankles.
Over the years, countless Texans have enjoyed the seashore in their own way, in part because Texas, bastion of private property rights that it is, nevertheless has the most public-spirited beach access laws in the country. Because Galveston is so close to Houston, its beaches get the most traffic (in the early days of the Republic, a stagecoach route actually ran along West Beach, as did a mail route, and more than a century later I got my first driving lessons on the hard-packed sand), but Surfside Beach, Port Aransas, and the north and south ends of Padre Island are not far behind. When it comes to protecting the public interest, Texas doesn’t get much right—but it has always been right about this. Unlike California, where access to beaches is limited to parks and wet sand, Texas has almost no restrictions on public access to the coast.
Ownership of the beach is determined by two boundaries, the vegetation line and the line of mean high tide, the more important of which is the latter. According to state law, the line of mean high tide (which is measured across an 18.6-year cycle) constitutes the border between public and private ownership. The state owns everything seaward of the high tide line in trust for the public; landward, the beach can be privately owned, but up to the line of vegetation it remains subject to a public access easement. Historically, the state has recognized that this easement—the right to cross private property in order to reach the beach—has been established by the continuous use